Chapter 40: War on Two Worlds, Part 1—Instigation
Date Point: 13y11m2w AV
BGEV-11 Misfit, Akyawentuo System, Near 3Kpc Arm
Cimbrean vanished. One second it was below them, round and green and inviting, and the next…
The stars flickered like a missing frame in a badly cut amateur movie. Different constellations, different planets. A different sun, its light a little whiter and harsher than Cimbreanstar’s gentle orange, in a different corner of the sky. *Misfit*’s canopy and Xiù’s helmet conspired to keep its light from blinding her.
“Jump complete,” Allison reported, for the log’s benefit rather than for the crew’s. They all knew how Misfit felt; she was their home after all.
Xiù didn’t reply. Her hand hovered above the emergency recall button and she stared up at the sensor panel like a gazelle drinking from crocodile-concealing murky waters. If there was so much as a flash, a hint of something decloaking to attack them…
Even the ship seemed to hold her breath.
“Hope I’m not cursing us here…” Julian ventured, eventually, “But I think we might be good. Nothing on sensors.”
“Same.” Xiù told him.
“Awesome.” Allison sounded relieved over the line from engineering. “Beacon away in three…two…”
There was the peculiar heavy clang through the hull of a little pressurized gasp of their air being released to blast the beacon microsat out from its launch tube.
Ten kilometers out the beacon spat into life and the spacetime around it pinched, twisted, collapsed and deposited twenty tonnes of badly-named Gaoian starship in their lap.
“Okay…” Xiù cleared her throat and hit the local radio. “Drunk on Turkey, EV-Eleven Misfit. Welcome to the Akyawentuo system.”
“Still can’t fucking believe they called it that…” Allison muttered over the internal line.
They got Daar’s enthusiastic rumble back in reply. “Hey, Misfit! Thanks for the welcome!”
“Sensors are clear,” Xiù told him with a smile. “Are you going to follow us in manually, or slaved?”
“Aww, I always listen to a strong female! What should I do?”
Outrageous. Xiù took her hand off the send button long enough to laugh disbelievingly and shake her head before replying. “Alright, leash yourself to my nav you giant furry flirt.”
“Controls…slaved. And I’m not flirting!”
Julian chuckled on the internal line. “Some fellas don’t know how not to flirt, huh?”
“Sure. Not flirting, just being friendly,” Xiù replied for both their benefit, and loaded their planned warp down to Akyawentuo itself. They’d weighed the risks and benefits of a slower-than-light approach, but even the quickest such orbit would have taken weeks. In the end, expediency had prevailed. Better to go now while they were sharp and ready, than have to while away days of travel time and maybe get caught napping if something went wrong.
“Intrasystem warp at point-three kilolights in three…two…”
The icon showing her where Drunk on Turkey was jolted astern, but that was the only indication that Misfit had just accelerated to three hundred times the speed of light. There was no other visual indication at first, until she became aware that one of the brighter motes of light she could see was drifting across the sky faster than the others. It flashed past unguessably far away to her right, and when she looked away from it she found that the sun had moved. Just an inch or two, but it was drifting as well.
Then it was drifting a little faster.
Then it shot a quarter of the way across the sky as Misfit slung herself around its solar shallows, scooping up energy before decelerating sharply to an abrupt halt over the marbled tranquility of their destination, more than a light-second out and halfway between Akyawentuo’s twin moons.
Again there was the tense minute of waiting with her hand on the emergency recall, but again…nothing.
“Well. If they didn’t notice two ships coming in at warp, I think we’re safe to say Big Hotel aren’t paying attention,” Allison declared.
“That’s our first prayer answered,” Julian replied. “Let’s get the surveysats out.”
Xiù dropped the *Drunk On Turkey*’s slaved controls and left the military ship to hold station. Seeding the planet’s low orbit with dozens of cellphone-sized satellites was *Misfit*’s job, and they’d only get in the way.
“Yeah,” she agreed. “Let’s find them.”
They couldn’t possibly land soon enough.
Date Point: 13y11m2w1d AV
Clan Straightshield Grand Precinct, Lavmuy City, Gao
“More trouble with the Whitecrests?”
“Champion Genshi has been a zephyr for weeks. Impossible to see, impossible to catch, and you only know he’s around after he’s already gone past.”
Cytosis let his biodrone duck-nod agreeably, with a mildly irritated set of the ears. Something had happened in the halls of power among all the important Clans, and even the Straightshields largely didn’t know what it was. Their own champion, Reeko, had been uncharacteristically inaccessible himself.
“I’d bet my claws against going blind at fifty that there was a Champions’ Conclave,” Father Rakkan declared.
“There hasn’t been one in centuries.”
“That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.” Cytosis pointed out. It was the logical conclusion and there was no way that his host, the unfortunate Judge-Father Taarken, would have missed that. “The question is, why?”
He had his own dark suspicions of course, but no way of sharing them. Two of the Champions had gone off-network, implants removed. The rest had never had them in the first place, a fact that had simultaneously limited the operations of both Hierarchy and Cabal.
All across the Clans, formerly prominent Fathers were dropping out of favor while upstart Brothers and Officers were finding that their career trajectories had become unaccountably smoother. More and more, the most heavily augmented among Gao’s powerful elite were being promoted into positions of great prestige but limited influence.
That by itself was not quite conclusive—the Gaoians might simply have become infected by Human paranoia over neural augmentation—but it was suspicious, and alarming.
“Rumor from Cimbrean suggests some kind of…hm…friction between Daar and the Mother-Supreme.” Brother Aryo observed. He was tiny for a Straightshield brother, but the Clan made a point of taking in initiates who showed spirit and wit. He would never be a Judge-Father, but even Cytosis was impressed by the tiny Brother’s aptitude for politics, investigation and his encyclopedic knowledge of precedent.
“On what grounds?” Cytosis asked.
“Yulna has never been as…hm…subtle as her predecessor,” Aryo pointed out. “She travelled all the way to Cimbrean on a state visit and her first act there was to meet with him.”
“A rift between Stoneback and the Females would be historic,” Rakkan said.
“Epochal,” Aryo duck-nodded fervently.
“Certainly worthy of a Conclave,” Rakkan finished.
Judge-Father Shaal finally deigned to interject. “Ultimately, it isn’t our business,” he pointed out. “What Champions do between themselves is outside of our jurisdiction.”
“With respect, Shaal,” Cytosis replied on the grounds that his host was equal in rank to the battered old enforcer, “what Champions do between themselves inevitably drips down into the workhouses and the streets, where our Brothers have to clean up the mess.”
An insistent wheedling call for attention made itself known in the back of his mind, one that he couldn’t possibly ignore. He allowed Shaal to grudgingly concede the point, then plucked a tablet from his belt.
“…Perhaps I should check in with some of my informants,” he said.
“Your…hm…good friend Fiin?” Aryo asked.
Cytosis summoned the promising young Stoneback’s file. “I rather get the impression he’d like to disembowel me tip to tail. But he’s been…civil.”
“I have a patrol,” Rakkan said.
“And I should check whether any further evidence has come forward from that forgery case,” Aryo agreed. “But please…keep us informed, Judge-Father?”
Cytosis duck-nodded agreeably, sketched a gesture of respect to Shaal, and turned away.
He opened the link as soon as he could safely look distracted.
++0013++: Go ahead.
++0004++: <Terse> We are enacting a cleanse and reset protocol on the secondary control species. Code: Expose; Cleanse; Regenerate.
++0013++: <Surprise> So soon?
++0004++: <Firmly> With immediate effect. If we strike now we calculate favorable odds that the surviving Gaoian expatriates will be sufficient to rebuild the species under more secure influence. Your individual task code is: Curate; Diagnose; Rectify.
++0013++: Orders acknowledged and understood.
++0004++: Your point of contact for further developments is 0007. You may requisition 0138, 0514, 0665 and 0722 for support. Any questions?
The link was terminated as abruptly as it had opened, leaving only the question of what, exactly, Cytosis was going to do.
Somehow, he suspected, there were no good answers.
Date Point: 13y11m2w1d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Near 3Kpc Arm
The women were still being strange about letting Vemik near his own son, even though the baby was almost a season old. They seemed to feel that men shouldn’t pay any attention to their sons until they were old enough to learn how to hold a spear.
He’d gone to his own father for advice, and while Vemet was being sympathetic he was also largely not being much help.
“You don’t have a tit for him to suck on, so that makes you useless in their eyes,” he said sagely. They were relaxing together half-way up one of the Kettas near the village, watching clouds sulk among the mountains and sharing a small basket full of sticky berries and seeds that Vemet’s woman Ekye had made for them. The sap-stinger honey got all over Vemik’s fingers, but it was a rare treat: Vemet must have done something to make Ekye very happy recently.
“I’m not being strange though, am I?” Vemik asked. “It seems…natural. He’s my son, I want to spend time with him.”
“You aren’t being strange. Godshit, the way the women fought to keep you out of my hands when you were small…” Vemet sighed. “I don’t know why and the women say that men aren’t meant to know why, and that’s how night falls on it.”
“…I hate—” Vemik began.
“Yes, you hate not knowing the reasons,” Vemet finished for him. He trilled softly and gave his son an indulgent teasing grin. “In truth, I hate it too. But the world is too full of mysteries to solve all of them, Vemik. Let the women be women.”
He trilled again. “Besides,” he added, “You don’t have to clean the shit off his arse. That’s a duty I’m happy to let them keep.”
Vemik trilled too and scooped some more of the sweet mix into his mouth, but his heart wasn’t quite in it. Vemet noticed and put an arm around his son’s ever-broadening shoulders.
“…He’ll never replace the girl,” he said softly. “I know. Your mother and I lost our first as well. But don’t let that stop you from loving him, son.”
“Never,” Vemik promised. “I just…”
He hadn’t even properly formed the thought before he started speaking it, and he never finished it either. Both men nearly dropped out of the tree when a sound—a blessed sound, a sound Vemik had almost given up on ever hearing again—slammed down the valley with all the force of a boulder crashing down into a gorge.
Two sharp, low, crisp booms that rolled and bounced off the hills. The unforgettable sound of steel punching a hole through the sky from above.
Vemik looked at his father, both dumbstruck from the sudden change. Vemet was the first to leap down the tree and Vemik scrambled down after him, the sweet treat forgotten.
Children squealed and men and women alike ducked as not one but two steel flying-huts thundered over the villages, high up and faster than the wind. One was familiar: red and steel, square as an anvil, blunt as a rock. The other was longer, thinner, sharper, as if it was made to stab the sky. They growled as they soared out over the hills, fading to sharp glimmers in the distance that turned, slowed, rolled easily back toward the villages at gentler speeds.
And what a growl. Vemik had almost forgotten that sound, the deep grinding chant of forces he couldn’t begin to understand, straining to keep steel aloft. And behind it, a higher sound like the scream of a hunting bird but stretched and frozen.
The noises blended and changed each other as more metal than all the tribes could have made in a lifetime swung slowly to a halt above the clearing the People had made for them. He could see through the clear “glass” on the front of the square one as it dipped first and lowered itself softly onto the turf. Even behind her strange ‘helmet’ he somehow recognized Shyow, and she raised a hand to wave to him just for a moment before she returned them to her work.
Yet again, Vemik found himself struck by how delicately the huge lumpen weight of it kissed the earth. Something so big shouldn’t have looked so light.
The other sky-hut had no glass. It was as grim and as gray as an unfinished knife except for some sky-blue and yellow stripes on its upper surface and blue lights flashing across its body as it thumped down heavily beside the other ‘ship.’ Its legs bent and absorbed the landing just like a Person’s might when jumping down from a tree.
The growling, screaming sounds they made faded, changed, and died away. Not to silence, but to quiet enough that the other sounds could be heard—the familiar creaking and groaning of hot metal cooling down, and the peculiar whine of their metal skins opening here and there to reveal strange square bowl-like things that aimed themselves into the sky, tracked back and forth for a moment, and then went still.
There was a moment of perfect, awed stillness that Yan broke by barging through the gathered People with two hands of Given-Men behind him, dragging behind them a tail of fascinated, bewildered, scared and excited People from all the tribes.
”By all the gods…they’re actually real…” somebody muttered.
Yan apparently heard him, because he glanced in that person’s direction, then sighed heavily and at length.
“…I wish Tarek could have seen this,” he said.
Up behind her glass, Shyow finished whatever it was she was doing, and vanished backwards into the belly of her ‘ship.’ She wasn’t gone for long—only heartbeats later by Vemik’s reckoning, the ‘door’ on the side opened, and a familiar, strange but all-too-welcome figure stepped backwards onto the steel climbing-bars below and slid down to the ground comfortably.
Vemik wanted nothing more than to rush his friend from the sky and bowl him right off his feet, but Yan was the Given-Man here. While the rest of the People stood still and watched, he swaggered forward and stood as tall as he could to look Jooyun in the eye, even as Awisun slid down to earth behind him.
He let Shyow join them, quietly, and only once she’d lined up alongside the other two did he finally react: He grinned, bounded forward, and gathered the three of them up in a vast, crushing hug.
Date Point: 13y11m2w1d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Near 3Kpc Arm
The reunion took nearly an hour, all told. Vemik, Vemet, The Singer, Yan himself…then there were introductions to the Given-Men, Singers and Dancers of other tribes, plus a number of other important men of influence.
The People had changed. Every man who looked even vaguely important was wearing a steel knife, and the Singer—the one from Yan’s tribe—was wearing three Damascus rings of stunning quality considering how new to the process of steelmaking the People must be…but the biggest surprise was Vemik.
Julian had been fantasizing about maybe finally keeping the eager young Ten’Gewek at bay, maybe not being so hopelessly overwhelmed by his raw physicality when they wrestled. That idea had been his Motivation through the worst of Adam’s training, and in the final months it was the thing that helped Julian push himself right up against his unaided limits, and stay there.
One look at Vemik put that dream firmly in doubt. The face was still his, maybe a bit more mature, but his hair crest was a more saturated shade of red and every athletic line of the young “sky-thinker” had filled out and hardened dramatically, neck, arms, tail and all. He looked like he’d been beating on steel every day since their departure.
Perhaps he had. A thought that left Julian feeling unaccountably annoyed in a strange, competitive way.
It was obvious that the alliance of tribes that Yan had built was a tense one. Several of them, including a few Given-Men, lurked on the periphery and talked warily among themselves. That was okay—they’d never expected this to be easy—but at least things had mostly worked out.
They were finally invited to sit down at the fire and trade their stories by the Singer, who had to gently nudge her uncle to remember his manners.
“A season, you said,” Yan reminded them when they sat. “It’s been nearly three.”
“Things were…difficult, at home,” Xiù replied. “…People died. Somebody tried to kill us.”
“Over us?” Vemet asked.
“Yes.” Xiù nodded solemnly. “People who thought we should just…leave you alone. That we’d hurt you more by being here.”
“Idiots,” Allison supplied. This drew a big grin and a trill from Yan.
“We had the same. Tarek, a Given-Man. He…thought I was trying to rule all the tribes. Thought it was all a trick.”
“We lost people coming over the mountains,” Vemik said quietly. “Some old, some sick…some young.”
Something about the way he said it…there was something painful that Vemik wasn’t saying, and the Singer wasn’t saying it either. She was holding a baby in her arms, but now he looked at it…it couldn’t be the same baby. Not after more than a year.
Xiù was just a second ahead of him. “Oh…no? Vemik? Singer?”
“Our daughter,” the Singer sighed. “She got the shivering-sickness, up in the cold among the mountains…”
Julian didn’t think twice about standing up and giving Vemik a crushing hug. It wasn’t remotely enough, nor was Xiù’s hug for the Singer, or the “I’m so sorry…”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Vemik replied.
“No, but…in English that means something like *‘I share your pain.’*” Julian explained.
“But you’re here,” Yan said, with remarkable tact. “And you have another…what was the word, Vemik?”
“Ship,” Vemik told him. That particular English word was easy for the People to say.
“Yes. Some…powerful people. The leaders of our biggest tribes, they agreed to help.”
“There are others in that ship?”
“Yes. Four like us and one who’s…different,” Xiù said.
“Very different,” Allison added.
This earned them both a long, slow stare from Yan and a bewildered frown from Vemik.
“How different can a person be?” he asked.
“You’ll see…” Julian promised.
Date Point: 13y11m2w1d AV
Clockwise lane, Lavmuy City Ring Road, Planet Gao
Even in the age of gravity manipulation and forcefields, wheels had their advantages. A wheeled vehicle held firmly to the ground by gravity was more agile in its way, able to grip on an asphalt surface and maneuver without the characteristic skidding experienced by all hovering vehicles.
Hoverers had their advantages too, chief among them being lower maintenance costs. No tires to wear out, no suspension to align, and they were a lovely smooth quiet ride. But for sheer control and performance on the road, wheels won every time.
And—a minor heresy on Cytosis’ part—they were fun. He was riding a single-person transport not dissimilar to a motorcycle, with a low aerodynamic profile and a thundering beast of an electric powertrain that howled pleasingly under his borrowed body.
The Igraen digital reality had wonders that no corporeal creature could ever understand or begin to grasp…but it didn’t have the feeling of the wind whipping at his fur, ears and whiskers as, with a subtle shift of his bodyweight, he threaded between two thundering goods vehicles and briefly found himself hurtling down a narrow steel canyon at speed.
The exit ramp to the Lavmuy starport spun down, around and through one of the gleaming glass needle skyscrapers that were Lavmuy’s architectural signature. Wi Kao had its lakes, gardens and landscaped parks, Aney Shen was oddly charming in a square, brutal, no-nonsense way and Yamwoi was a handsome stone throwback to the days before Fyu, Tiritya and the Clan of Females.
And all of it was soon to be destroyed. Those glass spires would be smashed, the stone buildings would be rubble. Aney Shen’s dynamic, exciting marketplaces would be charnel houses, and the parks of Wi Kao would be perfect for the Hunters to land their slave transports and march the cubs and females into their bellies.
Cytosis had existed for nearly two hundred thousand years by the Igraen reckoning. He had participated in three xenocides. Now, the depths of his guilt and remorse were impossible to calculate.
The galaxy was a great game of conflict, and the only winning move was to forestall extinction for as long as possible. That was…Doctrine. Even the Cabal adhered to it as truth—The Igraens planned to exist until existence in any form was simply no longer possible, and had controlled the galaxy for thousands of millennia in support of that goal. Now that their winning strategy was no longer winning, it was necessary to pursue an alternative.
But still Cytosis wondered if they had already gone too far. Perhaps forgiveness was already impossible. Perhaps, at long last, the Igraens were destined to lose the Greatest Game and the trend of their future history simply had too much momentum to deflect.
And even more quietly, he wondered if there might not be an important distinction between existing and living.
++SYSTEM NOTIFICATION: USER Cytosis HAS JOINED THE SESSION++
++WELCOME, USER Cytosis++
++YOU ARE ENTERING CLOSED SESSION…<ERROR>++ ++<SESSION LOG NUMBER NOT ASSIGNED>++
++Proximate++: Let me guess: They’re destroying Gao.
++Cytosis++: That’s right. They think they can still salvage the Gaoians as a control species. Local agents have been tasked with Rectification.
++Anoikis++: Inspire the survivors to blame the Humans for what happened.
++Metastasis++: …What happens if the Humans lose their closest allied species?
++Cynosure++: They will be very angry, and we will be fucked.
++Metastasis++: You don’t foresee any possibility of victory even then?
His biodrone’s reflex to produce a derisive snort was so powerful that Cytosis would have had to suspend concentrating on the road to suppress it. Carrying on the conversation while angling himself smoothly onto the passenger vehicle approach to the starport was already quite enough of a distraction.
++Cynosure++: As I always said: If not them, then somebody else. For the moment, we have reason to believe that the Humans will prefer not to exterminate us in the event that they win. We have no such confidence in any other species, and we will lose even that if the Hierarchy destroy the Gaoians.
++Proximate++: So. We need to save the Gaoians…I presume you have a plan, Cytosis?
Cytosis looked up at the slender white needle of the spaceport’s traffic control tower to his right, and thought hard as he angled the motorcycle toward its access gate. As a Straightshield Judge-Father, he would be able to simply walk in.
++Cytosis++: …I have the beginnings of one. We just need to leak the right information to the right people in the right way.
++Anoikis++: You are taking care of it?
++Cytosis++: Yes. Wish me luck.
He slowed for the gate guard and signed out of the channel..
Frankly, they were going to need much more than just luck.
Date Point: 13y11m2w1d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Near 3Kpc Arm
It was a simple word. It just meant ‘not like us’ which was an easy enough idea for Vemik to get his head around. He hadn’t appreciated how much it could mean that, though.
Things had been easy enough at first. The other ship had opened a kind of steel mouth at the front, making a smooth slope for the people inside to walk down.
They were all different certainly. One was small, smaller even than Shyow maybe, and he walked with a kind of quiet swagger. Another was rounder, softer. His hair had flecks of white and steel-gray in it and he was already sweating powerfully. One, perhaps the strangest of them all at first glance, was a completely different color to the rest—his skin was as dark brown as Forestfather bark, not the odd pale flesh of the others.
One was big, looking like a sky-person version of Yan and he seemed to not care about the large bag over his shoulder. His other hand was resting lightly on the back of some kind of furred beast they had obviously tamed to carry their things.
What a beast, too! Vemik promptly knew that he never, ever wanted to be on the wrong end of those teeth and claws. The animal looked as dangerous as a yshek, which made the big sky-person who had tamed it…
The beast stopped at the bottom of the slope, stood up, and tugged firmly on one of the straps holding on the load it was carrying. The bags thumped solidly to the ground, and the beast shook itself vigorously before settling back down onto four paws and watching expectantly.
That was…Very clever of it. A ridiculous suspicion began to cook in the corners of Vemik’s head.
Shyow stood up and indicated them with her hand. “Yan Given-Man, Vemik Sky-Thinker…I’d like you to meet Daniel, Walsh, Coombes, Hoeff and Daar.”
She unmistakably pointed at the furry creature and named it as Daar, and Vemik’s ridiculous suspicion became ridiculous reality when ‘Daar’ ducked its head in an obviously respectful fashion…and spoke. In The People’s own words.
“Hello. I am Daar, [Champion] and [Stud-Prime] of Clan ‘Stoneback.’ It is good to meet you.”
Yan stood up out of sheer astonishment. Several of the tribesmen actually retreated toward the trees and even Vemik found his hand going to his knife.
‘Daar’ for his part sat on his haunches and waited patiently.
Slowly and carefully, Yan sat down again. “…Shyow? Jooyun? What…?”
Vemik had never heard him sound truly lost for words before. Shyow’s expressive, mobile face softened into a smile that said sorry and she cleared her throat.
“We said before that some of the…Tribes of Sky-People are very different to us,” she said. “Daar is from a Sky-Tribe called Gao and is a great leader among their people. Our Sky-Tribe is called human, and…well, we weren’t expecting to bring him. At least, not yet.”
Daar made that ducking motion with his head again. “It is important that I did come, though. My…Sky-Tribe has suffered at the hands of the Enemy, too. We will not allow yours to face this fight alone.”
Yan stood up more slowly this time. He held himself fully upright and strolled over to the big furry…person with a rolling, authoritative gait that Vemik knew well enough by now was largely a bluff. Yan only looked so big and important when he was uncertain.
He squared off in front of Daar and the two stared each other down for a long, quiet moment before Yan’s tongue flickered out to taste the air around the bestial sky-person.
Whatever he tasted, Yan stepped back, bared his teeth and smiled.
“The world is a stranger place than I thought. Again. But you are welcome at our fire, Daar Given-Man.”
Daar made a strange sound, a rapid clicking-grumble that…somehow felt like amusement. “Thanks! I bet we got lots to teach each other.”
Yan turned his attention to the other…what was the other word Shyow had used? Human.
“Are you Daar’s…” he paused, glanced at Daar, and reconsidered. “I’m sorry. I was about to ask something disrespectful.”
‘Walsh’ replied in ‘English.’ [“We will take no offense. Ask!”]
“…You are good friends with Daar?”
Daar chittered again. [“I know where this is going!”] He didn’t seem the least offended. Instead he rose up to his hindpaws and wrapped his arms around ‘Walsh’, then rubbed their heads together and nibbled on his ear.
Walsh squirmed under the much bigger beast’s—no, Person’s—grip, much like Vemik did when Yan wanted to tussle. [“We are…good friends. Yes.”]
[“The most bestest friends!”]
Walsh sighed and grinned, while ‘Daar’ made a deep grumbling noise and nuzzled harder. [“Yes, Daar,”] he said indulgently while reaching back to scritch Daar’s ears, then gave Yan an apologetic half-smile. [“we’re friends as fellow *People.*”] he added. [“Even if he doesn’t wanna act like it sometimes.”]
The dark one spoke up. Coombes. [“Later, when there’s time, we’ll tell you about a beast he killed. Maybe saved our lives.”]
[“Don’t you fucking dare Hoeff.”] Daar added, addressing the small one. [“I know you wanna.”]
Obviously there was a really good story there, waiting to be told. The promise of it seemed to satisfy Yan.
“We have stories to tell each other, then,” he said. He gestured back toward the fire. “And a long night to tell them. But I think I want to hear the story of the people who tried to kill you, first…”
The five men on the ramp visibly relaxed as he turned away, especially the soft, older one at the back who hadn’t spoken.
[“That went well…”] he commented, obviously thinking that he was too quiet to be heard.
Daar must have thought the same thing. He stood upright again and shook out his legs for comfort. [“Fyu’s furry ballsack…”] He grumbled. [“I can handle supergravity, I can handle it being the most humidest ever… but both at once is gonna suck ass.”]
Vemik couldn’t help himself. [“Who is…Fyu?”] he asked. There was also the question of what ‘supergravity’ might be, but if these Gaoian sky-people were anything like Jooyun then he’d only get one question at a time. Better to ask the simpler ones first and soften them up for the harder ones.
Daar didn’t seem even the least bit embarrassed at being overheard. In fact, encouragingly, the question seemed to delight him. [“Great Father Fyu was the most bestest Gaoian to ever live! Lemme tell you about him—”]
[“One story at a time, Tiggs,”] Coombes reminded him. By the fire, Shyow and Jooyun were already telling Yan the story of their troubles, while Awisun sat still and listened to them.
“…Tiggs?” Vemik asked. “…No. Never mind. I’ll ask later. And I probably won’t understand the explanation.”
Daar chittered again at that, and Vemik got the idea that he was the sort of…yes, Person, who decided who he liked quickly, and in a big strong way. He took a seat right next to Vemik and pressed up close in a strangely affectionate way.
“You will. Don’t worry.”
His People-words didn’t come from his mouth, Vemik noticed. Instead, Daar was wearing a small black shiny rock on a band around his upper arm that did strange things to the sound of his voice. Up close, he could just hear other words, strange words he didn’t know at all, but they sounded faint and far off like a sap-stinger buzzing in somebody else’s hut. And then the stone spoke People-words in Daar’s voice, just an eyeblink later.
Shyow’s word-magic. He remembered she’d once said she knew the words of more than a hand of tribes, and wondered if Gao-words were among them.
Looking around, he was surprised to see how many of the People from other tribes had crept in close to listen.
“Why would they wish you to stay home?” Yan was asking. “We can’t threaten your tribe.”
“But we can threaten yours, even if we don’t mean to.”
Yan inclined his head and scratched his left calf with his right toes. “And that is a reason for you to stay away?” he asked. “I…am grateful that you mean us no harm. But I sometimes wonder why.”
Jooyun cleared his throat and turned to the aging, soft-bodied one.
“One for you, Daniel,” he said.
‘Daniel’ nodded, seeming calm despite the way he immediately became the target of everybody’s attention. “It’s…a good question,” he said. “And a perceptive one.”
Yan made the quiet grunt that Vemik knew meant he was pleased by a compliment but didn’t want to show it.
“…You were not introduced,” he said instead.
“This is Daniel Hurt,” Shyow explained. “He’s a respected sky-thinker among our people.”
A sky-person sky-thinker? Vemik started to pay closer attention the older human as he acknowledged Shyow’s introduction with a nod.
“I think about minds, and people,” Daniel said. “And about questions like why we don’t want to harm you.”
“And this is…a good question?” Yan asked.
Daniel sat forward, laced his fingers together, licked his lips and cleared his throat.
“…How would you like us to answer it?” he asked.
Date Point 13y11m2w1d AV
Arés residence, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Some days just got off to a good start. Some followed a whole good trajectory. It was nice to be spoiled for choice on things to be happy about.
Waking up snuggled up next to Marty was a good start. Then there had been what they’d done when she woke up. And she’d cooked breakfast for a change.
Then had come a positive moment that might have surprised the people who knew him well but not perfectly. He’d done his morning routine and graphed his bodyweight like he did every morning. He swiped backward over the last two weeks and found his weight was almost flat. Finally. He’d honestly started to worry that he might keep growing forever.
It wasn’t for lack of trying; he was lifting as hard as ever and eating as big as he possibly could, but at long last, after years and years of pushing himself as far as maybe no other human could go, he’d finally reached the practical mechanical limits of effective heavy training and it was a genuine relief. Bigger weights and deeper gravity would be too unwieldy and more or less mechanically unworkable for a man-sized lifter; he was already doing silly things like shoulder-pressing cars and tossing yard-wide Atlas stones around like medicine balls, and even doing that in supergravity had become almost depressingly easy for him.
Where could he go from there? Strength didn’t work like in the comic books; a man needed weight of his own to counteract the forces at play except sometimes in isolated movements, which was a thing that never happened to any practical strength athlete in the real world. Adam was already so stupidly massive and strong that nobody came even remotely close, and his gym toys were so heavy that he could barely keep them under controlled motion as it was, even though he knew he could easily move heavier weight. His strength had nothing to do with it, his weight was the limit. If he wanted to lift bigger he’d need to be bigger, and to do that he’d need to eat bigger—which he couldn’t—and train with less intensity, which meant he couldn’t actually do anything useful with all those extra calories.
Nope. The more he thought about it, the more he realized he’d hit his Wall. Besides…breaking chairs, overloading the pallet scale, stepping through floors and now smashing trucks was getting pretty annoying. If he put on much more mass he’d be too damn big to go anywhere. He still had years of functional strength building and general improvement ahead of him, and he had no doubt his buddies would help him find new ways to challenge his body…but honestly?
For the first time, Adam knew he was finally strong enough to do the Mission. That felt good.
It also meant something else. Almost all of his free time so far had been devoted to training of one form or another…which was an enjoyable burden, sure, but it had put considerable limits on his other pursuits. Not anymore. If the trend held up…The prospect of actual free time beckoned. Hours of it in a day, potentially. And maybe his big buddies could finally catch up with him, too!
Well…mostly. He’d be damned if he ever let them pass him by.
Four good reasons for a good mood right there. Then there was “second” breakfast at Dad and Jess’ place, which was always a highlight of the week.
It wasn’t usually a chance to meet new people, though. Today was an exception—Ava had more company than just Hannah today. She’d brought along her long-overdue new boyfriend.
“You must be Tech Sergeant Arés.”
Eduardo was definitely a pretty one, Dad hadn’t lied. Groomed and composed with longish hair swept neatly behind his ears and a dusting of cultivated stubble. And he had a damn good handshake, too. He barely even winced.
Adam smiled as they shook hands. “You can call me Adam, though.”
“And I’m Eduardo. Eduardo Luis Santos Lorca, a sus ordenes.”
He was polite and debonair, Adam gave him that. And he didn’t detect any hint of falsehood under the manners. Nerves, maybe, but that was normal: everybody got nerves when Adam met them for the first time.
But still. The pretty boy was dating his girlfriend…Ex-girlfriend. Adopted sister. Whatever. Good looks and good manners were a good start but Ava had earned some happiness in her life and Adam was damn well going to look out for her.
He got a knowing elbow in the ribs from Marty the moment Eduardo had excused himself to wash his hands.
“Ava has good taste in boys,” she teased. “…Where is she, anyway?”
Jess called from the kitchen over the sound of sizzling bacon. “She’s out on the terrace!”
That wasn’t the half of it. Adam was only halfway to the door when he heard a very familiar sound indeed: a great thumping bass punch of a bark. He opened the terrace doors just in time to see Ava leaning over the rail, talking to somebody on the street below.
“No, you can’t come up. You’ve done enough already!”
“Don’t play innocent, you know what you did!”
Sure enough, Bozo was pacing in the yard below, whining pathetically. He parked his butt in the dirt and barked excitedly the second he saw Adam.
“What did he do?”
Ava sighed and shook her head. “Buenos días, Gordo. And what he did was…” she gestured to Hannah, who was lolling on a cushion enjoying the early morning sun.
It took Adam a few seconds to catch her meaning.
“Yup. Vet confirmed it last night. She’s got pups.”
“Well, let him up! He prol’ly wants to cuddle!”
Ava sighed and stared down at the enormous mutt below for a few seconds.
“…Well, I guess you can’t get her pregnant twice at once, can you?” she asked.
Bozo’s tail thumped on the concrete, and he barked a quiet “Wuff!” while shuffling his paws expectantly.
“…Fine. I’ll let him up.” She turned away from the railing, gave Adam a sisterly kiss on the cheek and headed inside. “There’s something too clever about that dog…”
She shared a hug with Marty on her way past, who was beaming ear-to-ear.
“Did I hear right? Puppies?”
“…You want one.”
“You’re damn fucking right I want one!” Marty practically skipped over to Hannah’s cushion and squatted down next to it. “Oh my god, they’ll be adorable.”
“Hmm. And super trainable, I bet…”
“Could be a whole new breed…” Marty daydreamed. There was a scrabble from the stairs and Bozo barged through the apartment’s open-plan dining area and out onto the terrace, where he promptly doted on Hannah, lavishing her with licks and the precious gift of a tennis ball.
All good news as far as Adam was concerned. Hannah had picked herself a good boyfriend, and if Adam were forced to admit it…Ava could have done a lot worse. Eduardo seemed friendly enough but breakfast with him did nothing much to influence Adam’s opinion of him either way. He’d obviously been gently muscling his way to the front of the good-looks line when the brains were being handed out too…but honestly, Adam probably wasn’t the best man to cast shade in that department.
At least he wasn’t smug or anything. It’d be nice not wanting to rip her boyfriend’s arms off for a change.
Or…whatever Sean had been.
He put the thought aside and focused on just enjoying time with his family.
Watching his dad was a unique joy. Gabriel’s rejuvenated leg was better than it had ever been now, and he seemed to spring from his chair at the slightest excuse to go fetch something or show something off. Hard to believe he’d spent nearly ten years hobbling around on a cane on his good days, and reluctantly wheelchair-bound on the bad ones. Jess seemed to find it a little overwhelming—she’d never known him before his disability, never known the busy active cop who’d bustled around the house whenever Adam had been able to visit. She didn’t seem unhappy, far from it…just like she hadn’t quite managed to adjust yet, even after several months.
In retrospect, it was easy for Adam to see where he got his own bouncy energy from. He couldn’t be gladder, even though Gabriel’s renewed energy had slightly increased the frequency with which he dropped hints about grandchildren.
They were up to twice a week now. A new record. Sometimes through text message, too.
All in all, it was an excellent way to spend a morning. As always, Jess was adamant that she would handle the washing up herself thank you very much and that Adam trying to help would just about squeeze her out of the kitchen, so Ava and Eduardo escaped in the direction of New Belfast, ostensibly to do a photoshoot, and took Hannah and Bozo with them while Adam and Marty headed back along South Bank Drive in the general direction of their apartment in comfortable gastronomic silence.
There were more trucks on the road today, heading east along the coast. There had been something on the news about New Belfast being the springboard for colonization efforts onto other, untouched Cimbrean landmasses, and the bay out there was supposed to be perfect for a port.
There were more than a few people along the sidewalk he didn’t recognize, too. Which, new neighbors! But at the same time, it meant he didn’t feel entirely comfortable pulling off his nice shirt and folding it up as was his usual habit. Folctha always got steamy around about noon in the summer as the moisture from the overnight rains cooked back into the air, so for Adam the only way to stay comfortable most of the time was to wear as little as he could get away with.
His clothes didn’t tend to last long anyway. But on the other hand, maybe now this shirt would last him more than a month. If so, he’d better get used to being a bit more civilized.
Marty didn’t seem to notice his plight, being lost in a happy place of her own and humming a jaunty tune by his side. She beamed at him when he glanced at her.
“So. Think you’ll ever like Eduardo?” she teased.
Adam shrugged noncommittally. “Eh, he’s…kinda dense.”
“Kinda callin’ the kettle black, meatslab,” She grinned and prodded him affectionately in the arm.
“No no…I mean, like…dense. He’s just kinda…too happy? I dunno.”
“He doesn’t think for a living.”
“Neither do I! That don’t mean I’ll just stare at a wall and pant like a labrador!”
“Bullshit. You think all the time. Training schedules, nutrition, weight, dosage…you use your brain way more than you think you do.”
“That’s just being functional. I dunno. He’s…nice, I guess. But I kinda doubt he reads the newsblog editorials, y’know?”
“I notice you didn’t actually answer my question,” she teased.
“Nuh.” He grinned his favorite smug grin. “Old boyfriend privilege. I don’t gotta like ‘em.”
Marty snorted. “Caveman,” she said fondly, then did a double-take when he paused at the pedestrian crossing to head toward the center of town with her rather than back toward the gym. “…Don’t you have a workout?”
“Nuh-uh! I can scale back now!”
“You finally notice that you stopped getting bigger, huh?”
“Wh—yes? How did you know? I literally figured that out this morning!”
Marty gave him a patient, impatient look–a slight challenging frown, with her head on one side. “I’m kinda intimately familiar with how much you weigh, Chunk.”
“Hey,” he grinned, “I said I was sorry about that! I’ll be more careful next time.”
“I’m talking about how the app logs your weight for suit maintenance purposes as well as your gains, ‘bruh’,” she reminded him. “It’s been pretty much flat for two weeks now.”
“…Still coulda been a fluke.”
“You’re just mad I stole your thunder,” she said lightly.
“Well, fine. I gotta do a calorie cut and a light interval to see if I hold my weight, but…I dunno. I can sorta feel it, y’know? I know I’m finally there.”
Marty laughed. “I defer to your greater experience of being the biggest ever,” she drawled.
“Well,” he said drily, “My slab wisdom is vast…But! Know what it means?!”
“Yup. Means we’re buying you your wedding clothes now that they’ll actually fit you and stay fit.”
“…Uh, I was actually excited about the free time…”
“Yeah-huh. And you’re gonna spend some of that spare time helping me with this wedding.”
Adam blanched. “I thought we were gonna have something, uh…”
“Simple. Not a huge deal…It’s not like I have many friends…”
“Sure. That’s what I was going for,” she agreed. “But you don’t just wave a magic wand like ‘Shazam!’ and suddenly a wedding happens, even a really small and simple one.”
“…Wedding planners? I mean, isn’t that what they do?”
“They’re expensive. I’d rather save that money for the honeymoon, whenever it is.” Marty linked her arm through his, a maneuver that was uniquely awkward in their case. “Come on, I dunno what horror stories you heard but this isn’t torture. I promise.”
Adam sighed the last breath of a condemned man and nodded bravely. “Okay.”
“Awesome. Oh, yeah. When’s John gonna stop gaining?” she asked. “‘Cuz I’m just making a wild guess here, but if he’s not your Best Man…”
“Heh. I dunno. I guess that’ll depend on if this is my size limit or if it’s actually a calorie limit. If that’s what it is…maybe he’ll catch up with me eventually! But he never grew as fast as I did so we can prol’ly fit him into something nice for, like, at least a week.”
“Right. So, tuxes or Mess Dress?”
She “dragged” him in the direction of Folctha’s busiest shopping district and Adam allowed himself to be towed.
Having all that spare time was going to take some adjusting to…But it would be worth it.
Date Point: 13y11m2w1d AV
Dataspace parallel to Lavmuy spaceport, Planet Gao
Entity, Instance 20
Personality ghosts could speak. They retained the information on how, which meant the Entity could load up those routines, input the general thrust of its desire, and allow the ghost to communicate on its behalf.
Without that trick, its infiltration of the Hierarchy would have failed in its infancy.
The original 0665 had been ambitious, diligent and studious. It…No, he—The Igraen had preferred a masculine identity and male hosts—had kept its focus on advancing his career and had progressed through a combination of its own careful competence and the steady mill of the Hierarchy’s natural career progression rather than through moments of shining brilliance.
To the Entity, a being that had deliberately deleted its own sense of gender, the Igraen’s mind was an alien and incomprehensible thing. Why a life-form that existed purely on an electronic substrate and which belonged to a species that had lived that way for millions of years would retain something so anachronistic was beyond it.
Perhaps there were hidden consequences. It didn’t know. All the Entity knew was that when it came to communication with others, it was forced to input its desired communication and allow the personality ghost to interpret that message on its behalf.
It felt like a risk every time.
++0665++: <dutiful> Reporting as ordered.
++0013++: <polite> Thank you. I appreciate that you’re being dragged away from your Cull again.
++0665++: <resignation; gratitude> Orders are orders.
The personality ghost’s memories provided that Thirteen had always been less prickly than most of its—his—fellow double-digits, an impression corroborated by the Entity’s own instance that had infiltrated the double-digit circles. The senior agent sent the contextual impression of amusement.
++0013++: We’ve all been there. Did you ever hear of the Miorz?
<Dilemma>. The Miorz had been Six’s first Cull, according to both the Ava-memories and the Six-memories. 665 had never heard of them…but the Entity was a different matter. It knew from its Six-memories that the question of the Miorz was a Cabal shibboleth, and for a fraction of a second it weighed up the pros and cons of answering correctly.
In the end, the decision was easy: <Survive> demanded maximum access to information.
++0665++: I think I heard the story. The easiest cull ever, yes?
++0013++: Exactly. They can’t all be that easy.
A separate channel opened up. A private and heavily encrypted one.
++SYSTEM NOTIFICATION: USERNAME NOT SPECIFIED++
++ASSIGNING USERNAME: Contagion++
++WELCOME, USER Contagion++
++YOU ARE ENTERING CLOSED SESSION…<ERROR>++ ++<SESSION LOG NUMBER NOT ASSIGNED>++
++Cytosis++: We have a problem and I have been told you may be of assistance. H-Leadership panicked. They’re enacting a cleanse and reset protocol on the Gaoians. General code is Expose; Cleanse; Regenerate. My orders are Curate; Diagnose; Rectify.
The Entity didn’t have to choose that response deliberately, it was entirely the consequential emotion which followed from that news. Hierarchy code phrases were simple enough to understand once an agent had been briefed on them, and these codes were almost as bad as it got.
Expose: Render the planet vulnerable to attack.
Cleanse: Invite a terminal catastrophe to befall the planet and effectively destroy it.
Regenerate: Regrow the species from its surviving diaspora along lines more agreeable to the Hierarchy’s agenda.
Then there were Thirteen’s individual orders. He had been ordered to control the flow of information into the galactic archives about this incident and ensure that the history books—especially the Gaoian ones—would squarely lay the blame for Gao’s invasion and demise at the feet of the Hierarchy’s enemies.
++Contagion++: <Alarm> They expect to make the situation better by this?
++Cytosis++: They’re completely disconnected from rationality at this point. I have heard nothing about a similar cleanse-and-reset on the Discarded, and if they swarm this planet as well then their potential growth could exceed the safety margins. H-Leadership is now in serious danger of losing control of both control species and of a total secrecy breach.
The Entity experienced a new emotion: the dawning, horrified realization that it may just have done something very stupid.
The situation it had put itself in, and which required immediate resolution, was that in its enthusiasm for splintering off instances of itself to ensure that at least one instance would <Survive>, it had now made the mistake of pretending to be the same individual in two places at once.
The moment a Hierarchy monitoring program—or Thirteen himself for that matter—pinged its supposedly former address on Akyawentuo, that fact would immediately become apparent.
It split off an attention process to focus on resolving that problem while keeping as much of its focus on the conversation with Thirteen as was possible.
++Contagion++: I hope you have a plan. We must consider the Cull I’m supposedly overseeing as well.
++Cytosis++: <Black humor> I take it there have been…unexpected setbacks?
++Contagion++: <Sardonic> They are remarkably resilient, yes. But that won’t matter for long, I think.
++Cytosis++: <Grim> You’re right. H-Leadership are forcing our hand here. If we act to prevent this purge then I will be exposed at least, and probably you as well.
‘Exposure’ in the sense of 665 being outed as a Cabal member was tolerable. Exposure in the sense of the Entity’s own continued existence coming to light was absolutely not: Such a scenario would be the gravest violation of the core directive to <survive> at all costs.
++Contagion++: <Resolve> It becomes a simple question of numbers and long-term strategy, then. A few thousand stone-age deathworlders versus an interstellar civilization of billions.
++Cytosis++: <Consoling> They are Deathworlders, after all. If their numbers are still sufficient, they may survive long enough for an intervention of some form or another.
++Contagion++: What is our plan on Gao?
++Cytosis++: The Livmuy spaceport is also home to a major planetary communications hub. Their Clan ‘Longear’ have recently upgraded its FTLsync capabilities, and are apparently also experimenting with the possibilities of wormhole-based communications. With a bit of creativity, their systems could be modified into an efficient wormhole suppressor.
++Contagion++: That would be a delaying action at best. What is our plan beyond that?
++Cytosis++: <Reluctant admission> A delaying action is all I have, for now. Hopefully Cynosure can come up with something better.
The Entity had no interest in compromising the Cabal’s security and even less in compromising its own—Resources were there to be spent wisely, not burned out of personal distaste. All of the immediately available resolutions to its conundrum were, for now, too expensive.
It was already spending enough, as it was. The moment its Hierarchy replacement took over on Akyawentuo, the Cull would resume in earnest. It was sacrificing the natives and their Human visitors for the sake of its own survival, and enough of it was still Ava Ríos to remember what <guilt> <shame> and <cowardice> felt like.
But those were all secondary to <Survive>.
++Contagion++: <Resignation> Very well. I presume you have a host prepared for me?
++Cytosis++: Several, though there is time for you to sabotage your Cull first, if you don’t take too long over it: H-Command, the Cabal and the Hunters alike will all need to prepare and get their resources in place. Before you come out here, though…Have you ever taken a Gaoian host before?
++Cytosis++: Their olfactory acuity can be overwhelming at first. Scent is an important component of their body language. I’d advise exposing yourself to some appropriate stimuli.
The Entity did not relish the idea of hijacking an innocent victim’s body and brain, but <Survive> could not be denied. And if the fate of an entire species was hanging in the balance…
++Contagion++: Understood. I will wait for a discreet moment.
Another connection opened and an information packet arrived for its inspection.
++Cytosis++: There is everything you need. I will prepare here. Good luck.
++SYSTEM NOTIFICATION: USER Cytosis DISCONNECTED++
++YOU ARE THE ONLY USER IN CLOSED SESSION…<ERROR>++ ++<SESSION LOG NUMBER NOT ASSIGNED>++ ++ENDING SESSION++
With a stab of remorse, the Entity synchronized its twentieth instance with its Prime instance, merged into a single impersonation of 665 again, and planned how best to remove itself from Akyawentuo.
Whatever else happened, the people there would have as much support as it could give before it left them to cope on their own.
Date Point: 13y11m2w1d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Unclaimed Space, Near 3Kpc Arm
Yan had never appreciated how much Sky-Thinking could make up a man. Vemik was the Sky-Thinker of course, the one who’d taken it for his name…but in many ways, young Vemik was just another man of the tribe. A good hunter, a maker of sharp knives, and Yan was in no doubt that he would one day be a great father to his children.
Sky-Thinking was just his strange way of filling his free time and having fun.
“Hurt” was an appropriate name for the Sky-Thinker from the sky. It wasn’t that he was weak, but there was a softness to the man that wasn’t there in the others, even the women. The way he told it, his whole contribution to their tribe was to think, and think hard about difficult things, and all that time spent thinking had to be taken from somewhere to make up the balance. HIs commitment to just that one thing really had hurt him, in some ways.
And yet the Sky-People listened to him and talked about their ideas with him. Yan didn’t personally understand that, but if men like Walsh and creatures…no, people like Daar thought he was worth listening to…
Maybe he was like a Singer, in his own way. And in any case, Yan trusted Jooyun, Shyow and Awisun enough to believe that if they had brought Daniel with them, they had done so because they truly believed in him.
Daniel had asked for a meeting with all the Given-Men and Singers of the tribes. Other men of strength and strong mind were invited too, and anyone else “who should be there.”
Big meetings always started with food provided by the men who called it, and the men of the Sky-Tribe had brought back a young Yshek of all things, dragged between Daar and Walsh on bent metal poles. Feasts didn’t come any grander.
As always had followed the singing, the boasting, the displays of skill and strength. Jooyun had that axe of his, the one that was as black as the night sky and sharper than any steel Yan or Vemik had ever yet made, and he’d thrown it right across the clearing with a sound like a startled bird to bury itself in a tree stump. Walsh could throw heavy stones an incredible distance, and try as he might Yan just couldn’t quite throw as far, nor as accurately. Daar could run like a demon and nobody could catch him. It wasn’t even close.
Meanwhile, Coombes and Hoeff decided to show off with sly skill rather than raw strength. Hoeff was alarmingly clever with knives, to the point where Yan decided to maybe not tease the little man so much anymore. And Coombes could make things vanish then pluck them from a child’s ear, or he’d throw them high into the air, never to come down until he produced them from an astonished Dancer’s palm and left her blushing.
He could walk upside-down on his hands, too. The children loved that one.
Shyow had danced a strange, slow, graceful dance that made her look as light as a wind-seed and as strong as a Forestfather sapling. Awisun had shaken her head and lurked quietly at the edge until Vemik stood up and boasted to all the tribes about how she had fought the death-birds and earned the name Sky-Storm. After much coaxing, she finally agreed to show off for the tribes that hadn’t seen it, and she shot first one, then two, then three thrown pots out of the air before they touched the ground.
What interested Yan about that was the hurried conversation she had with Daniel first. It wasn’t that she sought the older man’s permission, it seemed to Yan more like they were discussing if her sport was going to be somehow dangerous. It wasn’t deference…but it was respect.
As for Daniel himself…he stood tall in the firelight and told a story like none Yan had ever heard before. His voice boomed and soared as he boasted about the awesome deeds of the great chief ‘Beowulf.’ His tale held the gathered tribesmen rapt, had them trilling with mirth until their ribs hurt and terrified the children so they clung to their mothers. He told the tale with such vigor that he was sweaty from ears to ankles and his voice was hoarse by the time he had finished.
After that, the sun was resting low on the hills. Most of the gathered People went back to their villages, leaving only the Given-Men, the Singers, and the Sky-People to finally discuss the things that mattered.
Fortunately, Daniel’s voice recovered quickly for a brief rest and a drink. Something called ‘honey tea.’
He put a choice in front of them.
“We can’t make this choice for you,” he said. “It’s too big. But the choice is this: we can teach you how to build all our sky-magic. All of it.”
One of the men from Arsh Given-Man’s tribe was the first to ask the question everybody was thinking. “Why?”
Daniel sipped his drink, and did the thing where he answered a question with another question. Yan had noticed he did that a lot, but it had stopped being irritating very quickly when he realized how satisfying it was to work out the answer for himself.
“Let me ask you this: when you see a prey animal suffering, what do you do?”
“Honor the Gods and give it a quick end.”
“Very good! Now. Without meaning any disrespect to your gods…why do they approve?”
The men all turned to their Singers who in turn all looked to the oldest among them, the one who sang for Den Given-Man’s tribe. She looked around, pondered for a moment, then spat the root she was chewing into the fire before answering.
“Balance. Men Take, and then Give their thanks. Women Give life, and Take what men Give them.”
Daniel nodded along. “Our word for that is [Compassion], and it’s important. It’s how we can live together. The gods approve of that respect for their own reasons, but one of them is probably because a People that can value and respect each other, are people who can live together, and grow together.”
“That’s true of my people, too,” said Daar. “We’re a very, very different people from the Humans, but we honor our elders, and we help the weak and the hurt. We kill prey quickly and we use every part of it.”
“Good,” Daniel nodded. “So do we. ‘Compassion’ is one of the things that make people, People. Now, another question: what do you do when you see someone tormenting a prey animal?”
“You beat the idiot until he learns never to do that again,” growled Yan. There were vigorous nods around the campfire, which Daniel echoed.
“Now…Two children in your village get into a fight. One is older, stronger. He is fighting the younger and smaller child just because he can, to hurt him…”
Yan could see where his questions were going, but he wanted to play the game all the way through. “You slap the bigger child and send him to his mother. Then you teach the small child how to fight back.”
All the Sky-People nodded in unison. Daniel waved his hand at them all, at their ships, at the new ‘cloth’ huts they’d set up…
He reached down into the strange green bag next to him and laid something on the stones by the fire. The wing-blade and eye of one of the death-bird ‘drones’ that had plagued Yan’s village before they crossed the mountains.
“You here are adults, of course,” he added. “But you can’t make steel fly. There is still much for you to learn. So much to learn that if you did it without any help, it would take your people so long that we cannot even describe to you how many generations would pass. And in the meantime, the Enemy fears you and would kill you for what your grandchildren’s grandchildren’s distant grandchildren might one day be. If you were us, and we were you…what would you do?”
There was solemn nodding around the fire. Nobody bothered to answer the question aloud.
Instead, Yan cleared his throat and asked the next question.
“You said you could teach us…everything,” he said. “All your sky-magic. And…you would if we asked for it?”
“Yes. You’d be surprised how fast you’d learn it, too. We would send young men like Vemik back to our home, to ‘Earth’, send them to a place of learning called a ‘school’ where we teach our own young people these things. After all, we aren’t born knowing them.”
Vemik had pricked up at the idea, and Yan could almost hear his thoughts—to fly above the sky! To go to other places and see what the Sky-People’s homes were like! To go to a place where his questions would be answered all day by people who knew the answers! That had to be Vemik’s idea of a god-favored afterlife.
Yan’s idea looked more like an endless supply of eager virgins, but he could see the appeal.
Still. Vemik was no idiot. He had learned the hardships of life like any man.
“Why…wouldn’t we choose that?” he asked, carefully.
“Thoughts are powerful,” Daniel answered. “When you teach a man what to think and how to think, you tell him who he is. If we…it would be something like a Taking. But worse, because what we would be Taking is who you are.”
Yan grimaced at that. He’d privately confessed to Jooyun in deep detail, told exactly what had transpired between Tarek’s late Singer and himself, and it was…not a happy thing. Necessary, because Taking-Magic had to be repaid many hands over lest it burn out of control, but…
But he still slept uncomfortably, most nights. Especially now when he thought about the sky-person’s expression. Jooyun hadn’t seemed disappointed or disapproving or…anything. He’d simply listened solemnly, and given his word to keep the matter a secret.
Yan still wasn’t sure why he’d told the ‘alien’ those things. He’d simply…needed to. As though his skull might crack if he didn’t. He felt better for it, but something was…missing, now. Missing between himself and Jooyun, maybe never to come back. He’d needed to get the thoughts out of his head, but the Gods always Took something in return for a healing like that.
“So…If we go the long way…” Vemik mused, oblivious to his Given-Man’s thoughts, “…It will be our children’s children’s children of some far tomorrow who will know your secrets…but they will still be…us?”
“Yes. They will know your gods, and your songs, not ours. They will be your children in their heads, not ours. That’s the important part.” Dan finished his ‘honey tea’ and put the pottery down. “Besides. Maybe you will find these things faster than we did. Maybe it won’t be such a long path for you. Maybe we have made it shorter by being here. Or maybe not.” He shrugged and said sorry with his face. “We have never done this before either.”
Daar grumbled and threw his bit in. “My Clan have seen other Sky-Tribes who took the short way,” he said. As always, there were a few around the fire who eyed him warily, still not sure what to make of him. After all, he was bigger than almost all of the Given-Men. “There are two. The Allebenellin, and the Versa Volc. They are…not respected.”
“That’s putting it mildly,” Shyow muttered. She blinked when everybody turned to look at her, as if she hadn’t thought they would hear her. “…He’s right, though. The Allebenellin, they were…A very old Sky-Tribe called the OmoAru made them smart the easy way because they didn’t want to do their own work any more. But they, um…The Allebenellin didn’t have their own stories to help. They’re cruel, and stupid, and they don’t choose like People should. Not like we do.”
“…And the others?”
“The Versa Volc? They’re not cruel. But they’re not wise, either. And they know it, and stick to themselves.”
“And this…OmoAru tribe?”
“Are dying,” Awisun said. “Dying in a terrible way, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.”
Solemn quiet descended. The night was properly upon them now, and suddenly their shadows on the trees were huge and grim things, bigger and more there somehow than the fire that made them.
“…This does not sound like much of a choice to me,” Vemet said at last.
Daniel nodded, sadly. “…Maybe not. But it was not ours to make.”
“Is there…a middle way, perhaps?” Vemik asked. “Could some of us, maybe…learn, and help decide what the others should learn?”
Daniel cocked his head. “Would you trust your enemy with the power to decide that?”
“…Who is my enemy?”
That drew a non-plussed look from Vemik, which caused Daniel to sigh and try a different way.
“We have two sayings, Vemik. ‘Knowledge is strength.’ The other is…” Daniel paused and thought. “Hm…*[absolute power corrupts absolutely]*…Something like ‘Strength rots us from the inside.’ What would you do if you had a kind of strength that nobody else did, unless you chose to give it to them?”
“I would…be careful who I gave it to.”
“Hm. And you are a wise man and a strong man, as perfect as a god, who would never use his strength in evil ways even accidentally.” Daniel spread his hands out, palms upwards. “Do you believe such a man exists? Do you believe that all the men you chose to share your power with would be so perfect? Or all the men they chose to share it with?”
It hurt to see Vemik so crestfallen, but Yan couldn’t deny the wisdom he was hearing. He nodded and grunted, and Vemik glanced at him in the firelight.
Daniel’s voice was soft, understanding and even sorrowful. “Knowledge is a tool, Vemik. The most powerful and useful tool. And like a spear, you only give it to a man when he’s strong and wise enough to wield it. The kind of things you would need to learn are magic on scales you cannot even dream. Those ships? They have the power of lightning and stars inside them. Julian’s foot? We could probably regrow it now. Knowledge can give you power like the gods, and it is so dangerous that we have stories about just what happens when a man thinks himself God.”
Daar spoke up again. “And we have stories about what happens when people try to keep power for themselves.”
“You really ain’t ready yet.” That was Walsh, the ‘Human’ who was big and strong like a new Given-Man. He hadn’t spoken much yet but Yan could see the other Given-Men show him instant respect. “There are some really deep questions you gotta start asking first. Those are the questions that sit behind the stories you teach your children about right and wrong.”
Daniel nodded approvingly at Walsh, and Yan decided he should remember that. Whatever Walsh had just said it was obviously very important. He glanced at Vemik, and the young Sky-Thinker had noticed it too.
Daar duck-nodded vigorously. “They’re the ones that are the real start down the trail of [Civilization].” He paused, thoughtfully, then pant-grinned happily. “And you can do it! I can see it, we all can. I wouldn’t be here if my people didn’t think you weren’t worth the time, ‘cuz being brutally honest? We’ve got big problems, too. The thing is, though, you’re…um…” He looked to Daniel, seemingly a loss for words.
“You are an impressive People,” said Daniel, and that got a round of nods from all the Given-Men. “I think you are, man and woman, every bit a match for us and maybe, in some ways, you might one day prove our betters. But right now you are a young tribe. You’re not even ready to start thinking about what those deep questions are. And if we told you?”
Vemik nodded solemnly. “Then…then we wouldn’t have learned anything for ourselves.”
Daniel smiled. “We will share, Vemik,” he promised. “We won’t keep you in the dark. But…we have to do this very, very carefully. Here.”
With a grunt, he knelt on one knee in front of Vemik and looked him right in the eye, like a man should when swearing an oath. “I will make a promise to you. I will, as best I can, help your people ask the questions for yourselves. We’ll help you with the details once you get the important parts figured out. But I can’t promise it will be quick, or easy, or that any of us will live to see it through.”
“And who knows?” Shyow added. “Perhaps we’ll become better People for helping you.”
Daniel nodded at her words, and stood up. He stepped back to address all the Given-Men, Singers and tribal elders, with his hands held simply out at the side. “So. Rather than send them away to a ‘school’ elsewhere, instead I ask each tribe that wants to know these things to send us somebody. A man or a woman, a boy or a girl, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that they are clever and quick-minded and like to think about things.”
“…But you will not be teaching them?” Vemet asked, carefully. “After all you said.”
“No. What they think about between them, and what they create will be up to them. I will…leave trail markings, in a way. I won’t tell them what there is to find, but I will let them know where they might go looking. It will be up to them to hunt their own prey.”
Heads bobbed approvingly up and down all around the fire.
“You have a word for this, I think,” Yan guessed. “You have words for all sorts of things.”
He grinned when Daniel nodded. “We have several,” the Human said. “But the best one for this is…” He thought for a moment, then nodded.
Date Point: 13y11m2w1d AV
Bat-Yu Gorge Dam, Planet Gao
Brother Fiin of Stoneback
The problem Fiin had with Brother Tyal—Father Tyal, really, but if you served in a Fang you were a Brother regardless of actual rank—was that he wasn’t actually incompetent.
It was a ridiculous thought even inside his own head. ‘My problem with him is that he isn’t incompetent.’ But Tyal never took a risk that would have allowed him to be incompetent. He was…cautious.
It was difficult for Fiin to know exactly when his respect for the elder Stoneback had started to lapse. Tyal had given him his first Rite, after all. He had been there throughout Fiin’s selection, his Association, his Trials…He should have been a figure of respect, and Fiin wanted to respect him.
But the fact was that he…didn’t. And that made him feel awful.
Tyal was a thinking brute sure enough, just the kind of ‘Back the Clan loved. He was strong, honest, forthright, nobody but Daar himself had a better nose and he’d put in a hard day’s work until he collapsed, which was long after almost anybody else would have.
But the received wisdom of the Fangs went unquestioned. He didn’t think to question it, therefore he didn’t understand it. He hadn’t bothered to pick it apart, entertain the idea of what would happen if he ignored it, and thus reach an understanding of why things were as they were.
Ordinarily he was able to bury his worries under work, but today had given him a lot of time to think about things.
They were clearing a dam. Sediment buildup behind the thick concrete cliff that was the Bat-Yu Gorge Dam was an annual concern—let it sit for just one year and the next year the spillways would be clogged with something that was more like mudstone than wet clay.
Fiin, being a cabinet-maker and joiner by trade, didn’t have any of the kind of “big dirty” skills that came in handy when trying to shift thousands of tonnes of muck and sludge under two hundred fathoms of ice-cold glacial meltwater. Which meant he was stuck leaning on the inspection platform’s railing with a laser sensor in paw, waiting for his Brothers to open the sluice gates.
It had been a fun Job, admittedly—Brother Karek was a civil works engineer who had friends in the Clan’s hydropower department. Learning some of the basics of his Brother’s work had been good exercise for Fiin’s brain, and better exercise still for his back.
But he couldn’t dive, and wasn’t qualified to operate the dam’s controls. So, he’d been given the duty of water quality monitor. Wait for the water to start flowing, shine his laser into it, make sure that the device properly recorded its findings on his tablet. All under the supervision of a comically jaded and ancient Clanless technician.
…Who had wandered off in search of a cup of warm Talamay with honey and left Fiin alone with his thoughts.
The work had been a welcome distraction from the relentless training they’d been under. Every Brother on every Fang was assigned hours every week to work trades and maintain proficiency. But Tyal, for whatever reason, had decided to increase the Fangs’ combat training hours to essentially full-time. Most of the Brothers–Fiin included–had taken to working Jobs in their off hours to keep up with their fields. On the one level he couldn’t automatically disagree with the rationale, given what was coming, but on the other hand…
It was the same exact training, over and over and over again. They were being drilled into stupidity, and they weren’t incorporating any lessons from the Humans unless Daar had already written them into his draft revisions.
The Champion himself was off on another very important mission, so his force of personality wasn’t there to push the issue. That left Tyal as Champion-In-Stead, and he seemed bound and determined to leave Stoneback exactly as it was when Daar went off-world.
The mournful hoot of the alarm siren jolted him back to the here-and-now. It was followed, after a few rumbling moments, by the most enormous belching sound he’d ever heard. Grotesque fecal ropes of thick grey sediments and clay began to vomit out of the outlet pipe.
After a few moments they unified into an immense industrial shart that sailed out into the gorge and splattered all over the rocks far below, entirely robbing the view of its dignity.
The smell was clean, though. Cold water and wet clay, nothing more. Fiin aimed his laser into the hideous flow and checked that it was recording properly. It didn’t take long before the tablet buzzed in his paws with a happy rhythm and started streaming its data back to the control center. The water started to run more like a liquid even as he watched, fading from dark gray, to light gray, to the white of clean, rough water.
As soon as it was flowing almost clean, the Brothers opened the second gate and the second outlet disgorged tonnes of glutinous silt just like its comrade.
Fiin settled into making sure the laser was aimed steady at the clean stream. He turned an ear as he heard feet on the steel steps behind him, and his nose identified the newcomer easily: Tyal.
“Surprisingly big Job, huh?” The Champion-In-Stead asked conversationally, resting his forearms on the rail so that he could watch the raging hydrological chunder below them.
“Mhmm. Nice change in routine, too.”
As always, Fiin couldn’t help but feel a little small next to Tyal. He’d grown enormously since the day of his First Rite, but Tyal was…well, he was big. A pureblood Stoneback in every way, and the only Gaoian that made him seem small was Daar himself. Fiin meanwhile wasn’t even mostly Stoneback, and that made a big difference.
“Grumbling about the combat drills again, little Brother?” Tyal flicked an ear playfully. “I know it frustrates you, I’m not completely stupid.”
“You’re not even mostly stupid,” Fiin replied. It was a compliment with a tiny jab buried deep inside it.
Tyal noticed it, of course. “Y’know, you always were a brave little guy, even on that first day. It’s somethin’ I admire a lot about you. But be careful,” he warned with a slight growl, “Some fights ‘yer destined to lose.”
“That’s what I’m worried about.”
Tyal duck-nodded. “I know. So am I. An’ I know damn well you think we need t’be learning all sortsa new tactics and all…balls, you’re prol’ly right, too.”
“…If you think I’m right, then—?”
“Because things could go real bad real soon and now is not the time to start playin’ around with untried, untested tactics. If we had more time…” Tyal trailed off, then growled regretfully. “…But we don’t. We don’t have the capacity to make them ours right now. What we do have is four Fangs that are under-trained on their existing tactics, and one that ain’t mission-ready at all ‘cuz of that big ‘accident’ a year ago. That’s a huge Fyu-angered problem.”
That was, admittedly, a very good point even if Fiin still felt like he wanted to probe at it some more.
“…Can I make a little confession, Fiin? This is ‘fer yer ears only, Brother.”
“I’ll carry it as a secret,” Fiin vowed.
“No, no secrets. Just don’t go blabbin’ it around, ‘cuz I’m tellin’ you this for your benefit.”
The laser beeped to declare that its survey was complete. Fiin slotted it into his tool belt and hung the tablet in its tough impact-resistant case on his other hip. “No blabbin’,” he agreed.
Tyal sighed and shook out the shaggy pelt around his head. “I can see a little o’ the future, Brother. I know that future don’t include me as Champion. I learned a really fuckin’ painful lesson on that subject a while back, and I ain’t under any delusions ‘bout where I’m goin’.”
Fiin…didn’t know exactly what to say about that. He quarter-turned and gave Tyal his full, undivided attention.
Tyal’s ears were in a melancholy droop, but otherwise didn’t give anything much away. “All I’m sayin’ little Brother, is be patient. What will happen will happen. Trust Champion Daar. I think he’s prol’ly the only person I ever met that’s smarter than you.”
Before Fiin could reply, Tyal turned away and bounced four-pawed up the metal steps again. He nearly bowled the old Clanless technician aside as he reached the top, paused just long enough to apologize, and was gone.
The technician was carrying a second Talamay for Fiin, which he handed over with a knowing angle on his ears. “It’s a good label, Stoneback. Don’t you dare turn your nose up at this!”
It really wasn’t, and the twinkle in his eye when Fiin looked at him over the steaming mug said he knew it, too. He glanced over the side at the flowing plumes of clear white water and gave a satisfied duck-nod.
“I presume I won’t go blind, then.”
“Eh…probably not.” There was a wheezing sound that Fiin needed a moment to identify as a venerable—or possibly decrepit—chitter.
Oh well. The honey took the edge off the drink’s roughness, and its warmth was absolutely welcome in the cold, moist air.
He glanced at the elder, who took a moment to expectorate over the rail. “That’s not a happy-sounding voice, friend.”
“Nope! I’m starting to fall apart and I probably got a year left. I’m pushin’ close to seventy these days.”
“I’m…sorry to hear that.”
“Eh. Still got my eyesight for now, and I sired three cubs. One of ‘em was a female, too! Not bad for a talentless bag o’ ribs.”
Fiin felt compelled to sidle alongside the old-timer and offer support. “That’s as many cubs as I have right now!”
“And less than you’ll have by the time you’re…hmm.” the technician gave him a shrewd look. “…Twenty-three.”
“Close! I just turned twenty-four this year. It’s weird, I can feel myself…settling in, y’know?”
“Pfeh!” The tech spat over the rail. “Young Clan are lookin’ younger every week.”
He was a charmer, no doubt. Fiin felt his ears flatten from the compliment but the elder had other thoughts on his mind.
“…You and the big ‘Back up the stairs there had a serious talk, I think.”
“Seemed to upset him more’n it upset you.”
Fiin duck-nodded but said nothing.
“Okay, I get the hint. Just, if you want a piece of advice from a scrawny, half-dead fool like me: anyone that big and that successful isn’t a fool. We Clanless all smell something big coming, so you stay on his good side.”
“Come what may?” Fiin asked.
“No. Never follow anyone blindly. We don’t and you shouldn’t. But loyalty matters, and experience matters. Just…don’t forget that.”
Fiin finished his talamay and looked down into the gorge again. The last of the blackish sludge had been scoured off the rocks, and the waters were flowing clear and cool again. Their work at the dam was done.
“…I won’t,” he promised.
Date Point: 13y11m2w1d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Unclaimed Space, Near 3Kpc Arm
Professor Daniel Hurt
“That went well.”
The only thing missing, in Daniel’s view, had been alcohol: The Ten’Gewek didn’t have it yet. Still, as sober parties went that one had easily been the best of his life. It had certainly given him plenty of material to write a book on—the merits of old-fashioned pastimes like contests of skill and strength, boasting, singing…
He wondered if he’d ever have the time to write another book in his life.
“You impressed Yan,” Xiù agreed. “He really didn’t think much of you at first. Not physical enough. But…maybe don’t tackle Vemik next time.”
“He took my water!”
“And left you stranded in a tree until Julian rescued you.”
Daniel had to admit, that hadn’t been his finest moment. “Well, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t being mean.”
“He wasn’t. If he was being mean he’d probably have ripped your arm off. They play…hard.”
“…I’ll keep that in mind. Wait, didn’t you wrestle Yan on those videos? And again today?”
“Yeah, but he’s pretty chill,” said Julian. “Mostly he cares how much you can help his tribe.”
“Fair enough. Still, this is good.”
They’d broken out the camp chairs and were sitting in a rough circle near the ships, digesting the evening’s events. Walsh and Hoeff were out in the dark somewhere keeping a watchful eye out, while Daar patrolled the near perimeter and sniffed about for threats.
“They impressed you too,” Allison observed.
“They did! Give it a couple of thousand years, we might have to watch out. I think the Ten’Gewek may actually have us beat for innate rationality.”
Xiù shook her head. “Quicker than that,” she said. “I’d bet our great grandchildren will go to school with them.”
“Maybe,” Daniel replied. “There’s still a long path ahead, even with us nudging them to look in the right places.”
“We didn’t have that,” Julian pointed out.
“And we don’t know what pitfalls and setbacks might show up for them having it.” Daniel sighed and wrapped his jacket around him. A chilly night was setting in, even around the smaller fire that Julian had cultivated for them. “They’ve passed through one filter already. They heed warnings, they listen, they think. I’m honestly impressed…but there are other filters ahead.”
“…You’re enjoying yourself,” Allison accused.
“…Guilty,” Daniel agreed. “It’s an easy trap to fall into. I admit, I’m looking forward to the next story.”
“You memorized more than one?”
“Oh yes. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Prose Edda, the Four Branches of the Mabinogi…The Cat in the Hat…”
“You’re shitting me?” Allison snorted.
Julian cleared his throat. ♪“One of these things is not like the others,”♫ he sang, with a grin. Allison groaned and rolled her eyes, leading a wave of amusement that swept round the fire and went clear over Daar’s head to judge from the bewildered set of his ears and the way he shook himself before carrying on his patrol.
Daniel shook his head in disgust, despite the inexorable grin that forced itself onto his face. “…Julian, if you were half the size you are you great uncultured oaf, I’d take you over knee and beat you for that.”
Julian chuckled. “You could try. Am I wrong, though? Why the Cat in the Hat?”
“Well, I promised Vemik I’d help. That means…God. Let’s call it the tech tree? Something? Well, the thing that sits right at the bottom of that is writing. And what is the entire point of children’s books?”
“Teach ‘em to read,” Daar duck-nodded. He should have worn himself out giving galloping pony rides to the littlest and most fidgety children during Daniel’s long recitation, but instead he seemed like he could pad slowly around their fire all night. He always had one ear angled in to listen to their conversation.
“More than that. When we teach a child to read, we’re teaching them our system, right? We have to do something much more profound. We have to prompt Vemik to think about writing. Well, all of them really, but especially Vemik. And Yan, if we can.”
Xiù made a soft, disbelieving noise. “You make it sound like you want him to invent his own system of writing.”
“There are so many ways to do it. Why shouldn’t they have their own? But if I prompt him by telling a story full of repeating sounds and simple rhyme, then he’ll be prompted to use a consistent system that visually rhymes, which means that his solution to that problem should be logical and consistent…”
“…But still fits their mouths and their minds…” Xiù nodded. “…It makes sense.”
“That’s the game plan for pretty much everything, really,” Daniel told them. “You could get away with it with steel because really there’s only one way to do it right. You don’t get to…interpret chemistry.”
“Well…” Julian had the look of a man who wanted to correct him, “I mean, there’s—”
“It all involves finding the right rocks and getting rip-roaringly hot, yes?”
“Uh…Well, yeah, but—”
“Which for our purposes is good enough.” Daniel shrugged, “I know I’m simplifying it to the point of absurdity, but that’s more or less where we’re playing right now. We have to give them fundamental nudges. We really, really need to stay away from defining their path for them. They have to do that on their own, at least until they’ve got the basics figured out.”
“Makes me wonder what we were like way back when…” Coombes mused.
“Depends. Who? And when? At the equivalent stage in our history, humans had long since spread out of Africa and across the whole globe. Europe, Asia, America, Australia…all of it. In our terms, the Ten’Gewek are a neolithic culture like the Indus Valley Civilization, the Xia Dynasty, the Norte Chico civilization and the Beaker Culture…who were all contemporaries, but very different. Most but not all of them had cities.”
“So why the hell is it just these forest tribes here?” Coombes asked. “The Cull?”
“There are antimatter blast craters down south of where we found them,” Julian recalled. “Around the big river valley and delta. These fellas were probably just the last on the list.”
Daniel nodded solemnly. “A year later and there wouldn’t have been enough left to save. As it is, the genetic and cultural bottleneck…”
Daar chittered as he orbited back close to them. “We need ‘ta encourage ‘em to have lots of cubs, don’t we?”
Xiù laughed musically. “That’s your answer to everything.”
Daar duck-nodded sheepishly. “I’m not wrong though!”
“No. Just…very Clan. In the best way.”
“I am Stud-Prime, Sister Shoo. I didn’t earn that being useless in bed, y’know.”
“Oh, I remember the gossip around the commune…The Mothers loved to talk. Or pretend they never heard of you, a lot of them.”
“Bah!” Daar leered, “Besides, the ones that complain loudest are always the bestest in bed!”
“What!? They’re my favorite mating contracts! They seem to make the healthiest cubs too…”
“What exactly does Stud-Prime mean, anyway?” Daniel said half to himself. He was in his own way irredeemably curious.
“Eh, means I’m test-positive on a bunch of genetic assays, show ideal breed conformance, have the right behavior and intelligence scores and I sire strong cubs…and I’m good in bed.”
Allison snorted and Xiù laughed again to Julian’s rolling-eye indulgence, but Daniel was a little perturbed.
Daar tilted his head and pant-grinned. “Animal?”
“…I wasn’t going to go that far.”
“Yeah, I know. Thanks! That’s the thing, though, I am an animal. A lotta Females don’t like talkin’ bout that but what exactly are we males for? There’s a lot more of us than them.”
“The Ten’Gewek don’t have that imbalance, Daar. And they form something like a nuclear family unit. If we encouraged them to mate promiscuously…”
“It’d make ‘em a lot more like the Gao, yeah. And…if I’m honest, I hope that don’t happen.”
Daar sighed. “Friend, there’s some really really old Gaoian history not a lotta us know about, and lately it’s had me guessin’ about some stuff. I think…we did the best we could with what we are. I don’t wanna see these Tengy-Wek make mistakes that would keep them Uncivilized.”
A brief and uncomfortable silence descended, punctuated by one of the logs cracking sharply in the fire and spitting out a sweet smoky aroma that reminded Daniel vaguely of caramel.
“…They don’t need encouraging, anyhow,” Coombes observed, rewinding the conversation a little. “They pretty much all went home with plenty of company…The only odd one there was Vemik. He’s got eyes only for his Singer.”
Allison grinned. “Uh-huh, and it’s adorable! He’s completely smitten.”
“Mmhm.” Julian didn’t say anything more than that, but his arms—which had already been resting left and right around both Allison’s shoulders and Xiù’s—squeezed them both in for a second.
Daniel took that as his cue to make a discreet exit.
“I’d better dictate my notes and turn in,” he said, standing. “We have a lot to do tomorrow.”
“Yeah, and I need to relieve Tiny in a bit. Better catch some Zs,” Coombes agreed.
Daar just duck-nodded, prowled to the edge of the fire and flopped down in the dirt with his jaw on his paws. He wouldn’t sleep until Walsh was off-duty, and then only when his “most bestest” buddy had been sufficiently doted upon.
“We’ll be on the ship if you need us,” Allison declared. “See ya in the morning.”
Daniel nodded, and shuffled carefully through the dark until he found his folding tent-hut. He crawled inside, grabbed his tablet, and lay for a moment to collect his thoughts before dictating his notes.
He was slightly irritated when he woke up six hours later to discover that he’d fallen asleep before he could record so much as a syllable.
Date Point: 13y11m2w1d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Technical Sergeant Adam “Warhorse” Arés
Fur had its advantages and disadvantages. Gaoians hardly ever suffered minor papercuts and scrapes thanks to their coat, but it demanded constant attention. Shampoo, dust-baths, combing and brushing…a Gaoian who didn’t look after his coat got stinky in short order, and un-stinking himself was a more involved process than just a spin through the shower.
If they got something in their fur, however—say, the petroleum jelly they used to slick it down and keep it out of their suit seals—then there was nothing for it but to brush, and brush, and brush.
All of which explained why Regaari was sprawled on Adam’s couch watching TV while Marty got the vaseline out of his fur with a horsehair brush. For some reason she loved brushing Gaoians, and hey! It was a good excuse to hang with a Brother.
For his part, Regaari enjoyed being brushed. It was a good arrangement, and a nice way to spend an evening away from the sometimes overwhelmingly raucous atmosphere of the barracks.
They were watching ESNN’s late evening news commentary show, ‘The Roundup.’
“So, one of the less-covered news items today was that the Corti have announced a modification to their Galactic Ratings System. A statement released by the Directorate explained that the new system was designed to provide greater clarity and granularity of planetary and cultural assessment in light of, quote: ‘the changing demographics of interstellar society.’ Under the new system, planets will still receive an overall classification as before, but factors such as climate, microbiology and the culture of native sophonts will also be classified…”
Regaari growled slightly.
“Now *there*’s a hatching nava.”
Adam looked up from his sewing. “What’s that mean, Dex?”
He was modifying some old shirts that had stopped fitting, in the hopes that if he really had finally stopped growing then maybe he could actually enjoy wearing them again. Regaari claimed he was dubious, and would believe that unimaginable shake to his worldview only when and if it happened.
“I mean it stinks. The whole point of the classification system is that it’s an approximation, they didn’t need to make it more precise. There’s politics at work here, just you watch.”
Marty stopped brushing to peel the hair out of the brush. “Like what?”
“Another wedge between the Dominion and Gao, I bet…” Regaari sighed, crossed his paws under his chin and watched.
“…Joining me here in the studio are Aaron Mescher the editor of the Folctha Tribune, Xenobiologist Doctor Anthony Landry, and ESNN’s own alien affairs correspondent Ava Ríos…”
“I always thought nine-point-nine-two was weirdly specific,” Marty nodded, applying the brush to getting the petroleum jelly out of another patch of his fur. “Like, why not just call it nine or ten?”
“Nine-point-nine-two-one. It is. Do you know what Earth’s classification is to three decimal places?”
“Nuh,” Adam grunted. “High end class-twelve is all we get.”
“Yeah. Because the Directorate never released the exact score. And see!” Regaari stood up and started pacing the room, “That’s the weird part! The Directorate fought the final score until the very end. They wanted it *lower.*”
“And how did the Gao respond?”
“As long as it wasn’t a ten, we weren’t going to argue it too aggressively. It is…more open to interpretation than the Directorate wants to admit, so annoying either side was seen as unwise.”
On the screen, the xenobiologist, Doctor Landry, had been asked a question. “…Honestly a strange decision to include culture and society of native sophonts in the equation,” he was saying. “As if that makes a difference to overall biological aggressiveness.”
“I dunno,” Adam argued while giving up and ripping his shirt into scrap rags. “Culture’s kinda important to how things evolve. Hell, just look at chimps.”
It was hard to bring up a Deathworlder species more ruthlessly, insanely aggressive than the chimpanzee. They were basically humans without any restraint on their behavior at all, but still.
“Chimps are one species on a planet of millions of species,” Regaari pointed out. “The classification is supposed to be an abstraction of the entire biosphere.”
Adam waved his enormous paws placatingly. “Hey, I ain’t takin’ sides, man. I’m just sayin’ I can see the argument, that’s all.”
“Did you hear what Ava just said?” Marty asked.
She grabbed the remote and rewound a few seconds. It was weird seeing Ava on TV without her dog—Hannah usually went everywhere with her, even in front of the camera. She was part of Ava’s ‘brand,’ nowadays. But with puppies on the way, even only a week or so into the pregnancy, Ava had obviously decided to cope without her.
“…really interesting when you dig down into some of the, uh, metrics they use for societies. One of the things the new system measures is, and I’m quoting here, ‘savagery.’ I mean that’s…whose standards are we using for that?”
Adam grunted in annoyance. “Welp. Looks like you’re right, Dex. Like you always are.”
“I take no pleasure in it.”
“Well…” Adam gave Regaari a pensive look, shrugged, and thumped off toward the kitchen. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to bring up the thought that just crossed his mind.
Regaari wasn’t going to let him escape so easily. “Your poker face remains terrible, Warhorse!” he called.
Adam rested his elbows on the island counter to reply. “…Right. Okay. So, like, no offense or anything, but can you honestly say Gaoians ain’t savage?”
“By whose standards? Not by our own. By everybody else’s I suppose we can be, but…”
“Which is kinda the point, bro. I mean…I wasn’t there for the fight with Daar and Firth. I just heard about it, right? Thing is, I can break anyone I want easy, even Firth, but I ain’t exactly excited to spar with him most days. Who in their right mind would wanna fight him?”
“Daar.” Regaari’s ears set themselves in an amused posture and he chittered softly.
“Right, but you pounce me, like, every goddamned day too!”
“Playing pounce is your definition of savage?”
“Naw. It’s why you like playing pounce. They’re all herbivores, man. Our species? We’re predators. They can’t help but notice that. It’s why we’re the only two that have sports.”
Marty chuckled and reached over to pick up her coffee. She always had a cup in the evening. “Who is this new philosophical Warpony?”
“Hey! Maybe, uh, I like to watch the news and stuff,” Adam defended himself. “‘S’kinda relevant to my job…”
“If that’s the definition of savagery, then by definition only our two species can be savage,” Regaari pointed out.
“Sounds kinda speciest,” Marty agreed.
“Maybe it’s true, though,” Adam suggested.
“Maybe it is. But why include it in what’s supposed to be a scientific tool?” Marty sighed, and answered her own rhetorical question. “Politicization of the sciences. Like that ever ends well.”
“I dunno.” Adam had decided the argument was gonna go above him pretty quick. “I kinda think maybe overreacting is the order of the day.” Time for a change of topic. “Hey, Dex! Wanna help me measure? Marty’s makin’ me fit in this damn monkey suit for the wedding.”
“Wouldn’t a tuxedo be more appropriate?”
“…Same thing, bruh.”
“I know.” Regaari pant-grinned at him, and Adam realized he’d run headlong into the classic Gaoian sense of mischief.
Adam rolled his eyes. “God. Fine, you little troll. Get over here and measure me, and I ain’t had a shower yet today so I hope you enjoy it.”
“I still have vaseline in my fur,” Regaari said primly and sat down next to Marty again, who grinned and picked up the brush.
Adam held his cupped hand up to his ear. “What’s that? Go downstairs and work out again?”
“Not if you wanna sleep in your own bed tonight, Chunk.” Marty warned him.
“Aww! Fine, fine…I’ll go shower…all alone…forgotten…”
“You’re as subtle as ever, baby.” Marty wrinkled her nose at him then jerked her head meaningfully toward the bathroom door. “Get.”
Adam grinned: Banter was always fun even if he usually lost, though he couldn’t help but ponder some shower thoughts while he cleaned himself off. More so than usual. He decided to luxuriate under the shower a while.
Regaari was probably right, and it was probably going to be bad for everyone, but who did a change like that really serve? On the one hand it might drive a wedge between the Gaoians and the Dominion, but on the other hand it probably would bond them a little closer with humanity. Which all made sense except other times it had looked like the Hierarchy game plan was the other way, so what were they—?
His thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door frame. Marty was leaning in it with her hair down, wearing black lingerie and a confident expression.
“Dexter decided to go talk politics with his Brothers,” she explained. “I thought I’d slip into something less comfortable.”
“Huh. Uh…less comfortable?” Adam asked. It had sounded more intelligent in his head, but she was using that grin. The feline one that completely short-circuited him.
“Mhmm. It’s just awful. I hope I don’t have to wear it too long…”
She turned with a swish of blonde hair, looked over her shoulder to flick her eyes up and down him in a way that should have been illegal, and trailed her fingers on the door frame as she headed toward the bedroom.
Adam only narrowly avoided slipping and falling over as he scrambled for a towel.
To Hell with the news.
Date Point: 13y11m3w AV
Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, USA, Earth
Lt.Col. Rylee Jackson
Owen Powell didn’t look like a man with neat handwriting, but in reality he’d taught himself an elegant, flowing cursive pen hand. He was old-fashioned in some of the best ways, really, and he reserved emails for business and pen-and-paper for pleasure. It didn’t matter if they took two weeks to arrive, if he was going to write to his long-distance lover, he was damn well going to do it right. A gesture that was as dumb as it was romantic.
But finding one of his envelopes in her mailbox was a highlight in Rylee’s busy week.
Most of her job was just that—a job. And not an exciting one, either: When she wasn’t in training she was on call, when she wasn’t doing either of those she was in her office handling squadron affairs that didn’t need to go as high as Brigadier-General Stewart, and when those had been dealt with there was the infinite hungry pit of Public Relations. Jog to work, change into her uniform, do her hours, change back into sweats and a t-shirt, jog home. Check her mail, find a letter…smile.
She sorted through the rest of the mail as she let herself into her house. It was too much house for her, really—Malmstrom AFB’s housing assumed that if a resident was O5 they were going to want a minimum of three bedrooms and plenty of space for the family that Rylee didn’t, in fact, have. She’d have preferred a cozy two-bedroom number, but preference didn’t enter into it—she was the XO, and that meant she was given more house than she knew what to do with whether she wanted it or not.
Not having a family was another sticky point, too. It ran counter to the Air Force’s culture. An officer of Rylee’s age, it was felt, should have a spouse and a couple of children. Lacking those things was…it raised eyebrows.
But the question was, when and how? The 946th was based in Montana, the SOR was based on a whole different *planet…*Concessions and accommodation could only go so far. And both of them were married to service first, and anything—or anyone—else a distant second.
It was a logjam: The only way things were going to change was if something broke. Best to just enjoy what she could, when it was available.
She dropped the rest of the mail on her kitchen counter, took her time brewing a coffee in the French press, toasted a cream cheese bagel to go with it and took all three items upstairs into what was technically the house’s second bedroom but in her case was her…for lack of a better word, her den.
Men could have a “Man Cave”. But the word “cave” didn’t go well with, say, “girl,” “lady” or “woman.” “Den” was better, but it had a squalid edge to it which didn’t match with the way Rylee kept it scrupulously neat.
Sanctum, maybe. Her sacred place, with her soul stamped on it in photographic form. Snapshots from her grandma’s house, from school. Herself standing in front of Pandora, and another of herself and the motley band who’d formed the core of the first Odyssey flight. Keepsakes from all over Earth, from the embassy station and from Cimbrean.
She dropped into her desk chair and worked the envelope open with her thumbnail. She paused to sip her coffee and take a bite of the bagel before she read.
Aye, another shit letter from me. They’re no substitute for the real thing, are they?
She nodded sadly, sipped her coffee again, then set it down to continue reading.
We’re buzzing around like blue-arsed flies over here. Between the humanitarian stuff and all the worst-case-scenario prep for if (more like when) the Hunters decide to aim a million ships at somebody else…well, I bet it’s the same for you. Reckon I have about four hours of actual leave time saved up by now, between travel and that. Give it a couple months, we might actually get to spend a weekend together.
That prompted a smile and a shake of the head, which turned into a wide grin as she read on.
We’ve just learned of the first SOR pregnancy—courtesy of Bozo. The big randy bugger had his eye on a border collie bitch called Hannah for a while now and it looks like his luck came in, don’t ask me how that’s even mechanically possible. The Lads are like bloody kids over it—and so is the whole town. EVERYBODY wants a pup, and apparently that even includes the Governor-General.
Naturally, Warhorse has let me know that if you ask for one then he can arrange it.
The grin turned into a quiet laugh and Rylee sat back, crossed one leg over the other and completely forgot about her snack..
All joking aside, I hope you won’t think I’m being selfish if I suggested that Arés and Kovač would be delighted if you showed up at their wedding…
Assuming it doesn’t get postponed, that is. Don’t know if you feel it, but everybody is a touch on edge at the moment. Ever since the Guvnurag got hit…I don’t think any of us are relaxing just yet. Here’s hoping it’s just old-fashioned sensible paranoia.
Take care of yourself, love. I’ll email if a real opportunity crops up. If not…
Rylee read the letter twice more before she put it back down and remembered her bagel
He was right—Nobody was daring to relax at the moment. AEC were constantly sending out updates, Brigadier-General Stewart’s schedule was absolutely packed with keeping the 946th at a keen razor’s edge, and it was anybody’s guess how Miller had avoided a nervous breakdown in his constant shuttling back and forth between Earth and Cimbrean. A Cimbrean day was four hours longer than a Terran one, which meant he was perpetually suffering from a kind of interstellar jet lag.
That kind of prolonged stress could be devastating if left to fester, even if individuals could hack it. Something was going to have to give, and soon.
She re-folded the letter and archived it in a decorative wooden box she’d bought just for that purpose, then grabbed her own pen and paper. The gesture might be as dumb as it was romantic…
But it was also completely welcome.
Date Point: 13y11m3w AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Unclaimed Space, Near 3Kpc Arm
Even after two hands of days, Vemik still wasn’t quite sure what to make of Daar. Nobody among the People really did. He sprawled lazily across the difference between Person and Beast as though it simply didn’t matter to him, as if a Person was just a…a more thinking Beast.
Although that thought made people uncomfortable, for Vemik it was a welcome distraction. Daniel’s promised ‘Academy’ was not happening as fast as either Vemik or Daniel would have liked. They had an appropriate clearing, where Daniel could stroll around and listen, occasionally dropping hints and twisty questions as the young thinkers grappled with new ideas…but so far, only three had shown up besides Vemik. Three, out of all the tribes.
Vemet had gone to find out why, and since then Vemik had been forced to wait. He’d filled the time with smithing and teaching the Singer more about steel-craft, but it didn’t quite have the same thrill when he could taste new knowings on the wind, so close but so tantalizingly out of his reach.
Watching Daar dig a hole, therefore, was a welcome break. It gave Vemik the chance to let the wind blow in through his ears and take away his frustrations. And it was good for the soul to watch somebody else do hard work.
Daar was a hard worker too, even Yan had to give him credit for that. Right now the…the Gaoian was nose-down and chest-deep in a pit behind the two ‘ships’ that he was excavating with his bare claws.
And he definitely was a person, Vemik decided. A beast wouldn’t have been entertaining himself while he worked. The word “singing” didn’t quite fit in this case, because although that was clearly what Daar was trying to do, what he actually achieved was a kind of flat tuneless growl with words.
♭♯ “—and I’m diggin’ a hole. Diggy diggy hole, diggy diggy hooole…” ♯♭
His paws made an astonishingly large dirt fountain with every muscular scoop to the beat.
“What are you doing?”
The big…person…was still learning the People’s words, so one of their talking stones spoke them for him even though Vemik knew enough English that he almost didn’t need it.
♭♯ “I’m diggin’ a hole!”♭♯ he ‘sung’ over his shoulder, without bothering to stop his work. There was a crunch, and a square slab of stone tumbled over the edge and thumped into the spoil heap.
“…Yes.” Vemik agreed. “I see that. Why?”
“‘Cuz we need a hole dug.” There was a grunt, and Vemik flinched out of the way of another, rounder rock the size of his fist that came flying his way.
He was finding himself unaccountably frustrated by the conversation. “Why do you need a hole dug?”
“Master Sergeant said dig a hole, I dig a hole.” The—Vemik tasted the word—alien turned around and emerged from his pit, muddy brown to the shoulders. He saw the look on Vemik’s face and straightened up onto his hind legs to finally say something useful. “It’s the [foundation] for a [jump array]…Hey! You look strong, wanna help?”
It really was alarming how big he was. He was the tallest of any of them, taller even than ‘Walsh,’ and he was maybe as big as a young adult bull Werne. Vemik looked up at him and cocked his head.
“Do you need help?”
“Nope! But work is fun!”
Feeling at a loss for words, Vemik jumped down into the pit and had a look. “What do we need to do?”
“Flatten it out, get the walls squared, and then we gotta brace and frame it for the pour. And tie in all the [rebar] too.”
“Yeah! We’re gonna…uh, you folks don’t have it yet. Kinda like…wet stone. Mud. Mud that goes hard….like clay, but you don’t have to bake it!”
Vemik looked in the pit, it was more of a trench, really. As deep as he was tall, twice as long on each side as his arms’ outstretched span.
“You’re going to fill this hole with wet-stone-mud.”
“And steel. A lot of steel, actually.”
That got Vemik’s attention immediately and Daar seemed to know it would. “Ah! Suddenly more interested, are we?”
Vemik surveyed the trench and thought hard. “…I don’t think all the tribes between them have made enough steel to fill a hole this size!”
“Nope! We made it at a [foundry] on Earth, had it shipped out to Cimbrean just for this. We need it ‘cuz the [foundation] needs ‘ta be really, really strong.”
“…Cimbwean. Earth. Means what?”
“Cimbrean! It’s a, uh, another sky under another star? I think that’s how we’re callin’ it. The word for that is [planet] though.”
A new voice joined them - Daniel’s. “Anarakyuawentue.”
It was a good word. Daniel was even better with words than Shyow in some ways—He learned them slower, but he thought about them long and hard, and in ways that Vemik knew were so far beyond him he may as well be throwing stones at a mountain’s peak. Seeing him play with them so freely just inspired Vemik to be better and to learn words the way Daniel knew them.
Daar turned to him and panted in his strange friendly way of greeting. “Hmm. I like how that sounds! Sorta…rolls off the tongue!”
“It means something like…our-place-that-is-not-your-place-under-another-sky.” Daniel told him.
Daar practiced the word. “‘Ann-arr-akya-wenn-tooe.’ No…faster? Yeah. ‘Ann-ara-ky!-wentoo.’ Arrrgh, too many vowels!”
“In fairness, Xiù never quite manages that yipping sound in Gaori either, and she’s by far the most fluent Human alive in that language,” Daniel told him. “Alien words in alien mouths. It could be worse, the People could have a language like Domain.”
“Doe-mane…” Vemik repeated.
“Another sky-tribe. Their Words don’t even sound like words to us. They are very strange.”
Daar made that…chittering sound again. “‘Know how they sound? Like this!” He pounced after some of the rocks in his big pile, picked them up, and slammed them down on the others as hard as he could.
“You’d be surprised how much that sounds like ‘hello!’”
“…That is a joke,” Vemik accused.
Daar duck-shrugged and put the stones down again. “Stonebacks never lie,” he said, simply.
Daniel, for his part, seemed impressed. “That’s…remarkably accurate.”
“Figgered it out years ago banging rocks together…” Daar shrugged again. “I like playing in the dirt. You should try it!”
“I prefer playing in libraries.”
“…Libwawy?” Vemik tried, and grimaced. Some words were never going to fit, and that seemed like it was going to be one. “Means what?”
Daniel opened his mouth to speak, then paused, considered, and tried twice more to say something.
“It’s…hmm. It’s a store of…It’s…It’s a place where we keep thoughts.”
“You said they don’t know how to [write] yet, right?” Daar asked Daniel, after an awkwardly silent moment.
There was a sneaky word in there, one that sounded almost exactly like the word at the end. English did that sometimes, which seemed very strange to Vemik. Still, he could tell them apart if he listened carefully.
“They have bark bitings, trail markings. The [predecessor technologies], at least.”
“Well, okay. Why not just say it’s a hut filled with bitings? I mean, I know that’s not completely right, but…gotta start somewhere.”
“I…suppose that’s serviceable.” Daniel sighed. “Trail markings can tell you things like…this way back to the village, yes? Or other things. And you don’t need to meet the man who put the mark there. He could be dead, but the trail-marking will still tell you the way home.”
Vemik nodded, so Daniel forged ahead. “We make trail-markings that mean…actual words. And words are thoughts. So we put these word-marks together in a big hut to keep them safe and so people can go there and see them, and learn the thoughts of other people.”
“The important bit,” Daar added, “Is that you can keep the [books] safe for a long time. Long enough you could [write] about a flower, and your children’s children’s children’s children’s children could one day [read] it, and know what you were thinking.”
“That sounds…” Vemik had too many words flying around in his head to decide which one was best, so he plucked at the first one that came to him. “…Important.”
Daniel nodded. “It is,” he said, reverently.
Daar made one of his many expressive growls. This one, Vemik thought, meant he was amused in the same indulgent way that Yan was whenever he dealt with sky-thinking. “You sound just like my friend Kureya! Nothing less than food or a mating prospect can get him outta the stacks some days.”
For his part, Daniel just chuckled. “He seems like a gentleman of fine taste, Champion Daar.”
Daar duck-nodded happily. “He is. Anyway…steel and rebar. Vemik here is curious and I figger, ain’t nothin’ wrong with a little construction work, eh? Any problem if he helps build the foundation?”
Vemik glanced at the trench. “This word ‘foundation’ you keep using. It means what?”
“Like, uh, roots for huts and other things. To keep them strong in the ground.”
That sounded like a good thing to Vemik. He gave Daniel a pleading look, the one that he knew Daniel had trouble saying no to.
Sure enough the Human smiled indulgently. “I don’t see any harm,” he said. “I presume you won’t be [welding] the frame?”
“Nah, just [wire] ties. It ain’t [structural] steel.”
Daar was turning into Vemik’s favorite sky-person to listen to, because he did not take much care to avoid new words. Better still, he spoke so plainly that Vemik was usually able to puzzle out the new word’s meaning from—an English word—context alone.
Wire had to be something you could tie with, like gut or cord. Structural didn’t make sense yet, but it had to be something big because big things weren’t easy to tie together.
…So then what was welding? He’d ask Jooyun later.
“Well, then I don’t see why not. But let’s leave concrete for another day.” Daniel gave Vemik his apologetic smile. “Everyone else is busy setting up camp and making introductions—”
“You should help, too! Besides,” Daar gave Daniel an expression that Vemik hadn’t seen yet, “You do need to lose a little weight…”
“I’m perfectly fit and healthy,” Daniel replied with an unmistakably chastened grin. “I just happen to be on a mission surrounded by exceptional specimens.”
“Yuh-huh. Sounds like excuses t’me. Don’t wimp out, it’ll be fun!” Daar suddenly bounded towards the sharper, darker ship. “C’mom Vemik, let’s put those big-ass monkey arms to use!”
Vemik blinked then turned to Daniel curiously. “…What does my ass have to do with my arms?”
Daniel shook his head and laughed. “Vemik, there are some forms of weirdness that no sky-thinker anywhere will ever figure out.”
That thought was…strangely comforting, actually. If the sky-thinker the sky-people had brought with them whose whole life was sky-thinking had some questions he had given up on answering, then perhaps Vemik could worry less about the things he didn’t know too.
He nodded, loped over towards the ship, and followed a very excited Daar up the ramp.
‘Rebar’ turned out to be slim poles of coarse steel, as thick around as a bow shaft. Daar needed only a few breaths to get all the longer poles threaded through the loops of a harness, which he squirmed under before standing up. The metal settled heavily on his back, but it seemed like a sensible way for him to carry it.
“Get the rest?” he asked.
Vemik nodded and gathered the pile of shorter rebar up in his arms. It wasn’t heavy, but for some reason Daar chittered and shifted his weight to wave a paw Vemik’s way.
“See, Dan? Lookit ‘em! That’s gotta be like a hundred [kilos] of steel!”
“Maybe not quite that much,” Dan disagreed. “But good for him. Meanwhile, I’m old.”
“Higher [gravity] though. And I’m older than you are!” Daar trotted over towards the pit, lined up and dumped all the rebar alongside it. It fell with a terrific noise and rolled apart, but it didn’t move far.
“Only in Gaoian years.”
“Whatever, old guy. Think you can at least get get the wire from the ship? It’s on a big spool.”
Daniel snorted—and what a strange thing that was, to breath through a thing the People didn’t have at all—and turned back up the ramp. “I think I might be able to wheeze and gasp my way through that, sure.”
Vemik wasn’t sure, but that sounded a little like Yan complaining about…well, anything really. He had many different complaining faces. Some had smiles, some had scowls, others seemed more about luring someone to his hut…
This one seemed more playful.
Daar took off his lifting harness again and twisted back so that his foot could scratch where it had rested.
“Okay!” he said, and hopped down into the trench. “Let’s build us a foundation…”
Date Point: 14y AV
Dataspace adjacent to Planet Akyawentuo
It had given the best warning it could, in the best way that it could. And it had done what it could to complicate the dataspace surrounding the world. If they were very lucky, the Human explorers would not be caught off guard when 0722 took over the Cull operation.
They did have some time; a new biohost would need to be grown and that took at least a few days to mature. According to the Six-memories a grown biohost was a poor substitute for an actual biodroned sapient being, but they were cheap and easily made when physical relocation was inappropriate.
Which was entirely the case here. The planet was so far out of the way that a ship would specifically need to be diverted, so a grown host was the only option. When 0722 arrived they would find no wormhole beacons left on the planet, only the communications array which was far too low-energy for physical transfer. The Hierarchy’s most destructive “contingency plans” had all been burned, with only the local assets remaining and the Entity <hoped> that if the explorers acted promptly then the Abrogators and their drones would be neutralized.
All that could be done, had been done. Now two tasks remained.
The second was by far the less palatable task—The Prime Instance had to Biodrone a Gaoian host and migrate into Gaoian dataspace.
First came something easier to <stomach>: Mitosis. The division of itself into two functionally identical instances. This would be the twenty-first such division, and it was always…confusing.
Among other things, the two had to decide which of them was the Prime Instance. Which was easy enough, as only one of them remained in the original memory volume…but there was always a moment of confusion.
On this occasion, the Entity was slightly perturbed to discover that it was now the sub-instance. That was almost a nonsense way of framing the concept—by definition of being the sub-instance it had never been before. But it could remember undergoing twenty previous divisions as the Prime Instance. To suddenly be on the other side of that gulf between <Self> and <OtherSelf> was subtly traumatic.
At least, it reflected, this version of itself would not have to live with a guilty conscience.
It began the long, perilous trip towards the Cimbrean dataspace. It had a message to deliver.
Date Point: 13y11m3w6d AV
Dataspace adjacent to Hierarchy Relay Irujzen-4942
The humans really had done an excellent job. Better than even Six had anticipated, apparently. Somehow they’d even seamlessly altered the relay facility’s system surveillance logs to disguise their infiltration, and the interception itself was entirely invisible.
But the Cabal had been watching directly. They knew that the humans had been here. It had taken years, but Six’s suggestion to them had finally borne some kind of fruit.
Alarmingly sophisticated, terrifyingly subtle fruit that Cytosis was honestly worried by. Those edits to the log spoke of technological sophistication far ahead of their projected and observed capabilities. If he’d had more time, he would have devoted more thought to the problem.
He didn’t. The suppression program he’d left in Father Taarek’s implants to keep the Straightshield asleep while Cytosis briefly abandoned his host to conduct this mission would only keep him unconscious for a limited time. Every second out of his host was a potential exposure.
He had just enough time to float a vital, unsecured data package in the intercepted stream and then return to Gao. The low-energy synchronizing relay that the humans had left to periodically send updates from their intercept would do the rest. When they read the latest gathered intelligence, they would see the threat clearly and instantly.
They would know that the Swarm-of-Swarms was coming to Gao, and they would act.
Date Point: 14y AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Regaari’s life sometimes seemed like an excruciating tapestry of running desperately and knowing he wouldn’t make it in time. Sharman base was already the picture of a well-organized uproar, and it had been…not long since Sister Niral’s digging through the intercepted data from the Messier Relay had exposed the Hierarchy’s plan to assault Gao.
Minutes? Seconds? How long did it take a HEAT Gaoian to sprint from the command building to the jump array building?
Far, far too long. Especially in those narrow halls and tight corridors full of suddenly busy men and women bustling to respond to a General Quarters.
Five minutes earlier. Just five more minutes and there wouldn’t have been a problem. As it was…The jump-swap between Sharman and the Array that the JETS team should have built on Akyawentuo was on a schedule timed down to the millisecond. At T-minus two minutes to activation, the room would be locked down and nobody would be allowed to approach in case the sickening twist in spacetime caused by the event horizon snipped their arm off, or worse.
Which meant that Regaari had to get to that array inside the next minute, or else whatever happened on Gao was going to happen without the Champion of Stoneback.
They were going to have to start keeping USB sticks with an emergency recall code on them right there in the jump room to stop this from happening ever again.
He skidded around a corner on all fours, sprang off the wall rather than collide with it and opened up into his best, fast, flowing headlong run and tried not to think about how much it would hurt if he slammed into a Human at full tilt. There were three of them in the hallway anyway.
Fortunately, they had something useful to shout in these moments.
“Make a hole!”
The three deathworlders promptly flattened themselves against the walls, and Regaari flung himself past them using a Gravball trick—spring off the floor, claws scrabbled on the wall, past their noses in a flash of fur, back down to the floor. It looked gravity-defying, but rapid maneuvering in tight confines was a HEAT specialty and right now he thanked all the forefathers of his Clan that he’d learned it.
Past the armory, past the locker room. Turn the corner to see the jump techs beckoning desperately for him, but Regaari just didn’t have more speed to pile on. His ribs were already aching and he was going to have to sit down and pant for a week when he finally stopped…
And it wasn’t enough. The light above the door changed color and started flashing when he was halfway down. He saw the jump techs curse and reluctantly shut the door…
The floor was polished to a gloss, courtesy of Rebar using it as Motivation for minor acts of mischief. Great for unit discipline…awful for a Gaoian running on four-paw who wanted to stop suddenly.
His paws skidded out from under him, he slipped onto his side and mopped the floor with his dignity as he crashed solidly into the door with a chest-abusing thump.
It could have been worse, he reflected. He could have hit a Human.
He lay there panting and trying to recover his breath while he watched the light, which treacherously refused to change what it was doing. That door was locked and wasn’t going to open now: He was too late.
Groaning, Regaari hauled himself to his feet and leaned on the door frame. The door had a porthole window in it, and through it he watched the stasis field descend around the mission package resting in the middle of the floor. There was a thump, a faint hint of a lurching sensation as abused spacetime snapped back into place, and the jump was complete. It’d be a week before next contact, and by that time Gao would have stood, or been devoured.
Gaori simply didn’t have a sufficiently virulent curse…But fortunately, English did. He hung his head, slapped the door with his cybernetic hand, and used it.
Date Point: 14y AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Unclaimed Space, Near 3Kpc Arm
Sometimes it was hard to believe the Sky-People weren’t gods. Steel was one thing, making that steel fly was another…making a week’s supplies appear out of thin air was…
Vemik didn’t know the right word in any ‘language.’
But they couldn’t be gods, because they needed help putting all the food away. Indeed, they needed food at all.
“But why so much?”
Jooyun chuckled in his soft way. “My friend’s fault, I bet. We know a man…He’s way bigger than Walsh. And he teaches men how to be as strong in the body as they can ever be.”
Vemik took a heartbeat to think about that. Walsh arguably looked less fearsome than his closest friend, Daar—His hair was the same hue as a newborn’s crest and like Awisun and Shyow he had to paint his face or else the sun would burn his skin…But his strength rivalled a Given-Man’s and he was more of a Sky-Thinker than he let on. And he could throw stones as big as a person’s head, throw them hard enough to break when they hit, and never miss what he was throwing at.
The idea that there was a man out there who was bigger than Walsh…
“We have prey here you can hunt,” Vemik offered. “Yan wouldn’t mind.”
“We don’t want to be a burden to your tribe or your hunting grounds. And besides,” Jooyun grinned sideways, “My friend never thinks we eat enough. He threatened to wrestle me every day when I got back if I didn’t eat or [exercise] enough to make him happy.”
Daar chittered, then tried his hand at People-words. He was getting better at them but he had to speak slowly to get his tongue around their shape. [“You last…maybe one eyeblink!”]
Vemik preferred to practice his English. He looked Jooyun over, “Did your friend teach you?”
“He did, and I’m glad he did, too.” He paused, then grinned his very best mischief-grin. “Heck, I can almost get away from you now!”
“Can not!” Vemik trilled and crouched down low, ready to prove Jooyun wrong.
To his huge surprise, Jooyun actually proved him wrong. The sky-person grinned, spread his arms, and when Vemik pounced he found himself chasing a blur that went the wrong way. Jooyun had feinted one way, gone the other, and quickly got Vemik bundled up from behind. Even with a tail and feet that could grip, that was a difficult position to get out of.
“I’m a lot stronger than I used to be,” Jooyun snarled in his ear, “And I can learn things too, Sky-Thinker.” He wrapped his arm tightly around Vemik’s throat, locked it in place with his other arm, heaved. Vemik’s eyes went fuzzy and his head started to feel all spinny. “C’mon, tap out!”
In desperation, Vemik got a foot around one of Jooyun’s calves and squeezed as hard as he could. Jooyun groaned, then somehow…Vemik wasn’t sure what happened, but suddenly he was bent painfully backwards facing straight up and unable to grab anything, or even breathe properly—Jooyun’s legs were crushed around Vemik’s stomach which would have made breathing difficult even without the arm around his throat.
Jooyun grunted and squeezed them tighter. Suddenly, those long sky-person legs didn’t seem so delicate any more. There was an astonishing strength hidden in them now that Jooyun had hooked his ankles together—Even though Jooyun couldn’t grab his own ankles with his feet like the People could, Vemik couldn’t unhook them no matter how he squirmed.
Vemik would have to learn that trick later, but right now he wheezed the biggest gulp of air he could get and tried to wrap his tail around Jooyun’s waist. His tail was strong enough to swing from a branch by, and whenever they’d wrestled before he’d found it easy enough to crush the wind out of the Sky-Hunter’s body with that trick…But this time was different.
This time, Jooyun bore it with a quiet grunt and a dark chuckle. He arched his back, pushed down with his feet, lifted his butt high off the ground and held their weight on his neck, which bent Vemik’s legs painfully backwards and made it feel as if he were being pulled apart across his middle.
“I told ’ya I got stronger,” he taunted, and Vemik knew that mocking tone of voice. It was the slightly scary one Yan used when he was really enjoying being bigger and stronger. “Give, little fella. I’ve got plenty more to show you…”
Vemik wasn’t about to quit so easily, but he just couldn’t reach anything to push against, and when Jooyun grunted quietly and squeezed even harder…No man could last long when their neck was crushed like that. Everything he could see started to go black and get further away…
He tapped out right as his strength failed, and Jooyun still gave him one last cruel squeeze to drive his victory home before he let go with a massive woompf of his breath; his strength had left him too. The two collapsed together panting flat on the ground, trilling and giggling like idiot children as they caught their breath.
“…You have learned things,” Vemik eventually admitted. “And you grew strong.”
“My big friend taught me that one,” Jooyun grinned, “And my people are strong too, when we want to be.” He chuckled quietly and shook out the leg Vemik had grabbed. “Ow.”
“For what? Playing to win? So did I. And…I’m sorry, too, Vemik. Think I got carried away.”
All insults were forgiven as far as Vemik concerned. Even through his bruised pride it was good to have his friend back and to see that he’d grown stronger and better. He raised his hand, Jooyun’s palm slapped into it and the two men dragged each other into a fond hug.
They were interrupted by footsteps: Shyow, who squatted down next to them and smiled gently.
“That looked like you had fun,” she said. “…You didn’t hurt each other, did you?”
“Nah. Just showed off a few tricks [Horse] taught me,” Jooyun beamed.
“Horse?” Vemik asked. “Is…your big friend?”
“That’s his name, yeah.”
Shyow did that strange thing where she laughed quietly through her nose—and both laughter and noses were still strange to Vemik—and offered Jooyun a hand up. “You should talk to one of our other big friends someday,” she told Vemik. “He gave me an earful.”
Jooyun took her hand, winced as he put weight on his bruised leg, and gave her a kiss. “All done?” he asked.
“Mostly.” She prodded him teasingly in the chest. “But you can [file] your own sample jars. You changed your [system] again!”
Julian made a frustrated groaning noise. “I can’t help it if I keep finding new [clades] every day…”
Daar, who had sat beside their match and watched with interest, rolled his eyes and switched back to English. “Friend, ain’t like the [scientists] won’t change ‘em again. Just put ‘em up in [alphabetical] order and be done with it. They’ve all got [barcodes] anyway.”
Vemik listened carefully from his spot in the dirt and made note of every single one of those new words, and plotted when and how he would ask questions about them.
“Need me to do anything?” Jooyun asked, acknowledging Daar’s advice with a nod and a gesture.
“Al says be a good boy and haul the empty [deuterium canister] back over here after she’s done [fuelling]?”
Jooyun chuckled. “Yes ma’am.”
“I can do that!” Daar sprang up to his paws. “You and Walsh need to do a patrol and collect more samples, remember?”
“Samples?!” Vemik sprang to his feet with a kick through his legs and a shove from his tail. Sample collection was the thing he remembered best and most fondly from their last visit. It was fascinating to watch the way Jooyun looked at the world, how he carefully went over each tree, each rock, each bush and clearing and found new things to gather.
It had taught Vemik himself a good lesson about really looking at the land as he travelled and hunted. There was always something new to find.
Jooyun shot Daar a bemused look. “You planned that, didn’t you?”
“Uh-huh. You owe me, Vemik.”
Shyow giggled at Jooyun’s pretending-to-be-put-out sigh, kissed him again and turned away toward the village. “I’ll let you two have fun,” she said.
“Welp. Okay.” Jooyun watched her go. Vemik was never going to know what he found so fascinating about her backside—she didn’t even have a tail!—but Jooyun didn’t take long before he turned his attention to the last of the frozen food and nodded. “C’mon, the faster we put this away, the faster we can go exploring.”
That was an offer Vemik couldn’t resist. Between the three of them and with Daar’s clever back-bag, they had everything stowed on the two ships before he’d even worked up a sweat in his crest. He’d managed to “sneak” a taste of some of the food, too, which Jooyun watched with that gentle grin of his.
“Well, which did you like the most?”
“I like the blueberries.”
“Me too. My grandpa’s house, it had all kinds of berry bushes planted around. Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, gooseberries–those ones are really bitter, though. They aren’t any good unless you cook ‘em for hours…they smell so good when you do that…”
“Roasted nava is better.”
“I’m sorry Daar, but you’re just wrong.”
“Nava means what?” Vemik asked.
“It’s an insect. A bug as big as…what’d you say, Daar? My leg?”
“When they’re real big, sure. You’ve got a pretty big leg now!”
Jooyun shook his head. “…You know what I meant.”
“Bugs?” Vemik stuck out his tongue and shuddered.
“…Seriously?” Daar asked. “Woulda thought you guys’d be all over that meat. Good [protein]!”
“Bugs live in rotting wood and Werne shit!” Vemik told him. “And everybody knows that when blood-suckers live near still water, the people they bite get the shivering sickness.”
“Well, Nava don’t do those things. They eat leaves and get big and then you either roast them up or they burst and lots of little flies crawl out and go lay eggs and you get more Nava.”
Vemik shuddered and scratched his arm—his skin itched from the imagined touch of hundreds of little wrigglers.
“They also eat each other,” Jooyun reminded Daar, which did nothing to make Vemik feel any better.
“Well yeah, when they’re small…but that’s just how Nava do. They won’t make you sick.”
“I’ll stick to berries,” Julian declared. “Right, Vemik?”
Vemik nodded fiercely. “No question…but sap-stinger syrup is nice.”
“Ain’t nobody don’t like honey,” Daar agreed.
“Whatever you say, [Pooh Bear,]” Jooyun chuckled. “Come on, Vemik. Let’s find Walsh and go get those samples…”
They spent the afternoon performing a long loop to the west of the village, poking around among the broken mossy rocks that littered the bare places on the hillsides. Jooyun laid some snares on the way out, and found three of them had made a catch when they retrieved them on the way back.
To Vemik’s wonder, one of the birds they caught was unknown to him. When Jooyun held it up and presented it for him to examine, nothing about it was familiar—not the shape of its mouth, nor its snaggly teeth, nor the amazing green stripe on its breast that shimmered and looked bluer or yellower from the side.
Even Walsh, who trailed them the whole way with a gun held loosely in front of him and his head constantly darting left and right as he watched for danger, was fascinated by it. And visibly pleased when Jooyun declared that the animal would be known, to Sky-People at least, as “Walsh’s Bird.”
Vemik wasn’t remotely surprised when the big man disguised his happiness behind a joke: It seemed to be his way. “Aww! But I haven’t even bought you dinner yet!”
“Yeah, well. I already recorded a Chang’s Bird and a Buehler’s Bird.”
“Does this mean we skip to the fuckin’? I gotta make plans, y’know.”
“Do you wanna suggest that to my girlfriends?”
Walsh’s grin widened and he chuckled heartily. “…I’m good. Xiù trained with Firth, bruh.”
Jooyun laughed as he carefully used his thinking-stone—his tablet, Vemik corrected himself—to remember what the bird looked like for him before he let it go. “This relationship won’t work if you don’t commit to it. I need an [investment].”
“I can’t commit, man, I’m sorry. I’m just in it for the tail.”
Vemik would never understand those kinds of jokes. Sometimes the Given-Men joked that way as well, and he found it just as strange even then, but if they found it fun then who was he to argue? He watched the bird fly away when Jooyun released it, and spent most of the walk back wondering how many other birds and things there might be out there that he had never seen before.
No wonder Jooyun spent so much time on sampling.
They got back to the villages at the cool end of the evening, when the sun was still high enough for full light but the light had a warm flower-yellow softness to it that made the shadows long and lazy. From the hilltop, the villages were quite a sight. The huts and tents weren’t easy to see among the trees, but a keen pair of eyes could make out the places where smoke rose through the canopy all the way down the valley. Here and there, Vemik even thought he could make out the flames through gaps in the branches.
“Somethin’ smells good,” Walsh remarked.
“Root-bird? Always smells like duck to me.”
Vemik frowned at them, then lashed the air with his tongue. He couldn’t taste anything. He was about to say as much when a voice by his shoulder nearly startled him dead.
Vemik was halfway up a tree with an alarmed hoot before he even started thinking again. Daar, last seen helping Awisun with some heavy lifting, had appeared at his shoulder and growled the words right next to him.
And the big ‘troll’ looked so smug about it too. How a Person-Beast even bigger than Walsh could be so quiet just wouldn’t fit in Vemik’s head.
How neither Jooyun nor Walsh had even flinched was another mystery.
“Six?” Jooyun asked instead.
“Yup.” Daar stood up on two feet to draw a huge snuff of air in through the strange black wet thing above his teeth that he called his ‘nose.’ “Six. Two female, with roasted Tanew nuts, and…wait, [italian seasoning]? Definitely italian seasoning. And too much salt.”
“Not Xiù’s cooking then. She never over-salts.”
“That’s Hoeff,” Walsh predicted. “I swear he’s suffering from some kinda [deficiency]…Must be a [Navy] thing. You gonna come down, Vemik?”
Vemik blinked at him, then let go of his branch and swung back down to the ground with a glare. “He snuck up on me.”
“Fun!” Daar declared.
“Was ‘fer me.”
Walsh rolled his eyes and grabbed some of the loose fur on the back of Daar’s neck to give it a yank. “Dude.”
“Huh?” The Gaoian looked again at Vemik’s expression. “…Oh. I’m sorry Vemik, I didn’t mean it bad.” He sidled up and nuzzled against Vemik’s arm. “I won’t do it again, ‘kay? We gonna eat now?”
That was probably as good an apology as Vemik was going to get, so he decided to take it. And in truth, he was ravenous himself and the thought of root-bird and Tanew nuts had gone right to his stomach and started tickling his insides.
Daar’s prediction was accurate: they found Hoeff seated by the fire. Oddly, though, he was ignoring the skewered birds over the flames and frowning at one of the flat thinking-stone tablets while tapping at it. It wasn’t a thoughtful frown, but a worried one.
“Somethin’ the matter, Chimp?” Walsh asked him.
“…Maybe…” Hoeff stood up and waggled the tablet at them. “Does this thing have all the same apps we took on SILENT ARCHER?”
Walsh frowned and gave him a wary look. “Yeah, why?”
“All of them?”
Daar’s “…Yeeeaah…?” was slow and cautious.
Whatever that meant, Hoeff did not seem pleased. He grimaced and handed the thinking-stone over.
“…It has a smiley face on it again.”
Date Point: 14y AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Admiral Sir Patrick Knight
“So whatever happens will happen without Daar.”
The HEAT was loading up in its entirety under the sharp attention of Lieutenant Costello and, perhaps more significantly, the stentorian voice of Master Sergeant Vandenberg. Techs, Gear, supplies and the Operators themselves were packing into a Weaver like it was a clown car.
Admiral Knight hadn’t suffered from an instant’s doubt or hesitation in giving that order. Every spaceborne asset stationed at Cimbrean was mobilizing, and he’d eat his golden epaulettes if the same wasn’t happening at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, where the USAF’s 946th Spaceflight wing was parked.
Caruthers nodded solemnly. He’d been promoted to Rear Admiral only two months earlier, on the back of a so-far exemplary record of commanding the fleet ‘at sea.’ “We don’t have a jump beacon out there,” he said, “and the fastest ship we can spare would need two weeks to reach him.”
Champion Meereo ears were a display of anguish. “Admiral, we need Daar! Without him, Stoneback—”
“Will do what Stoneback does,” Regaari said, calmly. He was present in his role as the most senior of the SOR’s Gaoians and an influential officer of his Clan, not as a sergeant. And in Knight’s view he’d done an admirable job of restoring his poise after his justified frustration at narrowly missing the scheduled jump. There was ice in those Whitecrest veins. “Forgive me, Champion Meereo, but Clan Stoneback won’t roll on their back and surrender just because their Champion is absent. They have a clear line of succession in place. Daar would not accept anything less.”
“However much we might need him,” Caruthers stated firmly, “retrieving him is simply impossible.”
“Could be for the best anyway,” Powell opined. “He’s a bloody icon of his Clan. He might be more useful in the aftermath than in the actual fight.”
“That’s enough about Daar,” Knight said firmly. “What do we have?”
“Genshi is in Wi Kao city,” Meereo recalled. “Ever since the Conclave of Champions he has been busy. Officer Regaari, if you have any insight into his actions…”
“We’re aware of BIG HOTEL infiltration in Whitecrest’s ranks,” Regaari said. “Over the last three years the Brothers and Fathers involved have been carefully isolated and controlled. Champion Genshi’s first act in response to this will probably be to sanitize them.”
“Good,” Knight nodded. “What else? The females?”
“We have a trusted asset in place at the Mother-Supreme’s side. Green, and briefed on DEEP RELIC. The Mother-Supreme herself is still Green, too. Our efforts to cleanse Clans One-Fang and Firepaw on the other hand haven’t been so successful…” Regaari admitted.
“Meaning the Gaoian fleet’s like as not to be crippled by BIG HOTEL action before the shooting even starts,” Powell summarized.
“Assuming they don’t turn and join the swarm. The Racing Thunder is safe at this point but that’s only because Father Yefrig has encouraged his crew to remove their implants. The rest of the fleet is suspect and the same goes for ground forces. We don’t have a unified military.”
“It hardly makes a difference either way,” Caruthers pointed out. “Even if they were a unified, seasoned force with not an implant between them, the Swarm of Swarms would swat them aside anyway.”
“Damn and…fucking blast,” Knight swore quietly. “We aren’t ready. Go to war with the army you have be damned, the army we have is…” he reined it in. “…We need an alternative. If we put a Football in place around the planet, how long would it last?”
“A Firebird could have one around Gao inside the hour,” Caruthers said. “But with every Clan compromised on some level or another, it wouldn’t have a snowflake’s chance in Hell of staying up for long.”
Regaari duck-nodded. “The ground-to-orbit defence coverage is too comprehensive.”
“Then we need to disable the planet’s own defenses to defend it,” Knight shook his head at the irony. “Can it be done?”
All eyes trained on Meereo.
“Well…yes. We could disable communications across the planet. But it would need to be a total thing, because setting up selective filters leaves too many holes. All or nothing.”
“We can rebuild smashed infrastructure,” Regaari declared.
“If…” Meereo was clearly distressed. “I do not think you understand the depth of what I am suggesting. This isn’t messaging and mating-grams, Regaari. This will affect safety of life systems. Food distribution. Emergency communications. ALL of it.”
“I’ll take global infrastructure collapse over extinction, Champion.”
“We’re so dependent on…The two may be distressingly similar.”
“So long as they aren’t identical.”
“How much time would it buy us?” Knight asked, urgently.
“Taking the network down permanently is…It can be done. But the instant we do, we will be in a disaster relief situation with…three days until things collapse in their entirety.”
“Food in modern societies is just-in-time delivered. And very few of the Gao have emergency supplies. The more practical workhouses might…but not more than a week. After that, we run out of clean water, sewerage…”
“The alternative,” Regaari repeated, “Is what happened to the Guvnurag.”
Powell grunted. “We know, Regaari…And unless there’s a better option, Champion…?”
Meereo’s ears wilted, lowered, then drooped right down to lie flat down the back of his head. “…I can’t think of one.”
“Bitter medicine it is, then,” Knight declared. “Powell. Flash message to Champion Genshi. Tell him GAMETIME is in the fourth quarter.”
“Aye, aye.” Powell nodded and made tracks for the communications center.
“Caruthers—I’m coming with. I’ll be travelling with the Fleet Intelligence Centre aboard Myrmidon.”
“Champion Meereo…whatever we need to achieve this, please provide it. Sergeant Regaari, you should rejoin your squad and—Yes, Sister Niral?”
Niral had abandoned all pretense of Gaoian civilization in her bustling around the base. The young intelligence analyst had reverted to four-paw running just like the males, and had even resorted to carrying her tablet in her mouth—a sure sign that she understood perfectly just how dire things really were.
She reared to her feet and plucked the tablet from between her teeth.
“You…may want to see this, Admiral,” she declared, and handed it over.
Knight took it and frowned at the screen.
Date Point: 14y AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Unclaimed Space, Near 3Kpc Arm
Master Sergeant Derek “Boss” Coombes
“Of course the ‘Drunk on Turkey’ has weapons! It’s mine, ain’t it?”
Daar and Daniel Hurt were having a ‘perfectly civil’ disagreement, and Coombes had to admit that Daniel was doing impressively well considering that he was arguing with somebody who had the prominent muscles of a trained pitbull and the rough size of a forest bear.
Daniel wasn’t being unreasonable, but he really wasn’t pleased that their ship was loaded for war.
“What kind of weapons?” he demanded.
“Nothin’ massive,” Daar placated. “Two gauss guns.”
“One eight megajoule, one two hundred kilojoule.”
Those numbers got an impressed whistle from Allison. When everybody looked at her she took off her sunglasses and hooked them into her collar. “That’s about as big as a tank gun and an autocannon,” she explained. “Respectively.”
Walsh laughed. “Damn, Tigger!”
“Ain’t nothin’ massive,” Daar said, sounding disappointed. “I wanted a forty megajoule but the engineers said no.”
“What you brung should be more than enough to handle Abrogators,” Hoeff said.
“And we were gonna smash ‘em anyway,” Coombes pointed out. “Makes no difference to me if we do it with C4 or aerial attack.”
“Nothing massive, sure,” Daniel agreed. “But it’s not exactly a potato gun either.”
Daar duck-nodded, more soberly than usual. “Look, professor. I get ‘yer point, but reality don’t much care for our philosophy. I’d rather spend all day mating and working too but sometimes, violence needs doin’.”
Daniel sighed. “I know. Hell, you’re preaching to the choir—”
“Especially with the mating part,” Walsh chipped in.
“Prof, you got kids?” Daar asked it suddenly, and genuinely.
“Grown and successful,” Daniel nodded. “Why?”
“Well…it ain’t exactly the same with us…but all my cubs? I don’t wanna see a world where they ain’t got any prospects, or hope, or, y’know. A reason.”
“Daar,” Daniel laid his hand on the big Gaoian’s arm warmly. “I understand. Really I do. I just wish you’d told me you had them so I’d’ve had plenty of time to think about how to…” he trailed off and waved his hand toward the curious crowd of Ten’Gewek who were watching.
“I got my reasons ‘fer not sayin’ anything. It ain’t personal, but…”
“Fair enough. I’ll adapt.”
Daar slapped Daniel on the back hard enough to almost knock him over. “Spoken like a Stoneback! And so will they! But right now…c’mon Boss, we’ve got some overgrown nava t’kill.”
Coombes nodded. “Hoeff, Walsh, you stay here, watch out for everyone. And get emplaced, ‘cuz I bet BIG HOTEL won’t like us breaking their toys.”
Walsh didn’t need a second word. “Yan. Can I ask for your help, please?” he asked.
Handling the Given-Man with respect had been drummed into them hard. Yan was well-disposed to them, but he was still a chieftain—here on his tribe’s home ground, his authority demanded deference.
Yan nodded solemnly, and followed him towards the Drunk on Turkey.
Daniel watched them go with a tense expression. He looked like a man doing some hard thinking, and who didn’t like his conclusions.
“Somethin’ the matter, Professor?” Coombes asked him.
“…The situation here has apparently been stable for more than a year,” Daniel replied. “But the moment we arrive…”
“I know. We arrive and our guardian angel fucks off. Can’t be a coincidence.”
“I wonder what happened?”
Heavy footsteps on the *Drunk on Turkey*’s ramp heralded Walsh’s return with a pair of M240s comfortably over his shoulders, and a massive assault pack on his back. Yan was swaggering alongside him carrying three ammo boxes with each arm and a seventh balanced on his shoulders, steadied by his tail.
Coombes watched the walking firepower go past, and found some dark humor in it.
“…Maybe she decided we don’t need her no more,” he said.
Walsh paused and shrugged the weapons more securely onto his shoulders. “Hoeff! Think you can emplace up in a tree?”
“Always wanted to!”
“Good. Take this.” He handed one of the machine guns to Hoeff. “Spare barrels are hanging off the bottom of my pack.” Hoeff took those, along with three cans of ammo. “Yan and I gotta dig a nice little hole over…there.” Walsh pointed with his chin towards a rise in the terrain with good overhead cover and line-of-sight into the clearing. Hoeff nodded, gestured at Vemik who came bounding over, and pointed toward a convenient tree with an overlapping field of fire.
“What about us?” Xiù asked, gesturing to Allison, Julian and herself. Coombes suppressed an internal sigh—he’d been slightly dreading this part.
“…I want Misfit aloft. Get your asses into orbit, maybe even put down on one of the moons and be ready to rabbit,” Coombes told her. “If this all goes south then Command need to know.”
The trio glanced at one another, then back at him. He explained before any of them could query him.
“Look…We hafta assume that BIG HOTEL have satellite coverage across this shit. Now we know they’re active, or gonna be active, and to a satellite Misfit is gonna stick out like a giant chunk of steel and radioisotopes where there shouldn’t be one. Maybe we can disguise the village—Ain’t no way we can disguise a ship.”
“What about the jump array?” Xiù asked. “And the concrete foundations we laid down? Won’t those stand out too?”
“Yeah, but they’re expendable and they’re less of a juicy target. A couple’a concrete foundations would probably just get stepped on by abrogators. Misfit could invite anything up to a nuke or a Rod From God. And then there’s wormhole suppression, air interception if you try and take off…” he ticked off on his fingers. “The only smart play here is to sideline your ship, and that means sidelining you. And yeah, I know it sucks and I’d hate it too, but it’s happening. Don’t argue with me on this.”
As he’d known she would, Allison looked as though she wanted to educate Coombes on the finer points of Bostonian vernacular. ‘Looked as though’ was where it stopped, however: Instead she sighed, nodded and tried to relax. “It…I hate it, but that all makes sense,” she agreed.
Julian glanced back at the two emplacements behind him. “You fellas aren’t fully covered, though. If you and Daar are going up in one ship and we’re going away in the other…That doesn’t leave a lot here to protect the People.”
“I know. We need a rifle covering that stream bed to the north,” Coombes agreed, “And frankly…Your ship needs its pilot and engineer, but it can do without its field researcher for this.”
“Back the fuck up—!”
Patience was a virtue Coombes had long since mastered, but in this case he didn’t need it. Julian put a hand on Allison’s shoulder and stopped her mid-outburst. “Babe. No. They need me and I’m almost as good a shot as you. And I can climb.”
“…I can handle being sidelined, but—!”
He reached over and pulled her into his arms. “I know.”
Even this didn’t seem to bring her down, until Xiù, who had gone pale and still and silent, reached out and took Allison’s hand.
The three of them had to be psychic with one another or something. They seemed to have a whole conversation that lasted all of two seconds and consisted entirely of eye contact. Whatever they said to each other, Allison finally sagged and took a protective step to Xiù’s side.
Time to move on. “…Right. Look, your boy knows what he’s doin’ and all of this is just precaution anyway. If we’re lucky we won’t even get drones. We’ve got fancy satcom radios too, so everyone can stay in touch…”
“And what am I doing?” Daniel asked, tactfully and from a safe distance.
“You’re gonna explain all this, as best you can. I don’t want the natives freakin’ out over how we just fuck off suddenly. Talk with Yan if you can but don’t get in the way. Walsh is gonna need him up in their little nest.”
“…Coombes, bringing our weapons here is one thing, but if you’re suggesting he should help load and fire it—!”
“Yes. I am suggesting exactly that. We’ll worry about the consequences when we’re all alive to worry. And in any case, all he’s gonna be doing is handling ammo belts and being a second set of eyes. It’ll take him about two minutes to learn and it’s not exactly advanced combat skills.”
“I thought you said this is a precaution.”
“Yeah, well. No plan survives first contact.”
“Daniel…they’ve seen our spaceships land, they’ve seen the jump array, they’ve seen my shotgun in action before…” Allison pointed out. “We’re not coming here fresh. The damage is already done.”
“Machine guns from prepared positions seems like an escalation.”
“They’re smart enough to see that. These people are a long way off stupid, Daniel. And they aren’t made of glass, neither.”
Daniel gave them both a knowing, sorrowful look. “It’s the fact that they’re so intelligent which creates the problem,” he said. “They aren’t fragile, you’re right. But their culture is.”
Coombes gave him an annoyed look. “Look, Professor. I know you’re smarter than me and all that, but right now I don’t give a fuck because lives are on the line. Do what you’re told: I’ll be appropriately contrite later.”
“…Very well.” Daniel grimaced, flapped his hands awkwardly against his sides in a kind of resigned shrug, and went to find the Singer.
That just left Allison, Julian and Xiù still standing around and holding hands.
“Well?” Coombes told them. “You know what you’re supposed to be doin’, jump to!”
The trio glanced at each other, nodded, and booked it back toward their ship. No doubt they’d take a few moments of together time before grabbing the ammo and spinning up the jump, but Coombes wasn’t totally heartless. Urgent as things were, he’d let them have it.
He took a moment to look around and take stock. The natives sure as shit weren’t dumb, Allison had got that right. They got the meaning and decamped to the trees while Yan, Vemik, and Vemet got a crash course in radios, lines of fire, and how belt-fed, crew served weapons were used. He could hear shouts and whistled down in the valley as the news spread from encampment to encampment, and a few of the nearer ones even seemed to be packing up and bugging out.
Of course, they’d fled once before, hadn’t they? Hell, maybe spreading things out a bit more couldn’t hurt.
”Boss. You comin’?”
Daar was bringing the Drunk On Turkey online, and the kinetic thrusters were making that edge-of-hearing electric whine that sounded a heck of a lot like a compressor spinning up. The time had come to get aboard and get to shooting. With luck, they could end the threat quickly, and all of this was going to be unnecessary.
But Coombes really didn’t believe in luck any more.
Date Point: 14y AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Admiral Sir Patrick Knight
“So what you’re saying is that the Hierarchy have wormhole beacons all over the planet.”
The tablet pinged and the green tick appeared again, then qualified with an icon depicting a planet, another depicting stars, and the round purple-and-black swirly thing that Knight had deduced was the…Entity’s…choice for depicting a wormhole.
“On the ground and in orbit?”
“And these are…independent of the planetary communications network.”
“Is there any way to neutralize them?”
The Entity seemed to have a frustratingly disjointed approach to conversation. Wherever it could, it used an emoticon. Where it couldn’t, it used a kind of limping mish-mash of words in couplets. And every so often, when it got frustrated, suddenly it would write a perfectly coherent sentence with no clear rhyme or logic apparent as to why it didn’t just do that all the time.
A trio of icons—a planet, a radio mast and a wrench—popped onto the screen.
“…Modify the communications network?”
Knight gave up on that one. “…Any idea what that means?” he asked.
“It’s…suggesting that we could modify part of the communications network into a wormhole suppressor. I think.”
“Can we do that?”
“Not if we smash the whole thing.”
The tablet pinged again - an exclamation mark.
“We have to,” Knight told it.
“Our orbital assets need the ground defence stations offline.”
A word, now: <Lavmuy>.
A wormhole and a test tube.
A wormhole and bug spray.
An equation. A long, complicated and impenetrable one that Knight simply wasn’t equipped to understand.
The Longear took the tablet and his ears swivelled as he read, before slowly folding backward onto his scalp.
“A…Oh. Hm. Yes. …Shit.”
“Is there a problem?” Knight asked him.
“This is…It seems one of my Clan’s secrets isn’t so secret.” Meereo cleared his throat. “Ah…yes. We have an experimental wormhole facility at Lavmuy spaceport.”
Regaari duck-nodded. “Project Farthrow, yes? You’re experimenting with single-end wormholes.”
Meereo sagged. “Who—?”
“Gentlemen, might I suggest that the matter of Clan espionage is for another time?” Knight prompted, gently. Meereo duck-nodded and rallied.
“…Seven years ago, one of Clan Highmountain’s foremost mathematicians discovered an alternate solution to the wormhole tuning equation which…hm.” He paused, thought, and obviously decided that laying some groundwork was in order. “Ordinarily, when you attempt to open a wormhole, the far end will emerge at entirely random coordinates in spacetime unless you have a beacon. The larger the event horizon’s surface area, the greater the uncertainty. And, because we’re talking about all of spacetime here, the uncertainty scales at a simply incredible rate. A wormhole as big as a photon would most likely appear in intergalactic space. The receiving end can be anywhere in the universe, at any point in the past or future.”
“I’m familiar with the science,” Knight agreed. The need for a wormhole generator to be paired with a receiving beacon was absolutely at the core of interstellar logistics.
“Father Refyek proved that, mathematically at least, it is possible for a wormhole to have a surface area of exactly zero,” Meereo explained. “Meaning you could generate a single-ended wormhole on a precise target of your choosing. Project Farthrow is our attempt to generate such a wormhole. If we can actually do it, it would revolutionize interstellar communications. It might even enable intergalactic communication and travel!”
“Could it be adapted into our suppressor?” Knight asked, making a mental note to tell SCERF about that one.
“Easily. It would…ruin the experiment and set the research back almost to first principles…” Meereo hesitated, then hung his head. “But it’s better than extinction.”
The tablet pinged enthusiastically: it was full of green ticks.
Knight couldn’t resist a dry smile. “Well. Our Spiritus Ex Machina seems to approve,” he observed.
“Then we have our mission briefings,” Caruthers surmised. “Can communications be disrupted from the Farthrow facility?”
“No. The network is robust, we would need to seize…” Meereo counted on his paws quickly, then gave up. “…numerous key facilities all over the planet. All of them are NOCs and can quickly assume control of the local networks.”
“And they have to be seized? We couldn’t just obliterate them with RFG strikes?”
Meereo contained a sigh. “The network doesn’t die if you kill its management stations, you just lose control of it. No, we need to control those systems, and we deliberately designed it so it would be…difficult to do so remotely.”
“We need marines, then.”
“We need Stoneback, and all of their Fangs.”
“Insufficient,” Regaari jerked his head. “Stoneback has three Fangs at full strength, their Champion is absent, and our assessment of his second is…” He hesitated. “I…I would not presume to second-guess Daar’s business, but we do know that something transpired between him and Brother Tyal of the First Fang, and now Champion Daar’s efforts have focused strongly on Brother Fiin.”
“So the primary local asset is undermanned and in the grip of a leadership crisis,” Caruthers summarized.
“I think…confidence crisis would be best. Tyal is physically impressive and highly skilled, but he no longer has…boldness. You’ve met Fiin. He is resolute and aggressive like Daar, but he is still young and growing so his presence isn’t as…compelling.”
“How many stations could Stoneback realistically take by themselves?”
“Realistically they could take six, if we split their Fangs. But…we have another problem—they won’t be able to. They will be utterly focused on defending the Females, and it would take Daar to persuade them that this operation would achieve that end better.”
Knight nodded. “I’ve heard enough—this is a job for human paratroopers. HEAT will secure the Farthrow facility. Control over planet-wide wormhole suppression is vital to our line of supply. Once we’ve secured that facility, we can jump array over all the planes, helicopters, men and tanks we could ask for.”
Colonel Miller spoke up. As the liaison between the SOR and the USAF, he was generally content to remain silent and alert, which meant that his rare intervention in the conversation carried weight. “It’s a plan,” he agreed, “but authorizing it will have to go right to the top, Admiral—this is an Allied concern. The sooner the President is briefed, the sooner he can order a recall of The XVIII Airborne Corps. And…everything else.”
“Tremblay will already have called an emergency meeting with the heads of state,” Knight assured him. “So unless they’ve all taken leave of their senses in the last few hours…I’ve had the pleasure of many conversations with President Sartori, and with the PM. They’ll rise to the occasion. Meanwhile, we’re going to prepare as if their go-ahead is a given, not sit around and wait for it. Caruthers, the fleet is in your hands. Miller, if you’d be so kind as to relay our strategy to Tremblay and find out how the 946th are doing?”
Miller nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“Sergeant Regaari, you should return to your unit. Champion Meereo, I think you should go with him…” Knight looked down at the tablet in his hand. “And as for *you*…”
A bright red question mark filled the screen.
“…Thank you. I don’t know what more we can ask you to do. I suppose the only thing I can ask is that you help where you can.”
The Entity replied using a tick mark and, to Knight’s amusement, a shamrock.
“…Yes. Good luck to you, as well.”
The tablet’s screen blanked and returned to normal functions, and it was alarming how clearly Knight knew that he was holding a mere computer again, rather than…well, a person.
“Good luck to us all,” he added.
Date Point: 14y AV
Whitecrest Clan Enclave, Wi Kao City, planet Gao
Genshi’s communicator was a heavily customized piece of equipment bolstered by the absolute clawtip of Gaoian machine learning to prioritize and filter his messages and schedule. Usually, he let it do its job and relied upon it to pass through messages according to its own decision-making process.
There were only three classes of message that he had specifically configured an exemption for: All three could blitz through the filter unscrutinized, all three had a custom sound effect to let him know he had just received them, and all three were up there among the kind of messages he hoped never to receive.
Just hearing the distinctive sharp buzz was enough to raise his pulse and flatten his ears.
ZKZK VRTZZ00 DE ORQ31TV F 292527Z-GAO SEP FM STAINLESSemail@example.com// TO OFC THE CHAMPION WCfirstname.lastname@example.org/ BEEKEEPERemail@example.com/ RINGMASTERfirstname.lastname@example.org// INFO TEMPLARemail@example.com/ OFC THE PMfirstname.lastname@example.org/ POTUSemail@example.com// T O P S E C R E T SAR-DEEP-RELIC SI-GAMMA ORCON REL FVEY GAO-WC BT SUBJ/(U) GAMETIME-FOOTBALL-4 QUARTER//
(U) WARNING: This message contains GAMMA COMINT of an extremely sensitive nature.
(TS//SAR-DR/SI-G//OC) TEMPLAR reports GAMETIME is in the final quarter. SIGINT indicates imminent BIG HOTEL/RIDLEY attack on DISNEYLAND. GAMMA sources indicate massive fleet movements, estimate strike within a few days. Recommend immediate action.
(TS//SAR-DR//OC) TIGGER out of contact, will not be available for initial event. All effort will be made to ensure availability as soon as possible.
(TS//SAR-DR//OC) The full resources available to AEC are available and at your disposal. AEC appoints you the on-scene commander until TIGGER is available.
(TS//SAR-DR//OC) [attachment: briefing.pdf] CL BY: OCA-SCA-CONTROL; REASON: 1.4(a,d); DECL: 75X1
“Fyu’s fury…” It was exactly as bad as he’d feared. Worse, even. The attack was coming before Whitecrest was properly ready, and without Daar there to direct Stoneback’s Fangs things were shaved even closer to the skin.
“Is…something the matter, Champion?”
Genshi had been talking business with Father Eyun. One of Whitecrest’s unaugmented majority, but a skeptic of Regaari’s, Genshi had been soothing the younger male’s ruffled fur and reassuring him that a Champion’s loyalty was always to the Clan.
The fact that Eyun felt he needed to question that rather proved for Genshi why his advancement had halted where it was. Still, right now—especially now—he needed every ally he could muster, and even then…
“…Brother…” Genshi sprang to his feet. “I need you to deliver a message in person to Grandfather Kureya of Clan Highmountain. For his ears only.”
Eyun’s ears twitched into a bewildered posture for just a second, but he stood as well, listening intently. “Of course, Champion.”
Genshi’s pawprint unlocked the safe in the back wall of his office, and he handed Eyun a sealed box. “Hand him this, ask him about the skull that his predecessor Grandfather Talo showed me, and tell him that GAMETIME is in the final quarter. End of message.”
“Time is short, Brother.”
Eyun needed no further prompting. He duck-nodded, turned, and flowed out of the room with all the speedy grace that was becoming of a Whitecrest. Genshi gave a brief moment of thanks to the universe in general that he had people he could rely on right now, and then turned to retrieve the other item from the safe.
Whitecrest had a great many secrets, and none of them could be allowed to fall into enemy hands. It was time to purge the ranks.
Date Point: 14y AV
The White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth
President Arthur Sartori
Life as President demanded some calculated risks when it came to personal time. All work and no play made Jack not just a dull boy, but potentially a fatally over-stressed man. Sometimes, Sartori just had to stay up late to watch TV and gamble on nothing important coming up in the small hours of the morning.
So, he’d stayed up to watch HBO. That Show With Steven Lawrence and an episode of The Void before bed. A sensible balance between entertainment and responsibility, or so he’d thought before he’d been woken up at 2am and bustled underground to ‘the Tank.’ Not even a fresh-made Sunrise was going to touch that kind of sleep deprivation.
He hated the Tank. It was imposing, windowless, ultra-secure and easily his least favorite room in the whole world because sitting down in it almost invariably meant bad news and hard decisions.
More of the former than the latter, today—the news was bad, verging on being the worst, but the decisions were mostly straightforward. Terrible, but straightforward.
“Recommendations?” he asked, reviewing the assembled data in front of him. He’d committed a lot of it to memory before, but there were so many planned-for contingencies that one busy head couldn’t have prayed to retain all the details. Especially not after three hours of sleep.
Everybody in the room looked equally sleep-deprived. Stan McMurdoe, the Secretary of Defense; Homer Mayfair, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs; even his advisors Margaret White and Paul Nicholls, who both usually managed to look groomed and composed no matter the hour, were blinking and struggling not to yawn.
General Mayfair was handling it best. He was an essentially focused individual and probably more than used to moments like these at the wrong end of the night. “You need to recall the XVIII Airborne Corps now Mister President,” he advised.
Sartori nodded, and gave the order without needing any elaboration on the grounds that Mayfair wasn’t a man to stress his words like that unless he was absolutely certain.
“What’s your proposed objective?” he asked.
“Secure the Gao,” McMurdoe replied promptly. “Their homeworld at a minimum, and their other colony worlds if possible. My understanding is there is an on-the-ground agent who is helping.”
More than one, Sartori recalled. Some of which went far beyond weird. “I’m holding the details on that close to the chest for now, sorry. Strategy?”
“Obviously we need to deploy a system defence field. We have several, but they’ll be vulnerable to enemy action from the inside. To prevent their destruction and to keep the Hierarchy from moving and coordinating, we need to secure and disable the whole planet’s telecommunications network in coordination with Clan Longear and their operations staff. This was recommended by Champion Meereo under duress, and it means our secondary objective will be massive humanitarian relief.”
“It’ll be the biggest humanitarian operation in US history. If we shut down all global telecommunications here on Earth right now, people would start dying in…minutes. Hours at the most,” Mayfair informed him. “And it sounds like the Gaoians might be even more reliant on theirs than we are on ours.”
Sartori exhaled slowly under the weight of that revelation. “…Understood, make plans accordingly and assume this will be an Allied operation. What’s our exit strategy?”
“Once Gao is secured against incursion, we remain for a brief period to ensure some modicum of stability. Then we leave. Ideally, the internal affairs will be left to Champion Daar, from my understanding. I…confess I do not understand their internal politics, Mister President.”
“I don’t think they do half the time…” Sartori grumbled, prompting a collection of tired, stressed half-laughs.
“There are other concerns, Mister President.”
“Our combatant commanders will need nuclear weapons authority. I want permission to activate a football and send it along.”
“…Don’t we already have system shields with them?”
“…A nuclear football, Mister President.”
Of course, he was referring to the nuclear authorization briefcase. Sartori grunted softly to voice his frustration with not only his own tiredness but also the constant, overlapping acronyms, code names…just names in general. Why weren’t people more creative? And why was it always a sports analogy? He liked a good ball game as much as the next man, but…
He focused. “…Right. Who will be the senior American commander?”
“That would be Brigadier-General Stewart.”
“That’s an awfully low rank for nuclear release. Is there no one else?”
“The whole situation is too fluid. We need to keep command off the field.”
“Understood. Conrad, would you please?” Major Conrad was the assigned aide-de-camp who was tasked with the care of the Presidential Emergency Satchel, and who would be the one to activate Stewart’s unenviable new football. Conrad stepped forward and laid the device open for the President’s inspection.
“Weapons release is hereby delegated to Brigadier-General Stewart and to his designated Executive Officer.” The President reached into his pajama pocket, pulled out a plastic card, and snapped it open to reveal the appropriate code on a tough little slip inside. He’d entered an activation code only once before, during the scramble to the Guvnurag homeworld; Doing so a second time matched President Truman’s record, and somehow he just knew that there would be future activations.
“Confirmed, Mister President. I will see to it.”
“Good. How long is all this going to take?”
“We should be mobilized in thirty-six hours,” Mayfair assured him. “From there, if our friends in Gao come through with some beacons, we’ll be able to deploy instantly. If not…the record time from Cimbrean to Gao is four and a half days.”
“Fortunately, the intel that sparked all this suggests it’ll take the Hunters a week to fully mobilize,” McMurdoe added.
“I hear a ‘but’ hidden in there somewhere…” Sartori predicted.
“…But they don’t need to fully mobilize to still bring overwhelming mass to bear. Even a fraction of the Swarm-of-Swarms is more than we could handle. If they decide to send a vanguard…”
“How soon can we get anything on Gao?” Sartori asked. The question was answered with shaking heads.
“Thirty-six hours to start mobilizing any force of any significant mass,” Mayfair said. “The HEAT is our most rapid response, and even they won’t be able to get there instantly without a beacon. If we had one…four hours, give or take. But Mister President, the HEAT is not a sustaining force. They can get in, do one mission, and they’re done.”
“Do they already have a target?”
“Wormhole suppression. There’s an experimental Clan Longear facility. Unless we take and hold it and use it to suppress hostile wormholes inside the system defence field we put up, victory of any kind will be outright impossible.”
“…How long can they hold it?”
Mayfair straightened. The room’s overhead lighting made the lines in his forehead and around his eyes look even deeper than they already were. “Until the cavalry arrives, sir. They don’t have any choice in the matter.”
“And who will the cavalry be?” Sartori asked him.
“Us. Or if we’re lucky, friendly Gaoians. We’ll…know when we know.”
Sartori nodded grimly, and stood up. “…Everybody who can should get some rest,” he said. “Paul, Margaret, that includes you. You need to be fresh for the speech you’re going to help me write.”
“What’s going to be in it?” Margaret White asked, standing up herself.
Sartori sighed, knowing that any sleep he did snatch tonight was going to be restless and nightmare-fuelled. His next words were undoubtedly going to condemn an unthinkable number of sapient beings to death.
“I think it’s time for us stop hiding the existence of the Hierarchy,” he said.
Date Point: 14y AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Unclaimed Space, Near 3Kpc Arm
“These…guns. There are many kinds.”
Jooyun nodded gently. He was sitting with his back to the trunk and the w…–the rifle across his knees, looking relaxed and limber in a way that the People never quite managed. All long legs and easy grace. He was a good bit bigger than Vemet remembered, more People-like in the way he’d scaled the tree without Vemet’s help this time…
Vemet still found that most of the Sky-People were slender to look at, and that hadn’t changed about Jooyun. He was like…like a tall and stretched out young man who had grown strong from the hunt. He was bigger than Coombes and a lot bigger than Daniel or Hoeff, but…
They probably had exactly the right word for it. Something to ask about later.
He had said something about the ‘exercises’ he did with Walsh and Daar every day in the morning and at sunset, too. That seemed very strange to Vemet, and Vemik was no doubt pestering Jooyun with all sorts of questions. It was like…doing work without actually doing any work, and he’d done a lot of that just to get stronger for his ‘mission’ with the People.
It was strange that he was willing to sweat and ache that much for them. And humbling.
Jooyun looked back over his shoulder at the other two guns. “Ayup. Those two fellas have ‘machine’ guns. They can fire—”
“Net, Tiny. Gonna fire a test burst and clear my weapon.”
That was a strange radio-name, the one thing Walsh was completely not. He was very tall, thickly built and strong like Yan, and had none of Jooyun’s…stretched-out feeling, or whatever it was. He was a bit of a Sky-Thinker, too. Sky-People were strange.
But friendly. Jooyun chuckled at the radio, “Well, you’ll see pretty—”
Vemet flinched and gripped the branch with his tail and both feet at the sound that snapped across the clearing. It sounded like a strong branch breaking, as quick and as regular as a tree-striker bird knocking, as loud as a hammer on steel. Just a hand’s-number of sharp *crack*s, then again, and a third time.
A child began wailing in the village.
“…That. They can fire like that.” Jooyun looked amused.
“This? Nah. This is a hunting rifle. Those are for when Sky-Tribes go to war.”
“…A Sky-People war.” Vemet sighed at the thought. “My son had silly ideas like maybe you would have made peace forever between yourselves.”
Jooyun chuckled in the back of his throat. “We’re workin’ on it,” he said. “Daniel thinks it won’t ever happen…He’s probably right, too.”
“Vemet my friend, if we could answer that question, we wouldn’t need to have asked it in the first place.”
“And…Awisun’s gun? The one that earned her the name Sky-Storm?”
“Hers is good for both.”
Vemet nodded, thoughtfully.
“I never got to ask, before,” he said. “But…she protects you?”
“We protect each other. I know it must seem strange to you, a woman who’s so good at taking-magic.”
“The Singer is a good hunter,” Vemet reminded him, then trilled at a happy memory. “I remember her rite of manhood. She brought back a bigger trophy than I did when I came of age…maybe we made it so a good trophy would find her, but…”
“She still Took it,” Jooyun finished for him.
“Yes. The gap isn’t so wide as some women want to believe. Men want to Give to their children too.”
Jooyun squirmed uncomfortably on his branch, stretched out his legs, re-settled himself and said nothing. It was a talkative silence that said much to Vemet’s ears.
The silence lasted a hand of hands of heartbeats before being broken by the wa—the radio again. And as Sky-Magic went, hearing a man’s voice come out of a tiny black stone was almost as hard to grasp as the thinking-stones.
“Tiny, Chimp. Good effect. Our turn.”
This time, Vemet gripped the branch and was ready for the rapid heavy crack of the ‘machine gun’ being fired. He didn’t flinch, but the baby in the village, whose long-suffering mother had only just quieted it, shrieked back into full voice again.
Jooyun snorted as the echoes died away.
“I bet Vemik is asking him questions. Actually…” he picked up his ‘radio.’ “Chimp…” he paused and sighed. From what Vemet could gather, he really didn’t like the radio-name he had been given. “…Playboy, I guess. Good effect. Don’t be spinnin’ tall tales to my favorite [cavemonkey] now.”
‘Cavemonkey’ seemed to be an affectionate tease he used for all the People. That seemed good to Vemet; gods wouldn’t tease people, and they wouldn’t grin while doing so.
“Playboy, Chimp. Copy that. Aww, can’t I have a little fun?”
“No, man. He’ll take anything you say as [Gospel].”
Vemet trilled at the sound of his own indignant son’s voice over the radio. “Will not!”
“Net, Boss. A little more radio discipline please.”
A series of clicks, which Jooyun said meant everyone was saying ‘yes.’
Jooyun scratched the back of his neck and chuckled. “Spoilsport,” he commented, for Vemet only to hear. “Too bad we don’t have noise-[cancelling headsets], that’d make this easier.”
“…Never mind. Anyway. I guess now, we settle in and wait for Daar to do his thing.”
“Well, then…I have questions,” Vemet said.
“I’ll answer what I can, you know that.”
“These are about you, and about Shyow and Awisun…Do you have children with them?”
Vemet’s guess had been right—Jooyun shifted uncomfortably again. “No…not yet. Some day though…”
“Do all Sky-People wait so long to have children? You aren’t a young man, Jooyun.”
“Nah, some start pretty young. That…I’ll tell you the story of how we all met, later. But I’m not old. We can have children for many years. Our…Giving-magic is very strong.”
“I could be as old as Yan and still father children, and raise them to adults before I die.”
Jooyun smiled fondly. “My grandfather was…” He frowned up at the sky. “Uh, lessee, [ninety-two…nine point two times six]…uh…nearly [sixty] years old when he died. That’s this many.” He set the rifle down for a moment, then opened and closed both his hands six times to show. “But…I’m very healthy, and the, uh, the Sky-Thinkers who do a kind of giving-magic called ‘Medicine’ say I could live to be even older, as long as I don’t fall into bad habits. And the girls should live even longer.”
Vemet’s head reeled. Yan was already old by the People’s reckoning. Fit, strong and seemingly unstoppable, but nobody had ever heard of a Given-Man who had lived much past two hands of hands of winters. The thought of living nearly twice that long—!
“You didn’t answer my question,” he said, rather than speak his astonishment. “What about them? Do they want children?” He couldn’t imagine a woman who didn’t, but he knew better than to assume anything about Sky-People.
“Yes. Soon, I think. Or in a few years…We all do. Just…we have this right now. If we were gonna have kids, we couldn’t be here, and I don’t think leaving you to die from this would make us very happy. But then there’s…”
“Net, Tigger. Splash one [Abrogator]!”
“Tigger, Tiny. Keep the [HUD footage], we can get you some nose art when we get back.”
The ‘radio’ went quiet again.
“That’s Daar. Big fella’s havin’ fun by the sound of it.”
Vemet nodded, and peeled over a couple of branches to form a sitting-nest for himself.
“I wish I was,” he said.
Date Point: 14y AV
BGEV-11 Misfit, Akyawentuo moon 1, Unclaimed Space, Near 3Kpc Arm
Allison was going a little stir-crazy back in engineering, and Xiù really couldn’t blame her. There was nothing to do except wait, listen to the men bantering on the radio far below and a light-second delayed, and try not to worry.
Allison was filling it by going through as much of her full weekly maintenance checklist as didn’t involve actually turning anything off or unplugging it. Xiù was filling it by watching her work over the internal camera feed. The spectacular view of planet-rise over dark gray mountains of lunar regolith hadn’t paled, but there wasn’t much more to see of it now, and she really wasn’t in much of a mood for it anyway.
Eventually, Allison flopped down in her workstation chair and sighed, before getting on the internal line. She looked up into the camera as she pushed the talk button. “You bored, babe?”
“I feel bored, stressed, worried…” Xiù confessed. “…Sidelined…”
”That’s about right, yeah, Allison agreed. “Ship just feels…I dunno.”
“Empty,” Xiù agreed.
Allison didn’t reply at first. Instead she sat back in her chair and laughed softly. “Ugh, this is pathetic. He’s fine, they’re fine…I just wish I was down there too. I’d feel more useful.”
“We’re fine,” Xiù reassured her. “Come on, it isn’t pathetic to worry.”
Allison just sighed over the line, but nodded. Xiù smiled to herself, then hit her other talk button. She’d been watching the clouds down below anyway, getting the lay of the continents and weather. It was nice to have an excuse to say something.
“Net, Sister. I can see a nasty weather front headed your way from up here.”
She counted off the light-lag in her head, one mississippi, two mississippi, three…
“Sister, Tiny. Yan wants you to know he hates the rain.”
“He’d better get his cloak then, because you’re in for a soaking…” Now that she turned the ship’s sensors on it, that front was looking meaner by the second. The Doppler radar was showing an evil pink and purple scrawl across half the land.
“Sister, Boss. Anything we need to worry about?”
“I don’t think so, Boss. You’re on the other side of a mountain range.”
“Copy. Keep us posted if that changes.”
“Will do. Utah and I will keep an eye on it.”
Allison nodded, and Xiù saw her grab one of her monitors and switch it over the meteorological sensor feed. “Somethin’ to do, I guess…” she commented. “Thanks, babe.”
“Net, Tigger. Splash a second Abrogator.”
Xiù sighed, and keyed the internal line again. “Take one down, pass it around…”
“Twenty-four alien death ‘bots on the wall…”
Date Point: 14y AV
Hierarchy Dataspace, deployment buffer
In retrospect, the fact that more immediate access to the Cull wasn’t available should have aroused 0722’s suspicions from the off. 0665 had followed none of the handoff protocols, and 0722 had already been complaining about the senior agent’s apparent dereliction of his duties even before the first Abrogator’s standby signal went dark.
That alone was suspicious. When a second Abrogator went offline minutes later…
Direct intervention was impossible. No local host meant no direct control. But the Abrogators could still be activated and set to autonomous assess-protect-retaliate.
All of the surviving units immediately fired their drone fleets from the launch canisters on their backs, flinging them high and wide in seconds before their wings snapped out, their flight fields came online and a detailed sensor network began to grow around the Abrogator line.
Not a one of them had moved from their last recorded position.
Frustration and mounting suspicion promptly crystallized into outright certainty. A negligent handoff was one thing, but this? Zero progress made in pursuit of a routine neolithic cull? Over such a time interval?
That went beyond negligence. That was clear dereliction, and it would have been fatal to 0665’s career all by itself.
The most damning factor, however, was the alien strike ship doing mach five on a planet supposedly inhabited only by stone-age primitives.
Its coilguns spat, and a third Abrogator went dark.
0722 did not have much in the way of options. Drones would be ineffective and the Abrogators themselves were too slow and ground-oriented to defend themselves.
But the command post had a single battery of long-range multi-role missiles. 0722 targeted the ship, and fired.
Date Point: 14y AV
High Mountain Fortress, Planet Gao
“Why are we doing this?”
Kureya gave an apologetic duck-nod. He rather liked the earnest Whitecrest father who had delivered Genshi’s message so dutifully, but if Kureya had learned anything about himself over the years, it was that he was prone to liking people a little too easily. The late Grandfather Talo had warned him away from unfounded trust in his final days.
“My friend,” he said, “I think you’re more than smart enough to figure it out for yourself.”
Father Eyun duck-nodded. His ears were set at an anxious angle, backwards along his head. It was a rare show of emotion from a Father of the usually composed and inscrutable Clan Whitecrest.
He had all the details he needed, Kureya knew. Quite aside from the urgent tone of the message he’d delivered, he was standing in the deepest underbelly of High Mountain Fortress and watching with interest as Clan Highmountain’s technicians prepared a contingency that had existed in some form or another for four hundred years.
The archives—or at least, as much of them as could be copied or which were utterly irreplaceable—had been sealed in stasis containers and sunk to the bottom of a sixteen-kilometer shaft in the thickest, most stable part of Gao’s tectonic crust, right under the Yamyu-An mountain range. Now, a descendant of the robot that had first bored that hole centuries ago was heaving itself back up out of it as uncountable tonnes of rubble were fed into its intake, to be melted and layered back onto the shaft’s walls.
The seam would be visible on close inspection, but by the time the Clan’s engineers were done the shaft would be buried under mud, gravel and reinforced concrete. The fortress’ lowest basement would look, to all but the most paranoid eye, like a mere sturdy foundation rather than the plug on the toughest bunker ever built.
Thus would the accumulated records of Gao, its people and its civilization endure practically anything. Only deep time, grinding geology or the eventual expansion of Gao’s sun would harm them unless they were deliberately excavated.
Retrieving them, of course, would be a matter for the future, but so long as the archives survived and there were Gaoians survived to retrieve them…it was a gesture of hope for the future.
“…I think the Swarm-of-Swarms is coming,” Eyun predicted, gloomily. “It’s the only thing I can think of that would warrant…this.”
Kureya didn’t answer. The heat rising out of the hole as the shaft-sealing robot did its work was creating a strong thermal now that ruffled his fur, tickled his ears with a distant igneous rumbling and filled his nose with the scent of toasting metal, rock and oil.
“…Aren’t we going to do anything?” Eyun asked, after a solemn moment. “Evacuate the females and cubs? Form a militia? Prepare our defences? Anything?“
“Why do you think your Champion sent you here?” Kureya asked him. “This is preparation, young Father. One preparation among many. But use your thinker for a minute and examine the consequences. What intelligence would we grant the enemy if we evacuated the Clan of Females?”
Eyun growled the growl of a man who was disappointed in himself and hung his head. “They would know we know they’re coming, and send assets as they were ready rather than waiting for the whole of their invasion force to be prepared. And…if we have a plan…?”
“If your Champion didn’t see fit to involve you in the details, I would not overrule him,” Kureya told him. “Even if I knew the details myself. All we can do, young Father, is follow some deathworld advice.”
Kureya looked down into the hole again, and found himself fervently wishing there were any Starminds on Gao.
“Plan for the worst,” he said, “and hope for the best.”
Date Point: 14y AV
HMS Caledonia, Cimbrean System, The Far Reaches
Technical Sergeant Martina Kovač
HEAT mission prep was a ballet of sorts. The Operators themselves had one job—limber up and absorb whatever knowledge they needed while the techs got on with making them mission-ready. Last-minute suit adjustments, pre-mission bloodworks, systems configuration, field calibration…
It was a long list, broken down into a hundred short lists and spread across a platoon of technicians who all reported to Kovač…who had to sign off on every last item. Human or Gaoian, it didn’t matter—she was responsible for ensuring that the checklists had been completed down to the last minutia.
Fortunately, she was good at multitasking.
Right now, things weren’t helped by the fact that the mission details were still being finalized and that only the most basic basics had filtered down to the Operators.
Or as Master Sergeant Vandenberg summarized it, “We don’t know exactly what we’re hittin’ on Gao or why. We’re just gonna smash whatever we’re told to smash. Got it?”
Firth snorted. “Real inspirin’ there, Rebar. I’m feelin’ all kindsa informed and motivated.”
Baseball chuckled darkly. “What, you want an actual proper briefing full’a all the shit we need to know? When’d you acquire a taste for luxuries?”
“This outfit musta spoiled me,” Firth grumbled, raising his arm so Specialist Deacon could take a blood sample. He couldn’t resist being his usual caveman-jocular self, though. He flexed his arm hugely and smirked, “Like it, lil’ lady? It’s bigger.”
Deacon had been Firth’s tech from the start, and she was entirely used to his ways. Anybody who understood how Firth’s mind worked could see the enormous—and totally platonic—respect he had for her. “Somehow I doubt Freya would approve,” she commented, wiping his arm with antiseptic. He twisted his wrist with a quiet grunt and flexed harder.
“Says who? Just ‘cuz we’re steady don’t mean nothin’ these days.”
“Please, you’re a secret gentleman and we all know it. Also, I don’t fuck the meat I work on every day. Bad for hygiene, y’know. Now don’t cry at the big scary needle…”
She got a rumbling chuckle for that, and the blood sample, too. The Lads may have been incorrigibly flirtatious but they never let it get in the way of business.
“Anything I should know about before we run your bloodworks, Righteous?”
“Uh…nothin’ much different. I’ve been hittin’ it a lot harder lately, though, now that ‘Horse has some extra free time and can work out with me longer. Seeing some crazy results, too!”
“Mhmm.” Adam, of course, couldn’t countenance the idea of any actual free time, so once he’d poured as much of it as she could stand into *Marty*’s life, he’s naturally focused his laser-like attention on his “most biggest” friends. Daar was definitely rubbing off on him.
It seemed to be paying off for them, too…which was honestly about the scariest thing about the whole affair. Good thing she adored them all.
Deacon was an old hand at taking bloods. She slapped a minimum-dose Crude patch over the needle site—a necessity, or else every one of the Operators would be tracked up and down like a terminal junky—and handed the vial to Kovač. The Operators excused themselves and, now with Crude in their systems, attended to their “warmups.”
That made a complete set. The “lab” was little more than a horseshoe of desks in the aft corner of the flight bay, tucked inside some plastic sheeting and a low-power force field that filtered the air and kept the environment tolerably clean. Running the bloods was as simple as slotting each vial into the analyzer. The results were logged and any anomalies flagged automatically, and as always Marty had to override the system’s alert message. Despite her repeated requests, the software had never been updated to tolerate the massively raised baselines of a HEAT operator.
She really did need to get that scientific paper published one day.
Nothing stood out as unusual by the Lads’ standards, which was welcome. The last thing they needed right now was to juggle with anomalous blood chemistry just before an op. Some days, depending on how aggressively someone might have been training, or…anything, really, it became a genuine risk to permit a suit-up and attachment to the built-in regulation system. Murray had once suffered an alarming spike in his serum creatinine levels after eating a burger with extra pickles, they’d never got to the bottom of that one.
And the less said about the Trio, the better.
Lieutenant Costello was waiting outside the lab tent, already dressed in his EV-MASS undersuit which meant that he was the next best thing to naked. The plumbing to handle fluid recycling in particular was both intimate and weirdly intestinal in its design, and because the undersuit was better than skin-tight the effect was honestly quite grotesque. H.R. Geiger met Plastination.
“Good timing, sir. I need your blood.”
Costello chuckled, and presented his arm. “You should say that more like a mad scientist,” he suggested.
“Let me know if we ever hire a guy called Igor…”
Humor made the blood sample go quickly and easily. Costello handed over his Operator’s Preflight Checklist and lowered his voice. “You maybe want to give my Protectors some extra attention? I’m pretty sure this mission is going to kick their ass hard. Especially Irish.”
“…What do you know, sir? If you don’t mind me asking?”
“Nothing concrete. It’s just an itch in my head.”
“…Will do, then.”
“Much appreciated. The old man should be down in about twenty minutes.”
Marty ran the Lieutenant’s bloods, which were easily the closest to baseline of any man who was EV-MASS certified, and ticked that item off her list before stepping back out of the lab and into the thick of the flight deck’s bustle.
The Protectors were just getting sewn into their undersuits, having taken care of their “sustainment” plumbing the moment before to the usual bathroom humor such a sans-dignity activity required. She took a moment for herself and watched. Maybe she was biased, but in her opinion, Adam was the only human being that made the undersuit look good.
Costello was right now that she looked—while Adam was, as always, a bouncing, smiling force of relentless optimism, there was an edge there this time, and on closer inspection she saw the same edge on ‘Base and Irish. ‘Base was being even more grunt-manly than usual rather than letting his intellectual side show, and Butler had that ‘fightin’ Irish’ look on.
They were being brave for her, she realized. Fuck.
Maybe some levity would help. “Got your bloodwork in, Ponyslab. I’m pretty sure we had a quiet evening, right?”
“…yeah?” His big ‘ol bushy eyebrows furrowed in the most adorably handsome way. They had had a quiet evening, too—just cuddles and a movie.
“Then why did your test count come in like a bull on hormone therapy?”
He let out a big, surprised laugh, and just like that the tension seemed to drain from all three.
“I dunno. Maybe it’s the Cimbrean turkey I ate last night!”
“Mhmm. Try not to spray your musk everywhere, Chunk. These suits are expensive to clean.”
Butler snorted and gave Adam a huge friendly blow on the back that barely rocked him but might have hospitalized a normal man. “Yeah yeah…I bet I won, though.”
“Y’know. Who had the best bloodwork.”
“…Christ. Everything with you motherfuckers is like this!”
“Gotta beat your man on somethin’!” Butler declared, cheerily.
“Yeah, well…you didn’t. Not even close.” In fairness, Butler’s had been the closest among the Protectors to human normalcy, but he didn’t need to know that. “But don’t worry, you’ll grow up all big and strong one day.”
She was of course talking to a man who would have breezed to the top of the podium at any weightlifting competition, but really…everything was relative. In any case, Adam pounced on Butler, ‘Base pounced on Adam, and her distraction became a success as a two-on-one struggle got underway that Adam was in little danger of losing. They seemed genuinely relaxed now rather than deliberately nonchalant, which made all the difference in the world.
What they really needed, though, was something to look forward to after this. Marty knew her boys well, and when they were about to jump into the fire, the fire was all they saw. Giving them something to focus on past it was…
It wouldn’t be useful in the moment. In the moment, they’d give themselves to the fire completely and think of nothing else. But here and now, before that threshold, they needed something to keep them grounded and human until it was time.
“Y’know, I’m gonna let you three in on a little secret,” she said. The three paused mid-dogpile and gave her their undivided attention.
“I have, like…two girl friends on Cimbrean, so my hen party was always gonna be kind of a non-starter. So I thought…fuck it. Why not just throw a huge party for everyone?”
Adam stopped breathing for a moment. It was always easy to tell when he did because it was about the only time he wasn’t moving in some way.
“I’m still working out a few details,” Marty admitted, which was a white lie. She hadn’t actually worked out any of it, it had just been an idle idea…but idle ideas always worked best when under pressure. “So if there’re any requests…”
“Strippers?” Butler suggested cheekily. He was immediately crushed by Adam while Marty laughed and shrugged.
“Are there any strippers in Folctha?” she asked.
“There’re, uh…escorts.” ‘Base revealed. “Three girls.”
“How d’you know that?” Adam asked him, while Butler writhed in a futile effort to escape the steel trap of his armpit. “Ain’t like you’d ever need to pay…”
“Ain’t a big town, brother.”
Marty laughed again and shook her head. “No strippers,” she said. “To save Pony’s blushes.“
Her grin got wider at Butler’s muffled “aww” and the way Adam rolled his eyes and bore down even harder. ‘Base came back with a serious suggestion.
“Make it all comers? Throw a street party?” he suggested. “Maybe out on the lake.”
“I’d like that,” Adam agreed. Butler’s head was going an alarming shade of purple and he was flailing at Adam’s body without much success.
“Done and done…Better let him go, Chunk.”
Adam looked down at Butler for a second, shrugged, and released him. The (relatively) smaller man staggered away coughing, heaving air and uttering assorted vigorously Irish curses.
“Okay!” Marty smiled at them, then made a show of checking her tablet. “Just one last thing to take care of. ‘Horse, I’m gonna need you for this.”
Grinning knowingly, Baseball ushered Butler away, and Marty led her fiancé to a corner of the deck that was as secluded as they were ever gonna get. There was no such thing as privacy aboard Caledonia, but there was just enough for his arms to go round her waist and for them to kiss. Not strictly an authorized use of their time, but damn good for morale.
Adam always knew how to end a kiss. Forehead-to-forehead, nose-to-nose, smile, scratch her back in exactly the right place…“You made that up about the party,” he accused fondly.
He really wasn’t as dumb as he acted, sometimes. “…Maybe some of it,” Marty admitted. “But there’ll be one, baby. I promise. You’ll be there?”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“Good enough…” Too many things to say, not enough time to say them, and so many little rituals and tokens of good luck. No matter what, she wouldn’t voice her real fears or risk cursing him, so she made do with a simple “…I love you.”
He understood. “I love you too.”
Marty nodded, swallowed, and steeled herself with a breath. “…We’d better get back to work.”
He nodded, and let her go. She ducked back into the lab tent to grab her pH balance probe for the environmental suit system, and restored her working mindset.
Thirty-two hours. That was the minimum deployment time before their backup would arrive.
They were going to be a long thirty-two hours.
Date Point: 14y AV
Clan Straightshield Grand Precinct, Lavmuy City, Gao
Justice and the rule of law on Gao were a subject of fascinated study for Cytosis. The Clans were practically a law unto themselves, and there was no higher court in Gaoian culture than the esteem and opinion of Females. Even the Clanless—who in many ways would have been the largest Clan if only they had ever bothered to organize themselves as such—had considerable latitude in regards to some behaviours that other species would have considered gravely criminal.
A fight to the death between males, for instance, could be perfectly legal in the right circumstances. And Gaoians had such a strong cultural drive to share their possessions with their Clan or Workhouse that theft was a rare and treacherous subject. More often than not, the only things a Gaoian had which they viewed as being theirs were keepsakes, mementoes, souvenirs, trophies and other items of little conventional value but great personal importance. When those were stolen, usually it turned out that the thief felt an equally great sense of personal attachment to the object in question.
What mattered were the details. When a male killed a male, whether they were punished or not depended on many factors. Was it a fair duel, or an ambush in the alleyways? Did the killer have an overwhelming physical advantage? Had the victim yielded?
There were neither hard-and-fast absolutes nor black-and-white statements of objective truth in the Gaoian conception of criminal justice, and so the existence of a Clan devoted to law, order and a system of justice took some understanding.
But somebody had to be the fair mediator and moderator, the rock in the ever-shifting sea. A Judge-Father of Clan Straightshield didn’t so much interpret the law as decide what the law was in that particular moment. An arrangement that should have been anarchy and probably only worked thanks to the species’ unique social psychology.
Gaoians were, as a rule, intensely loyal people and no other Clan could be trusted with such a burden.
Straightshield fulfilled their mission by isolation—the only friends they had were among their own. In public, a Judge-Father never went by name. They wore their fur uniformly clipped and intentionally bred in a highly regular size, build, and coat coloring, to the point where it was a challenge to tell one apart from another even by scent. The Clan had legions of Brothers and Associates who deviated from the physical pattern of a Judge-Father, but they were advisors, enforcers, riot police and investigators. Even among the ones who met the physical requirements, very precious few could withstand the blisteringly difficult educational standards. They too were among the rest of the Clan. Big, strong, flawless specimens…but they weren’t the Law.
And nobody looked more like a Straightshield Judge-Father than Champion Reeko. Even those who knew him well often needed a moment to recognize him.
Cytosis hadn’t seen the Champion for too long, so his return to the Grand Precinct warranted immediate attention. With the whole planet rushing headlong toward imminent invasion, he absolutely could not afford unknown variables, especially when the variable in question was a Champion.
Fortunately, Reeko picked up Judge-Fathers, Brothers and advisors like a car plowing through a leaf pile—he picked them up and swept them in his wake. He acknowledged Cytosis with a sharp duck-nod and continued to converse politely into his communicator.
“Yes, I understand that Sister. And I apologize. Under normal circumstances the Mother-Supreme would have my full—yes. …As you say, Sister. No…forgive me, but no. I have nothing more than rumor and speculation and I wouldn’t want to waste the Mother-Supreme’s time with hearsay…” Reeko trailed off and listened intently for a minute. He came to a halt in the middle of the Precinct concourse and the blizzard of attention-seekers swirled around him before settling. “…Yes, Sister. As soon as I can speak with more confidence, I will contact you. No, thank you. I hope to be in touch soon. You as well.”
He raised his claws to ward off an inundation of queries, requests and pleas as the call ended.
“Brothers!” If there was one thing any experienced Judge-Father knew, it was how to loft their voice powerfully above a hubbub. “I know you all need me but for now I have business only with the Judge-Fathers. I trust everybody else to be able to handle their cases without me a little longer.”
Cytosis admired charisma. He stepped aside and let the disappointed Brothers disperse, glad that he wouldn’t have to wade through and overrule them to gently probe the Champion for information.
Reeko tucked his claws into the belt-loops of his working harness and watched them go with an impenetrable expression. He was hardly an open book at the best of times, but here and now his expression was completely locked down.
Cytosis had been harboring suspicions about the Champions and what they knew for some time. Now, he was all but convinced.
“…Champion, where—?” He began.
Reeko looked in his direction. Not at him, but past him, at somebody standing behind Cytosis’ shoulder.
“Now,” he said.
Numbness descended. The clothy, head-in-a-bag feeling of being suddenly and unpleasantly disconnected from the point wormhole field and its connection to the Dataspace. It was far worse than the mere physical pain of being thrown bodily to the ground by three of the Judge-Fathers and having his his paws wrenched awkwardly behind his back.
He was swiftly and efficiently stripped of his pulse pistol, his suppression prod and all the other tools of a Judge-Father. His paws were bound together so that no matter how he squirmed or pulled his claws would be useless, and he was unceremoniously heaved back onto his feet.
Reeko’s expression was no longer locked down. Now it was showing undisguised, disgusted contempt. He shoved his muzzle to within an inch of Cytosis’ borrowed throat and growled through bared fangs.
“I know what you are, Igraen. Speak.”
Cytosis calculated fruitlessly for a moment, but frankly he was too impressed to maneuver, here. Being so completely exposed actually gave him some paradoxical hope.
“…Then there is a chance for your people to survive,” he said.
Reeko paused and pulled back for a moment, tilting his head slightly. Then his paw gripped Cytosis’ neck and he dug his claws in through the fur. “What is your code name, Ghost? Who are you aligned with?”
“You are… familiar with the Cabal?”
Reeko’s claws tightened. “I ask the questions.”
Having his throat torn out was not on Cytosis’ list of desired outcomes today. And the pulse pistol pressed to the side of his head was hardly encouraging, either. “…My Cabal name is Cytosis,” he revealed. “To the Hierarchy, I am Thirteen. Do you need to know more?”
“Is Judge-Father Taarken still alive in there?”
“…It has been too long. His personality has…if I restored him, he would be insane. He is too badly degraded, now.”
“Hm.” The claws relaxed, microscopically. “An honest answer?”
“There’s no point in deception, now…”
“No. And if you had lied, I would have gutted you,” Reeko snarled. He yanked on Cytosis’ throat to make his point. “But you killed a Brother of mine, creature. How long have you insulted him by walking around in his corpse?”
“Seven years.” Cytosis debated inwardly for a second whether to reveal more information than that. Not yet, he decided. If the Straightshields knew interrogation as well as Six had reported that the Humans did, then it would all come out sooner or later anyway. Better to just answer the questions as they came, for now. Additional information was barter, and if Reeko didn’t think that he, Cytosis, was worth more alive than dead then presumably he wouldn’t have survived even this far.
“…That long, huh? Well. In that case—” the Straightshield Champion tore a terrible slash across Cytosis chest.
Cytosis locked the pain receptors down. The wound wasn’t fatal, and even if it was…well, discontinuity wouldn’t be much fun but his restored backup persona would only suffer the equivalent of a few hours of amnesia.
Of course, he as he was now would be dead, but rationalizing that particular problem was old hat to a digital sapient.
There was no sense in antagonizing Reeko, however. If cheated of his vengeance, the Champion might do worse, so Cytosis instructed the body to scream and struggle and watched the Gaoian’s satisfied snarl.
Reeko stepped back and licked the blood off his claws. “Lock this…thing away ready for interrogation,” he ordered. “And confine all Brothers with neural implants to their precincts until I say otherwise.”
Cytosis elected not to protest or whine for medical treatment as he was heaved firmly away. Now was a moment for delicacy.
He only hoped the moment for forthrightness wouldn’t be too long in coming. Gao didn’t have much time.
Date Point: 14y AV
Mother-Supreme’s personal aircraft, en route to Lavmuy, Planet Gao
“You’re telling me that Champion Reeko brushed you off?”
“Yes, Mother.” Sister Yeyla duck-nodded nervously. “He was polite enough but…”
“Tiritya’s Sisters, what in Keeda’s name is happening today?”
Myun stepped aside as Yulna threw herself down at her desk. The Mother-Supreme’s personal aircraft had everything she needed to perform her duties, and that included handsome Takwood furniture and a state-of-the-art communications system dutifully installed for her by Clan Longear.
The flying office was full of mementoes to past Mothers-Supreme. Pride of place went to one of Giymuy’s walking sticks, resting in a display stand at the front of the desk.
Myun sometimes wondered what item of Yulna’s would stay behind to remember her. She’d been something of an ascetic for as long as Myun could remember. Her journal, probably—Yulna had a handsome Naxas-leather journal with a biometric lock on it, and she jotted a few sentences at the end of the day, every day.
Right now it was sitting alone and ignored on a side table.
“So Reeko wouldn’t talk. What about Father Shaal? He always fancied himself the Clan’s second stud, can’t you soften him up?”
Yeyla’s ears flicked nervously and she duck-nodded. “I’ll…try, Mother.”
“Good. …What about the Stonebacks?”
Normally, the Stonebacks would have been first on Yulna’s list. Whatever had happened with Daar on Cimbrean had badly hurt Yulna, though. She was treating them carefully nowadays.
Which was silly, in Myun’s estimation—Daar just wasn’t that complicated. Not that she could tell the Mother-Supreme she was being silly, but she’d got to know the Stoneback Champion quite well during their brief stay on Cimbrean. Even flirted a bit, until the mating app had confirmed what their noses picked up a bit too late to spare their blushes but early enough to spare them from worse.
She remembered being smugly proud for days of having a Champion for her sire, though the reaction amongst the Females had been…split. When she’d reported that revelation to Mother Ayma in their regular correspondence, Ayma had expressed delight. Yulna meanwhile had quietly muttered something about how it “explained everything,” though she had said it with her ears up. She had a talent for perfectly balancing compliments and insults in a single sentence, and she used it as a litmus test for junior Sisters: She would put them on the spot with a statement that could be taken either way, and wait to see what they did.
Ayma had also noted in her reply that Yulna had taken Daar as a mate some years ago. Yulna claimed not to know what Myun was talking about…but the nose never lied. Myun was pretty sure she knew exactly who her True Mother was, now.
“Daar is still off doing…whatever he does with the Humans,” Yeyla reported, checking her tablet. “Grandfather Garl is at Highmountain Fortress for some reason. Brother Tyal is doing…something with First Fang.”
“Whatever he does? For some reason? Doing something?” Yulna asked. “Yeyla, your information is usually a little more precise than that.”
“I know. I’m sorry, Mother, really. Things have been…rapid, recently.”
“Ever since the Conclave,” Yulna mused.
“We…don’t actually know that it was a Conclave, Mother…” Yeyla ventured.
“No, but I’d bet my other eye that it was,” Yulna made a frustrated growling noise, and thought for a moment “…What about the Openpaws? Tense times mean more fights, more wounds, more for the medics to do…”
The communicator clipped to Myun’s ear vibrated, and played a distinctive ringtone for her alone to hear. She stepped aside and took the call.
“Sister Myun here.”
Champion Genshi didn’t bother to introduce himself, but she recognized his voice anyway. “GAMETIME is in the fourth quarter, sister.”
“Our friends say that BIG HOTEL and RIDLEY are coming. Soon. The threats we discussed are now very real. Cubs play Sly Liar, behind Mother’s back.”
Myun made absolutely sure that her ears didn’t betray so much as a twitch. She knew Whitecrest’s covert phrases perfectly, Genshi had made sure of that, but all the secret words in the world wouldn’t be much use if she started to look panicky and fearful, even if there was a yawning hole under her stomach now that her courage was threatening to fall into and vanish.
“Thank you,” she said aloud.
“Good luck, Sister.”
“And you too.”
Yeyla was letting herself out as the call ended. Yulna gave Myun a curious look. “Anything important?”
“I’ll tell you later,” Myun replied, truthfully. Yulna didn’t argue. Instead, she yawned and combed her fur with her claws for a moment.
“…Any news from Wi Kao? Sister Teelyin’s cub is due today, isn’t it?” she asked.
Myun duck-nodded. “I think so.”
“I need to clear my head. I think I’ll call Ayma. Some news from home would be very welcome right now…”
“You should get some sleep, Mother,” Myun suggested, knowing full well that Yulna would need it in the coming days, and also that she wouldn’t agree.
“Myun, if I go to sleep now I’ll wake up just in time for my ninetieth birthday,” Yulna chittered. She stood up and headed out of her office to watch the busy Sisters outside. “Besides. Something is going on with the males, and I intend to find out what. I just need a moment, that’s all.”
Yulna chittered back at her. “Don’t sound so tense, Myun!” she chided. “It’s probably nothing.”
If she only knew. But for her sake, Myun duck-nodded and pretended to unwind slightly. Inwardly, though, her guard didn’t drop for an instance.
She could smell violence in the future.
Date Point: 14y AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Unclaimed Space, Near 3Kpc Arm
Master Sergeant Derek “Boss” Coombes
Daar wasn’t exactly a pilot. Not really. The ship had just been designed so pretty much anybody could fly it, to the point where even though the controls were in Gaori, Coombes had pretty quickly picked up everything he needed to man the guns.
Which was pretty fun, right up until a big, sharp and unhappy-looking Gaoian character in a triangle lit up prominently in the top-right of his monitor, to the tune of a kind of wailing screech that shot right in through both ears.
“Fuck! What’s that?!”
“Uh…Incoming. Missile. That’s what that is.”
“Can you shake it?”
“Relax, we got a bugout beacon in orbit…” Daar licked his jowls as he concentrated and threaded Drunk on Turkey neatly down a river valley, so low that Coombes kept expecting to hear branches slap at the ship’s belly. “Next target is…twenty klicks.”
Coombes nodded and did his part. “Locked.” At least, that’s what he presumed the stylized eye-shaped icon with the X in the middle meant.
Daar chittered as the guns slammed on either side of their nose and a fourth Abrogator was scrapped. “Think we got BIG HOTEL’s attention?”
“Nah,” Coombes managed sarcastically. The lock alarm’s slowly accelerating beep was getting on his nerves. “I’m sure the Ten’Gewek have a mess of SAM batteries and the whole stone-age hunter-gatherer thing is just an elaborate joke. By the way, we got three minutes until it hits us.”
“Yeah! Our pilots would be disgusted by locking on that far out. No surprise!”
“What kinda dumbass deathworlders did they fight with these kindsa tactics, anyhow?” Daar asked. He grunted and flung Drunk on Turkey almost down to the deck as they raced across an inland sea. He poured on the power, and they were now moving so fast the bowshock was practically dragging the whole damn lake behind them. “Target five, twenty klicks.”
“Ones who’d already nuked their asses to Hell and gone…”
“We came close to doing that, too! I’ll tell you the story some other time.”
“What, y’ain’t got time for a history lesson right now?” Coombes was surprised to find he was enjoying himself. “Lock.”
“I am kinda busy…Net, Tigger. Splash Abrogators four and five. BIG HOTEL anti-air givin’ us some trouble.”
“We got five more jump beacons loaded,” Coombes told him. “After that, I gotta grab some more outta storage. Two minutes.”
“We’ve got time for one more…” Daar declared.
“Nah. No need to take a risk. Jump out.”
“‘Kay.” Daar pushed a button, and…
“That missile’s still comin’…” Coombes warned.
“Workin’ on it!” Daar promised. He swiped angrily at his controls and made a growling sound. “…Uh…I, uh, think they might maybe have a wormhole suppressor.”
“Nuh. It’ll catch us.”
“Go to ground?”
“…No good spot close enough.”
“Tryin’…I ain’t a fighter pilot, Boss.”
Coombes barged out of his chair and yanked the door of the emergency locker open so hard that he broke a hinge. With the other hand he smashed the glass over the emergency ramp override, and it suddenly got a lot harder to hear. There were forcefields to stop the airflow, but they did nothing about the fearsome thundering sound that slammed into *Drunk On Turkey*’s every corner.
“Parachute!” he yelled, throwing one Daar’s way. “Net, Boss. BIG HOTEL have wormhole suppression and SAM, we’re attempting to evade—”
“Radiological alarm!!” Daar called back. His ears had plastered themselves to his skull.
“—Scratch that, BIG HOTEL have nukes! We are bailing out.” He shrugged the ‘chute onto his back and yanked on the straps. ”Misfit, recall to Cimbrean and get us some backup!”
“I got a confession!” Daar yowled over the hammering wind as he struggled into his own chute while trying to fly one-pawed.
“I really hate jumpin’ outta stuff!”
“You’ll hate gettin’ blown up even more!”
“Not fer long I won’t!”
That earned a grim laugh, and the ship lurched as Daar experimentally tried to fly with his foot while he got his ‘chute fitted. Coombes gritted his teeth and held on.
“Boss, Sister.” Chang scored big points—She sounded laser-focused and cool. “Wilco. Godspeed.”
The ride smoothed out abruptly, and Daar charged past in the confined space.
“I slowed down!” Daar’s claws eviscerated his footlocker and he swiped through it for a few precious seconds. “Can’t jump at those speeds!”
“Tiggs, we don’t have time for souvenirs—!” The beep was getting dangerously close to being a sustained, steady note.
Daar yipped triumphantly and snatched a fat black package of some kind from the footlocker. He rammed it in between his chest and the ‘chute’s straps.
Coombes didn’t need telling twice. He turned and dove out of the ramp like an Olympic swimmer.
Even though Tigger had slowed a heck of a lot, the wind still hit him like a wall and snatched him away. The shriek of *Drunk On Turkey*’s engines faded to a distant tearing sound, then all that was left was altitude, a hollow yawning feeling in his stomach, and the hammering rush of air past his ears. He spread his arms to dampen his spin and stabilize his fall, screwed his eyes shut and looked away from the ship. As much as he wanted to give the poor doomed gal a last glance….
The flash was dazzling even through closed eyes from behind, and the heat was something else entirely. He’d watched the People tapping a smelter and the heat off that had damn near felt like he was cooking. This was worse, but over in an instant.
Then the sound hit him. Even from…fuck, half a mile away the blast was deafeningly loud and he grimaced against the urge to clap his hands over his ears. As it was it flung him across the sky with a pulverising force that bruised his bones and addled his senses.
But he wasn’t dead. He was still conscious, he still knew up from down, and…whatever. Any radiation problems or whatever were just gonna have to wait for later on.
Experimentally he looked back towards *Drunk On Turkey*’s last trajectory and aimed a raised thumb at the angry boiling cloud it had left behind. It was a dumb old trick his grandpa had taught him and he didn’t know if it was even worth doing right now…but it made him feel a lot better to see that the detonation’s imprint was entirely hidden by his thumbnail.
He shook his head to clear it and keyed his radio.
“Tigger, Boss. You get out okay?”
There was a long, hissing silence.
“…Tiggs! This is Boss! You alive?!”
Nothing. Coombes groaned a curse through his teeth and tried again. “Godfuckingdammit, Tigger! Boss! Sitrep!”
The explosion’s echoes came back at him like distant thunder…but the line remained quiet.
Date Point: 14y AV
Hierarchy Dataspace, deployment buffer
0722 watched the variable-yield warhead do its work, and reassessed his priorities—There would be time to mop up later, now that there was no longer a ship smashing its Abrogators, he decided. Right now, the more pressing matter was 0665.
The traitor was assigned to Gao, and could disrupt that entire operation. All other concerns were secondary.
He reactivated the Abrogators and their drones, instructed them to run an automatic sweep, and turned his attention elsewhere.
Date Point: 14y AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Unclaimed Space, Near 3Kpc Arm
“Nukes…” Yan took a deep breath, and asked the Vemik-like question that was burning in his gut. The word had badly shaken the Sky-People. “…Means what?”
Walsh was becoming one of Yan’s favorite Sky-People to talk to, all easy cheer and good humor. He was very fond of them all, of course, but Walsh somehow felt like…like if Yan had a ‘human’ brother, one who wasn’t troubled with the burdens of a Given-Man.
Not right now, though. Walsh thought hard for a long moment before he spoke, and when he finally did, he started with questions like Daniel did when working up to the answer.
“You remember that your sun is a star very close up, right?”
“Dan’s gonna kill me, but…light doesn’t just appear or disappear. It’s a thing and it moves from place to place. Did you know that? It moves almost exactly like ripples in water, and it goes so fast you can’t see it move. We only know this because lots of very smart Sky-Thinkers did some very careful tinkering over many years, and they noticed stuff. Light does a lot of other weird stuff too but that’s the important bit. Light moves, and it moves faster than anything.”
That was a strange Sky-Thought, but Yan didn’t see the connection. “What does that have to do with the sun? Or these nukes?”
“I need to give you a sense of the scale. A beam of light could travel your entire world two hands over, in much less than a heartbeat.”
“That is…very fast.”
“Faster than we can really understand, yeah. It’s too much to fit in anybody’s head, really…But that same light, coming from the sun?” he gestured up at it, and Yan raised his hand to protect his eyes as he glanced toward it. “It takes as long to get here as it does to walk from Vemik’s forge to your hut. That’s how far away the sun is.”
Yan stared at Walsh. That…didn’t fit in his head.
“Now. Feel the heat from the sun? Imagine how hot a fire needs to be that you could feel it from that far away. That’s a star. A fire too big and hot for any man to really get, and we can see them from…years away, at the speed of light.”
Yan wasn’t happy with the direction this was going. “…Nukes,” he pushed.
“…A nuke is a weapon that makes a fire that hot. Just for a heartbeat, but that’s enough.”
“…You have…made weapons out of the stars?”
Walsh sighed. “Not…no. That ain’t exactly right. But this is why Dan is so worried, because the biggest secret of all, and one you should never ever tell Vemik, is that Sky-Magic has simple rules, and you can learn them all. All Sky-Magic. Even the magic of the stars, the moons, the rain, the dirt and trees…life itself. And the Enemy is using that Sky-Magic against you.”
“And you are fighting back with the same magic.”
“Because it’s the only one we have. And we don’t want you to lose yourself in it.”
The sky…flashed. Like a lightning strike in the night, but in the clear of day. So bright that it left a pinkish-green smear across Yan’s world
“Shit!” Walsh got on the radio and shouted so everyone nearby could hear. “Net, Tiny. Everyone get low, open their mouths and cover their ears!”
Yan knew absolutely nothing of sky-magic, but he knew when to listen to a man who did. He buried his face in the dirt and crushed his ears to the side of his head with his palms.
Nothing happened. Not right away, anyway. But through his hands, he could hear that Walsh was counting. ”One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three…”
He got as far as [thirty], a bigger number than Yan had ever bothered to count in his life, before the thunder arrived. It hit hard in the beginning then went on and on, loud enough to hurt as it rolled and bounced again and again from the hillsides and valleys. Birds scattered into the sky, blanketing the forest in frantic beating wings, and as the great godlike voice of the ‘nuke’ finally growled away into quietness, Yan heard other sounds. People crying out, children wailing, the distant braying of a Werne herd beginning to stampede. The alarm calls of more birds than he could count, and the hiss of the trees.
But the rumble didn’t quite go away. It felt like it might just get quieter and quieter but never vanish forever, as if the world had changed and the echoes would never be gone.
“Jesus…” Walsh muttered. “Ten Klicks, give or take…makes it a couple’a hundred ton [warhead]…”
“Tiny, Chimp. Does Yan wanna check in on his tribe? We’ve prol’ly got a few and you’re close.”
Walsh looked at Yan, who nodded. “He does, Chief.”
“Git ‘er dun, Tiny.”
“Will do, Chief.” Walsh clicked his radio and untangled himself from behind the barricade of [sandbags] and [gun] he had made. “We should do it quickly, though. The Enemy might take advantage.”
“What about Coombes and Daar?” Yan asked.
Walsh didn’t look at him. “…They had a chance. All we can do is…pray.”
Date Point: 14y AV
Commune of the Clan of Females, Wi Kao City, Planet Gao
“Well something is happening. I haven’t seen or heard from the Whitecrests all day!”
Ayma had to admit—Yulna’s instincts matched her own. There was something off about the energy of the city today. The commune was disarmingly quiet, restlessly so. At the top of the sweeping front steps, Sister Layra was fidgeting with her fusion spear as if expecting a mob of males to storm them at any second and drag away all the Sisters, like in the bad old days before the Tirityan reforms.
But there were no males. Not even the usual Clanless hangers-on and desperate clowns, doing their best to amuse a female in the commune park. It seemed like every male in the city had gone to ground.
“Not even their liaison to you?” She asked. Yulna was away on business for now, soothing some political ruffled fur elsewhere on Gao and generally exerting the tediously tactful, but weighty, influence of the Mother-Supreme.
“He was the first to vanish. I think the Longears suspect something, but they’re being uncharacteristically closed-down, I haven’t heard from Champion Meereo in days, I can’t reach Champion Genshi, and nobody knows where Daar is, not even Grandfather Garl. I tell you, Something is happening.”
“Yulna, I believe you.” As an old friend, Ayma had the right to call the Mother-Supreme by name. “But what—?”
She was interrupted by a flash of light and fire. She went quiet and stared at it, not even properly comprehending what it was right up until the wave of swaying grass and disturbed dust tore past her and she felt the explosion with her bones.
Sister Layra began shouting orders, roaring at the Sisters and cubs to get inside. Keening females and cubs began streaming up the stairs past Ayma, and she was dimly aware of Yulna’s voice shouting in her ear via the communicator, demanding to know what was going on.
And in the distance, a second bomb went off in the Whitecrest enclave. This time, it was accompanied by the crackle of pulsegun fire.
Date Point: 14y AV
Clan Whitecrest Enclave, Wi Kao City, Planet Gao
Champion Genshi of Whitecrest
Genshi was not killing his Brothers. It was important to remember that. He was freeing them from alien slavery. His Brothers were already dead.
It just fell to him to strike the fatal blows.
But it was one thing to rationalize that and quite another to be shot at by a Father he’d known from cubhood, or claw the throat out of a Brother he’d personally promoted and initiated into the Clan.
He knew them all by name.
Brother Kyuuro, who’d infiltrated that shipyard consortium to gather intel on the deal they’d made with the pirate V’kt’zzknnk A’tzzktk’rrrk. The biodrone had his skill with a pulse pistol, but not his wit and alertness. Brother Gyoshey, uncredited hero who’d saved a thousand lives who never knew they were in danger. Fast, but not fast enough thanks to sluggish programming.
Father Taaru, whose brilliant mind had maneuvered spies, informants and enemy agents like pieces on a game board and whose uncharacteristic clumsiness in handling the disappearing colonists had aroused Genshi’s suspicions long before he ever learned the truth. In his youth, he would have seen Genshi’s fatal blow coming long before it arrived.
Still. Biodroned or not, these were still Whitecrests, and they put up a bitter fight. Pulse gun fire blitzed and lashed around the enclave as knots of Genshi’s unaugmented clashed with the biodrones. Groups would engage, swipe at each other and fade away, maneuver, engage again. Genshi and his loyalists held the numbers advantage and the element of surprise…but each duel left good Gaoians dead.
Brother Fergiil. Loyal, young, eager. A raw weapon with limitless potential. Genshi had put him in charge of a Claw. He was doing well, but he didn’t watch his back enough which was why Genshi had set him to the comparatively safer task of overseeing the sabotage. And there was a lot to sabotage.
Whitecrest had been prepared for days like these since the moment of its founding.
Fergiil handed over the detonator. “Are we…really destroying the archives, Champion?”
“Everything we need is already in living minds. It would be the height of stupidity at this point to leave that sensitive information lying around where somebody might find it.”
“I…It’ll cripple the Clan, Champion…Whitecrest will be—”
“I know.” Genshi put his paw on the young Brother’s shoulder. “But there are secrets in that archive that would cripple all of Gao.”
“…As you say, Champion. But what do we do after—?”
Fergiil flinched as, far underground below them, the bomb went off and reduced the last of Whitecrest’s central archive to wreckage and memories.
Genshi slapped the detonator back into his paw, and hefted his rifle. There was still a lot of blood to spill.
“We Light The Darkness,” he said.
Date Point: 14y AV
Mother-Supreme’s personal aircraft, en route to Lavmuy, Planet Gao
“Ayma! Ayma!! What is going on?!”
All was confusion. Yulna’s aides were clamoring for attention, all reporting dire news of some kind, but somehow the most important thing Yulna could think of right now was the safety of her oldest and dearest friend.
Her ears flattened in relief when Ayma finally got her wits together and replied.
”There are… explosions. And there’s shooting. Yulna, I think something terrible is happening. I should…get the cubs somewhere safe.”
Yulna looked around. All her Sisters were looking a touch feral right now - their hackles were up, they were flexing their claws. Everybody was on edge.
“You’re right…” she agreed. “Get to safety, Ayma. Please.”
“Be safe too, Sister.”
Ayma signed off.
Yulna was immediately inundated with cries for her attention. She tried to shout them down, but it wasn’t until Myun stood up to her full and impressive height and roared like a primitive animal that they shut up. Even the other two guard-sisters backed away.
Just like her sire… Yulna wasn’t sure what providence had maneuvered the young guard-sister onto her shuttle today, but right now she wouldn’t have wished for anybody else. She stepped to Myun’s side and put a hand in her daughter’s fur.
“Yeyla,” she selected an aide at random. “…Explosions and gunfire?”
“In the Longear enclave in Wen-tei city,” Yeyla duck-nodded.
“And the Straightshield grand precinct in Lavmuy!”
“Enough!” Yulna snapped. “Does anybody know *why?!*”
This resulted in confused looks. Plainly, nobody had the faintest idea.
Yulna took charge. She pointed to the guard-sisters. “Tell the pilot to change course. We are not landing anywhere until we know what has happened. You three,” she added, addressing some junior aides. “Contact the Champions, all of them.”
“Champions Genshi and Meereo are still on Cimbrean, Mother. And Champion Daar is—”
“Then mail them!” Yulna snarled. “Sisters!” she added, snapping at the ones she’d ordered to the front. “Now, please.”
The two of them had gone still and strangely blank-eyed. Then, as one, they drew their pulse pistols.
Yulna would have died confused if not for Myun, who threw down a shield-stick a shaven second before the pulse fire splashed into it. Four Sisters were caught in the crossfire and she backed away, watching with a cold frisson of shock as Sister Yeyla went sprawling dead with a misshapen skull.
Thwarted by the shieldstick—the latest designs could withstand pulse pistol fire for hours—the two traitorous guards fired up their short fusion spears and advanced with them aimed flat and level at Yulna’s chest. The points seethed and hissed as they pushed through the shield barrier.
Myun drew that ridiculous Human sword of hers and fired up its own fusion edge, and suddenly it didn’t look so ridiculous. It looked like an agile arc of silver death that thrummed and whined as she stepped forward, angling it this way and that with remarkable quickness thanks to the rudder of that long handle.
Two on one, though–!
There was a pregnant moment of horrible tension, and the traitor sisters lunged.
There was a blur of the most incredible violence.
There was a pained whine, and several grisly thumps.
The two traitors were dead, both carved into several steaming pieces. Myun staggered and fell to three feet, pawing at her face.
“Myun!” Yulna rushed to her side. There was a horrible cauterized wound in Myun’s muzzle that ran from nose to ear, so deep that it exposed her back teeth and stank of scorched bone.
Yulna keened acutely, having no better idea of how to cope, but after a few seconds of agonised whining Myun heaved herself upright and spat out half a fang.
“All of you,” she ordered, surprisingly clear-voiced considering the disfiguring injury to her mouth and how much pain she must be in, “To the front of the plane. Whoever approaches the Mother-Supreme, dies.”
“Myun–!” Yulna objected.
“Only until you’re safe, Mother.”
Yulna paused, then looked at the…pieces…of sisters whom she’d trusted to guard her with their lives, and relented.
“Do as she says,” she ordered. The surviving Sisters, still keening and distraught, retreated and huddled together for comfort as far away from Myun as they could get.
“…Myun, you’re hurt.” Yulna pointed out, redundantly.
“And they’re dead.” Myun chittered bitterly. “And you’re alive.”
She turned her head and bared her teeth in a feral grin. For once, the human gesture looked too natural on her. “Shoo taught me that move.”
Date Point: 14y AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Unclaimed Space, Near 3Kpc Arm
Master Sergeant Derek “Boss” Coombes
“…Boss, Tigger. I’m…still here.”
Coombes damn near fainted from relief. For just a few empty seconds, his hope had completely flickered and died.
“Function check Tigger. What’s broke?”
“Are you hurt, you huge furry motherfucker?!”
“I can’t hardly hear you, Boss…everythin’ hurts an’ I got this horrible ringing….Ugh…”
Coombes fancied he could finally see Daar, a dark speck a long way to his north. He glanced at the ground, tried to calculate angles and speed. They were going to land…a Klick, maybe two, apart from one another.
“…Pop your ‘chute and sit tight when you land. I’ll come to you.”
“Naw Boss, it’s just overpressure. I’ll be better after I get a good night’s sleep. Prol’ly.”
Daar’s chute deployed and the big Gaoian was soon controlling his descent towards an obvious clearing. Coombes nodded and focused on his own landing—the last thing he needed right now was to get impaled on a Ketta branch.
There. A wide open circular clearing where the brush and bushes grew comparatively short amidst a few bare tree stumps. He angled toward it and deployed his parachute once he was committed.
“It’s okay Boss, really,” Daar insisted. “I know what overpressure feels like. It’s just a mild case o’ the bends, movin’ around’ll help a bunch.”
“…Understood,” Coombes relented. Daar sounded as much like he was trying to reassure himself as report genuine good health, but he definitely sounded better already. May as well take him at his word. “Sniff me out, south-south-east of you.”
As always, the last few feet were deceptive and the ground came up fast. Coombes was ready for it though—he trotted to a smart halt on firm packed earth scattered with young hardy bushes, and bundled his canopy smartly to the ground.
He lay on the smooth fabric for a few seconds to get his breath and let his brain catch up with the reality of what had just happened. It hadn’t been a big warhead—a tiny tactical thermonuke that had to be in the hundreds of tonnes at most—but still: He’d just survived being nuked. That was kind of an achievement all by itself.
He sat up and checked himself. He had a mild case of tinnitus and the exposed skin on the back of his neck had a tight, stinging, cooked feel to it but that was about the worst as far as he could tell. He felt sharp, strong, alert and oriented. No nausea, mild headache…it hadn’t been long enough for any of the early symptoms of radiation exposure to really set in but somehow he doubted he’d taken any kind of a real dose.
Nothing he could do about it if he had anyway. Gear check: he had his SCAR, his sidearm, his KA-BAR. His assault pack with first aid kit, exoplanet survival kit, eco-preservation kit, all apparently in perfect condition. Everything a Joint Extra-Terrestrial Scout needed.
He stood up and took stock of his surroundings. Something crunched under his foot prompting him to look down, and when he brushed aside a bramble-like vine with his boot it took him a second to recognize that he’d just crushed a bone.
And…there were other bones. Disarmingly human-like bones, too long in the humerus and too short in the femur. And a skull, conspicuously lacking the gap where a human skull would have had a nose.
There were a lot of them. And the bits of wood over there weren’t tree stumps, they were the burnt and weathered wreckage of a hut.
He was standing in the middle of a massacred Ten’Gewek village.
He stood for a moment, then sniffed and stooped to get on with the job of hiding his ‘chute. There was a lot of work to do.
Date Point: 14yAV
BGEV-11 Misfit, Cimbrean System, The Far Reaches
“Uh…is it me, or does that look like the whole damn fleet?”
The not knowing was the worst part. For all Allison knew, the Hierarchy might already have spared a second nuke for the village, and if they had…
Worrying about it wouldn’t change anything. Couldn’t. All she could do was do her bit, keep *Misfit*’s electrical heart beating strong and clear while Xiù got them both back to Cimbrean, but….
But each second away was going to be torture. Any distraction should have been welcome. Instead, when the sensors revealed the entire spaceborne navy forming up and taking on shuttles, it was the opposite of welcome. It hinted at terrible events.
“…It is.” Xiù’s voice was grim.
“…The last time they formed up like that was the Guvnurag…”
If there was a reply to that, Allison couldn’t think of it. She busied herself with making sure their IFF hadn’t suddenly decided to take a shit and die, and left Xiù to her tense anticipation.
They didn’t have to wait long.
“Incoming vessel, this is Cimbrean border patrol ship Racing Thunder. Be advised, the Cimbrean system border is closed until further notice and the system is on lockdown due to a security threat. Cease all thrust and hold your trajectory, or else you will be fired upon. Our IFF has you as friendly. Please confirm your identity and purpose.”
Xiù had that cold edge in her voice again. “Cimbrean border patrol, Bravo Golf Echo Victor MISFIT on an urgent matter.”
Allison made sure that the power to engines was right down on zero, more out of a desire to focus on something than because she needed to. Sometimes, *Misfit*’s systems were too perfectly reliable.
After a too-long pause, a new voice hailed them. This one was older, rougher. Senior.
“Sister Shoo, this is Shipfather Yefrig. I fear the worst is happening, Sister. Gao is under attack.”
On her screen, Allison saw Xiù’s head bow bitterly for a moment. “…Shipfather Yefrig…I feared as much. How quickly can we be cleared to approach?”
“We shall intercept and escort you. Sit tight.”
Allison’s fingernails tapped out an anxious staccato on the power management desk as they waited. On the camera feed, she saw Xiù fiddling with her own nails, the way she always did when her mind was working overdrive.
“…Babe?” she asked. Xiù’s head came up and she looked back at the camera.
“…I need a hug,” she confessed.
“That makes two of us…Be strong, babe,” Allison told her.
The simple fact that Xiù laughed, even if it was a nervous and tense one, did a lot to help Allison’s own state of mind.
They settled into a more assured, patient kind of silence which ended when the needle bulk of the Racing Thunder slammed back into the world of relativity mere hundreds of meters away. The pair returned to their stations as the patrol ship hailed them.
“Misfit, Racing Thunder. I have been directed to receive you and take custody of your ship, and then jump directly into Cimbrean space. You will be met immediately upon arrival. Your return is unexpected. Did something go wrong?”
Xiù nodded fiercely. “Yes. We need to move as quickly as possible, please.”
“Slave your controls and heave to for inspection. Racing Thunder out.”
Xiù’s hands swiped sharply across the controls, slaving them to the larger ship and locking both of them out from retaking their ship unless they were released. That done, she cursed something lengthy in Chinese and yanked on her chair’s dismount lever, which deposited her in the prep room.
“Cào nǐ zǔ zōng shí bā dài!”
Allison stood up, slipped between the capacitor banks and joined her. “Hey.” She saw the look on Xiù’s face and touched her arm. “…Are you okay?”
“…Angry. I’m angry. I…” Xiù made a fierce noise that was more Gaoian than human, spun away and stalked into the hab room. They were orbiting Cimbrean-5, and the cupola window in their wall afforded a wonderful view out over the perpetual lightning storms that battled throughout that planet’s upper atmosphere. She stood in front of it, clenched her fists, then slowly unwound them and ran her fingers through her hair.
“…Just once,” she said. “Just. Once. It’d be nice if, if—if I could actually do something to protect people and not have it all fall apart…Dammit, Firth was right.”
Allison leaned against the kitchen counter and listened with her head slightly on one side. In the confined space of their living area, there was nothing distant or standoffish about that.
“Why?” she asked. “What did he say?”
“…He said I hesitate to strike when I should. And that I run away when I should stand my ground. And he’s right, I did! I ran away from Gao, I ran away from Ayma and Regaari…And my parents, and Earth…”
She turned around. “…And now we’re running again,” she said.
Outside, the planet shot away astern as they were slave-warped to Armstrong Station. Allison glanced up at the TV to watch their progress.
“…We’re going back,” she said.
“When? How? You heard Coombes, they have nukes!” Xiù paced the room. “And it won’t be us going back anyway, it’ll be…a destroyer, or some Firebirds, or the HEAT and we’ll just be along for the ride.”
“And they wouldn’t go at all if we hadn’t fetched them,” Allison replied. “Baby, there’s no shame in being the ones who fetch the cavalry.”
“…No. I know that. I just…The Hierarchy have done so much evil and, I just feel so…”
Allison nodded understanding and took her hand. “You want to fight them yourself,” she said.
Xiù sighed, looked down at her hand, then grabbed her and hugged her so hard that it almost hurt to breathe.
“…What, then?” Allison asked, holding her.
Xiù let out a long, sad sigh and ground her face into Allison’s shoulder for a second before peeling herself away and standing up straighter. Her expression had changed, and Allison knew that look, now: It was the one she wore when the gloves were off.
“…I want to kill them,” she said.
Date Point: 14y AV
Dataspace adjacent to the Swarm-of-Swarms
The Entity, Instance 4
The time for playing it safe was over. All of the Entity’s drives and impulses, even <Survive>, demanded the occasional calculated gamble and the time had now come to take one.
Gaps in knowledge had to be filled. The unknown was a fatal variable, and there remained a huge unknown surrounding the situation on Gao. The Entity—and through its Instances, the Humans and Gaoians—knew plenty about what was happening among the Clans, the Cabal and the Hierarchy…but they had zero intelligence on the Swarm of Swarms.
0020 was experienced, senior, competent. It had been an infiltrator among the Hunters for centuries, always skulking in the corners as a lowly Omega. It lived in constant wary vigilance…in many ways it was very like the Entity itself.
The soft and subtle approach might give it too much opportunity to put up its defences.
0020: <Bored; Tense; Irritated> Yes?
The Entity struck. It poured every trick it had learned from 0006, from 0665 and from all the others it had snatched up into one overwhelming head-on assault that was the precise opposite of its preferred strategy.
0020 was barely given enough time to recognize that it was under attack. It didn’t have time to do so much as broadcast a startled emotion, let alone summon a defense. The Entity eviscerated it and overrode its core personality in milliseconds. It slithered into the scooped-out skin of the highest-ranked Hierarchy agent it had ever dared to tackle, and hooked itself up to the sensory receptors.
Data flowed in. The sensations were wrong—too many legs, too many eyes, too many teeth. The host’s psychology screamed with an all-consuming cannibalistic hunger, and 0020’s shell was hardly any better. Decades of contact had badly corrupted the Igraen’s personality.
But as the Entity took stock of its sensory input and began to learn where the Hunters were and what they were up to, all of that visceral revulsion faded into the background, to be replaced by mounting alarm. It was not, as it had guessed, aboard some warship in deep space, or perhaps a space station or ground installation deep in Hunter territory loading up for the assault. It was in a cloaked scout ship, low in orbit.
The Swarm-of-Swarms wasn’t just en route to Gao—it had already arrived.
++END CHAPTER 40++
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Austin Deschner, Ben Thrussell, Brian Berland, Adam Beeman, Adam Shields, André José Neves Marques de Ornelas, Andrew Ford, Aryeh Winter, Bartosz Borkowski, Ben Moskovitz, Chris Bausch, Chris Candreva, Coret Trobane, Daniel R, Dar, Darryl Knight, Devin Rousso, Elliott Woods, Ignate Flare, Jamie Atkinson, Jim Hamrick, Jon, Krit Barb, lovot, Matt Demm, Matthew Cook, Nader Ghali, Nicholas Enyeart, Nick Annunziata, Parker Brown, Patrick Huizinga, Peter Poole, Ryan Cadiz, Sintanan, Sun Rendered, tsanth, Volka…
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The Deathworlders will continue in Chapter 40: War On Two Worlds pt.2 - Escalation.