Chapter 40: War on Two Worlds, Part 3—Consolidation
Date Point: 14y2d AV
Three Valleys, Amanyuy Territory, Planet Gao.
Second Lieutenant (brevet) Martina Kovač
“…Do us proud, lieutenant. Stainless out.”
Marty sat back from the radio and let out a long, stress-filled breath. Powell’s orders had been no different than she’d expected and dreaded, but actually receiving them was a different matter.
Still. Seniority wasn’t a matter for debate. Not a single able-bodied officer had checked in so far from among *Caledonia*’s command staff. Maybe one would show up in the future, but here and now the job of making something functional out of this mess fell to the senior Enlisted. They had a Royal Marines corporal in the form of Ian Wilde, NATO code OR-4. They had Reactor Technician Saci Patel, also OR-4. And they had Technical Sergeant Martina Kovač, OR-6.
…Make that Second Lieutenant Martina Kovač. She was now, temporarily at least, an officer.
A voice spoke up from behind her. “Well. That puts me in my place.”
Marty turned away from the radio. Wilde gave her a nod. “…Ma’am,” he added.
“You heard him,” Marty stood up.
“Oh aye. You’re in charge. Better you than me…ma’am.”
“Any good news?”
“Well, we’re still just about on the right side of completely fucked. I was about to suggest we should send Williams and Hayes out to reccy the area.”
Only a Brit could turn ‘just about on the right side of completely fucked’ into an optimistic sentiment. They ought to be dead, given that one of the Hunters had been latched onto the hull only meters away when they started self-destructing. Wilde and his Marines had kicked a legendary degree of ass in their assault on the swarmship though, helped by how badly the Hunters had been burned by the SOR techs.
Marty was kinda proud of that. She’d had a hand in forging their own survival. It had made all the difference, and the swarmship latched to the hull meters away from her hadn’t, in fact, exploded.
If it had…well, she probably wouldn’t have felt anything.
A lot of *Caledonia*’s hundreds of crew hadn’t been remotely as fortunate. The efficient scramble to the lifeboats had been a testament to that—they’d had to force Patel to leave behind the dead colleague she was dragging, even though she kept insisting he was alive. She hadn’t taken that well, and was huddled under a thermal blanket by the lifeboat, staring at something far away.
Their supplies, meanwhile, consisted of a crate of rations, a water purification filter plus some pouches of drinking water, a half-dozen ammo cans, and the makings of a tent village. Standard lifeboat equipment and nothing more. There hadn’t even been time to grab the Crue-D, and that was a source of major regret.
And theirs was probably the best-placed lifeboat. It had landed safely and correctly in open terrain among farmland, in contact with command, and everybody on board was able-bodied. The other lifeboats were strung out to the east like beads on a macramé necklace, and most of them had wounded.
One of them carried the XO, Commander McDaniel, who’d be able to count it as a God-given miracle if she made it out the other end of this alive. From the sounds of things, her head injury was life-threatening.
“Do it,” Marty agreed. “We can’t stay here…the map says there’s what might be a small farming town about seven klicks south-west.”
“Yep. Around about where all that smoke’s coming from.” Wilde indicated a faint gray columnar stain on the horizon with a nod of his head. “Worth takin’ a shufty at that even if it just tells us where not to go, frankly.”
“Would it make more sense to send out two teams to gather more information, or keep them here for defense?” Marty asked him. Wilde gave it some thought.
“…What you don’t know will kill you,” he decided, after a moment. “If we see hostiles comin’, we can do something about them. Right now, we’re probably better off avoiding a fight if we can. I say scouts are more important than base defense.”
“Right.” Marty grabbed her tablet and scoured the regional map again. “Okay. One team to check out the smoke and that town, one team in the other direction…here.” Wilde leaned forward as she indicated her choice. “Looks like a farm.”
“Got it. Anything else?”
“Vehicles, if we can get them. Especially ones that can go cross-country. For carrying the wounded, the supplies, or hooking up with the other lifeboats…Preferably without antagonizing the locals.”
Wilde grinned at that and nodded, clearly approving.
“Okay. Alpha team to scout the town south-west, bravo team to scout east toward the farm. Avoid contact, report enemy movement, look for opportunities to boost vehicles if we can do it without pissin’ off the Gaoians,” he repeated. “Can do.”
“Go. I’ll work on getting our stuff ready to go,” Marty promised.
“Aye aye, ma’am.” Wilde gave her an encouraging grin, and bustled to work.
Marty rubbed her hands together for a moment, partly because they were threatening to shake but mostly because they were cold. She’d known Gao was a cold planet, but allegedly it was late spring locally. She doubted it was even fifty degrees.
She closed her tablet’s cover and hooked it back onto her gear, among everything else she was carrying. She wished some of that load could be armor, right now she felt exposed and vulnerable. But there just hadn’t been time.
At least her techs were mostly handling it fine. Like a well-oiled machine they’d rolled the pill-shaped escape vehicle back into its “upright” position and formed a human chain to empty out its small but efficiently packed lockers and cargo spaces. They’d all taken some bruises and knocks—Marty herself had a scab crusting in her eyebrow and no idea how she’d earned it—but considering that they’d bailed out of a tumbling, burning, disintegrating wreck of a two hundred meter warship, they were in fine condition.
Too bad they’d landed on the wrong continent, among endless square miles of farmland. They were in glacial terrain, if she was any judge, and the wide, shallow basin that those ancient ice fields had carved out obviously translated to fertile growing land…which for Gaoians largely meant animal feed. They were primary carnivores, after all.
The survivors were surrounded by green hay, in other words, and only the slight roll and elevation of the terrain let them see further than the nearest field.
Deacon saw her coming and stood up straighter, arching her back to work out the labor. Suit techs were toughened from the hard work of forcing HEAT operators into their suits anyway, but moving packs of survival gear around in a muddy field wasn’t quite the same thing. “Kovač,” she said. “Any luck?”
“I got through to Stainless,” Marty told her. “I’m a second lieutenant now, until we find somebody to take over from me.”
Doyle poked his head out of the lifeboat. “I heard that right? You’re an officer now?”
“Yup. Fall in, guys.”
They all dropped what they were doing and gathered round looking dirty, nervous and stressed, but alert and ready.
“The Marines are scouting the area,” Kovač told them. “There’s a town south-west, but judging from the smoke it could have a biodrone problem. If that’s the case, they won’t have missed our descent, and there could be hostiles en route as we speak. So we’re going to relocate. I want everything bagged up and ready to move ASAP. Corporal Wilde is my second.”
She saw them nod, and nodded herself. “We’re a team. Have been for years. We know how to work together and how to achieve results. We just keep doing what we’re good at, okay? Any questions?”
There was silence, and she nodded. “Okay. Go.”
She had a good team. The techs as one leapt into action, barely needing to confer to assign their responsibilities. A “you—” here, an “I’ll—” there, and they had a working structure figured out almost instinctively.
That just left Patel.
The diminutive British sailor still had blood in her clothes and hair, and it wasn’t hers. She’d obviously been listening despite her faraway expression though, because when Marty got close enough she looked up and made to stand.
That was a good sign. She might be trembling, shellshocked and grieving, but she was still functional. Marty let her stand up.
“If I remember correctly, the lifeboat’s batteries and field emitters can be scavenged for field use, right?” she asked.
Patel nodded. “Um… yes. Ma’am. They were designed for it.”
“You’re the reactor tech and electrician. Sounds like a job for you.”
It was amazing just how healing it was to have something constructive to do. A little life seemed to come back into Patel’s face. Her face lost some of that slack, shocked expression and she nodded solemnly. “Yes ma’am. I’ll dismount and pack them for transport right away.”
“Get Matthews to help if you need it. He’s a field emitter specialist.”
“I’ll do that,” Patel nodded again.
God, being called ‘ma’am’ again felt weird. Marty wasn’t unused to authority, she was the NCO in charge of suit technicians and had worked in Space Command before the SOR after all, but there was a whole extra layer of deference in there now and it didn’t sit comfortably. She left Patel to get to work and surveyed around herself.
The Marines—Williams, Hayes, Hodder and Rees—were already gone, and Wilde had gone with alpha team, pausing now and then to check things out through his scope. The suit techs were efficiently dividing their survival resources for transport, and Patel had just popped a carbon-smeared ablative panel from the lifeboat to get at the electronics underneath.
Hopefully, Marty wasn’t doing too badly. But the real test, she knew, was still to come.
She took a deep breath and returned to her radio. It was time to start getting in touch with the other boats.
Date Point: 14y2d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Unclaimed Space, Near 3Kpc Arm
Technical Sergeant Timothy “Tiny” Walsh
Walsh hated farewells—he’d said enough of them over the years. This one was probably the worst he’d ever done though, because Walsh wasn’t stupid and it was obvious to him exactly what Daar was about to wade into. Their time together as simple grunts on clear, easy-to-understand missions was over. Daar was leaving the team, probably never to return, and Walsh knew there was a very good chance they’d never see each other again.
Tigger had just died. In his place stood the Champion of Stoneback: warrior, protector, and a prince of the Gao, leader of its most ancient Clan. Walsh could scarcely comprehend the weight of all that resting on Daar’s broad back. Of course that had always been there in the back of everything, but friendship aside, Daar wasn’t on the team just because he wanted it. He was there to further the interests of his Clan and his people first and foremost. Against that, feelings and friendship took second place.
Duty called, and with it, Daar had changed entirely. He’d begged a full double dose of Crude off of Walsh, eaten like Warhorse, quietly slipped off to his tent and slept for nearly an entire day while encased in that incredible suit of his. He slept so long and deeply that Walsh checked in on him several times to make sure he still had a pulse.
At some point during the next evening he’d slipped out of camp when nobody was paying attention, stalked down toward the river and cleaned himself up. Right about when the camp had noticed his absence he’d returned with what remained of his possessions in a much lighter pack strapped onto his back, his eye-bending suit safely stored away for the moment. He padded back between the huts and tents as quietly as a panther and said nothing, just waited the long moment for everyone to notice.
The difference was…impressive.
Between the megadose of Crude, the damn near half a Werne he’d eaten, and whatever exertion that incredible suit of his demanded, Daar had recovered entirely and clawed himself not just back into fighting trim, but possibly into the finest fighting trim Walsh had ever seen in…well, practically anyone. Every line of his body—hell, his very being—radiated strength and crackled with the will and ability to fight.
He had reappeared at a standoffish distance and nobody said a word as they took in the depth of the change. Champion Daar had reinvented himself in mold of an avatar of retribution; strong, fierce, recharged and rejuvenated, his claws sharpened into razors and his fur cleaned up and shorn almost down to the skin.
And he was angry.
Walsh had only ever briefly glimpsed that darker side of the big furry dude, generally when he was fighting a Doom Noodle or maybe when he was especially annoyed at something. Those weren’t really serious moments, though; brief, white-hot flashes of a rage that Walsh could scarcely comprehend but they passed quickly, and were forgotten easily…
Not this one. Daar had gone right the way through rage and out into a calm place on the far side that would have given even Firth pause. His entire body was brittle with the kind of stillness that only the truly angered ever achieved. And he was absolutely, chillingly quiet and polite as he made the rounds and said his goodbyes.
It was the kind of rage that transcended species and everyone felt it in their guts. Julian shook hands carefully, Master Sergeant Coombes offered a polite nod and a salute. Vemik and the Singer both shied away and only approached when he patiently sat on his haunches and nodded respectfully towards Yan. Even Yan was being deferential, and discreetly kept himself between Daar and the villagers while they shared parting words.
Hoeff, though, he didn’t have time for that; he leapt up onto the big guy and offered him a hug. Daar returned it, gratefully, and that seemed to melt much of the tension out of the moment. Coombes shook his head and joined in, then Julian did too, then Yan and eventually Vemik…soon the entire village had mobbed him, pressed small trinkets and talismans into his paws, offered small prayers and their careful gratitude.
He handled it with grace and decorum, and offered his own words of thanks. But the rage in his soul had never lifted and everyone could see it.
Though of course, Daar wouldn’t have been Daar if he hadn’t found time to worry about his friends. He eventually broke away from the mob and padded over to Walsh on all fours, who had stayed aloof from the crowd to let them have their moment.
“You’ll be okay?” Daar asked. Everyone cleared away and gave them plenty of space.
“Bruh,” Tiny shook his head disbelievingly at the contrast of an enraged, caring friend. It was amazing, it really was. “We won this one. I just wish I was comin’ with ya.”
Daar didn’t react for a moment—he was clearly trying to control himself. At length he sighed, stood up on his legs and said, “I know. I couldn’t let you do that anyway.”
“Wishes ain’t there for the things we can do, bruh,” Walsh told him, quoting his grandmother. He put a hand on Daar’s shoulder, then hauled him into a huge rock-crusher of a hug. Daar returned it and nipped him gently on the ear; for Gaoians, that was a profound display of affection.
They were interrupted by the jump array’s alarm, letting them know that charging was complete and the window was opening in two minutes. The exchange from Cimbrean was going to bring a whole airdrop-worth of supplies their way, enough to comfortably set them and the natives up for months if that was how long it took before the situation chilled out and a more permanent solution became viable.
To Walsh, it may as well have been a death knell.
Daar did manage to force a little levity into the moment. “I wish I was helping you unload all that stuff you’re getting. You’re gonna be sore, Brother!”
Walsh scoffed. “Please, like your fuzzy butt wouldn’t be hurting too.”
Daar shrugged, “Never said it wouldn’t. You…you take care of them, okay?” He growled low, just for Walsh. “Especially Julian. He looks up to you.”
Walsh just nodded, and pulled apart from the hug. The rage settled on Daar again almost instantly. Honestly, it was terrifying. He stalked back a few steps to stand in the middle of the array, took one last look at them, and raised a paw to his chest in the Stoneback equivalent of a salute.
There was a thump, the unnatural light-sucking blackness of a stasis field flickered into and out of being for just a moment, and a stack of drab crates settled into the higher gravity with a creak. The first of many to come throughout the day.
Walsh sighed, looked at Julian and Yan, and looked back at the stack.
“Well,” he said. “I guess we better get to work.”
Date Point: 14y2d AV
Mayuy City, Planet Gao
Champion Genshi of Whitecrest
Mayuy was—had been—a wealthy city. It was Clan Goldpaw’s jewel after all, their hub, their throne. Any city that had been at the crossroads of so many different avenues for trade over the centuries couldn’t be anything less.
Three rivers and their associated canals flowed through it, into a bay that was just the most perfect natural harbor. To the north-west and south, the land was high enough above sea level to avoid even the fiercest weather, and firm enough for straight, wide roads that had stood there since before the great reformation.
Those rivers, flowing from the mountains to the north-east, brought copper, coal, iron and silver in ancient times, and in the modern age were still a rich source of rare earths and platinum-group metals. The highland slopes were perfect Naxas summer grazing, the warmer lowlands provided ample room for the flocks in the winter months, and the shallow seas had provided fishing for food and the stringy, fibrous sea plants that ancient Gaoians had used to make fabric and ropes.
By fortune, the flat terrain around the city itself had been perfect for later developments like airports, and the city was close enough to the equator to facilitate rocket-powered launches to orbit.
It was, in short, the perfect trading city. Other cities such as Lavmuy and Wi Kao may have had more cultural significance, others had been industrial powerhouses and centers of learning… but Mayuy had always been a city of stockhouses, the warehouse for Gao’s wealth.
Unsurprisingly, it had a lot of banks. And those banks, as all genuinely mercenary institutions should, provided discretion as part of their service.
Whitecrest did a lot of business with the Goldpaws.
Genshi’s private lockbox was one such item of business. He’d always intended it as a stop-gap measure, on the grounds that relying on the security provided by others wasn’t the Whitecrest way, in the long term. But in the short term, another Clan’s discretion and competence were a useful smokescreen.
He was quite certain that the Goldpaws had never found out what was in his lockbox. If they had, and if the information had filtered through to one of their augmented high-level account managers, the Mayuy Bank of Gao would already be a crater.
That didn’t mean it wasn’t enemy territory, however. The Hierarchy’s forces were ransacking the vaults in search of sensitive secrets to delete, and simply slipping their cordon had been a tall order to tax even Whitecrest’s best and bravest.
If not for some of the technology they had developed for the cross-species military program with the human SOR, it might have been impossible. Genshi wasn’t wearing a full suit like Regaari and his claw, but he had adopted something like a cloak. Hooded, swathed in light-bending fabric, shapeless so that from a distance in the urban landscape he’d look like just a chunk of rubble, or an item of furniture.
It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was a solution. Perfection was a luxury, and a half-decent idea that worked, worked. Results were the important part.
For example: his lockbox. Which, yes, was in enemy territory rather than in Genshi’s paws right now which was less than ideal, but it was intact. It was safe.
In all the madness of the last two days, for something so vital to be definitively and definitely safe was a victory all its own, one which made the task of actually retrieving it feel like a formality rather than the whole battle.
But what a formality.
Genshi was using one of Whitecrest’s adaptations of Human weaponry. Acquiring the designs had been trivially easy—a lot of them were freely available on the Internet—and from there the Clan’s own smiths and engineers, plus their trusted Clanless associates, had keenly sought any opportunity to apply Gaoian technology to improving their performance.
It was the little things, really. The weapons themselves were already excellent, and all that the Clan’s efforts had achieved had been applying a few…tricks. Harder metal, lighter composites, an improved buttstock to fit Gaoian anatomy more comfortably. Advanced coatings on the interior surfaces that never needed cleaning or lubrication. Propellants that didn’t foul the weapon in the first place.
An automatic mode that never jammed.
The Hierarchy had suppressed these weapons. They took a species’ first bruising, dangerous forays into black powder technology then quietly nudged them into abandoning the whole idea as a fool’s enterprise. It was just another avenue of control, just another way of dumbing down the life forms under their thumbs…but it worked. The weapon in a warrior’s hand dictated how he fought. If he held a dumb weapon, he fought in dumb ways. If he held a precision weapon…
“Cubs play hunt. Mother’s asleep.”
Eight Brothers spread out around the bank all took their shot, including Genshi. His target stiffened from nerve trauma before slumping to the ground, utterly dead.
“Cubs play run.”
Out the window, anchoring a rope on the concrete as he went. Walk down the wall as though it was just a vertical floor with the reel on his belt whining softly while it held him against gravity. Reach the bottom, jump the last arm’s length to the ground, detach the rope. The moment it was detached, a chemical reaction aggressively ate the rope and reduced it to fine black flakes which blew away on the breeze, leaving no sign that it had ever been there.
Stick the rifle to his chest, four-paws, dash like a blur—and thank Regaari for finally convincing the Clan that being able to run efficiently trumped dignity when it came to getting the job done—across the street, against the wall, weapon back to ready.
Brother Fergiil was up against the far side of the door an instant behind him. The younger male’s eyes were shining with the thrill of a real operation—Nobody liked to admit there was a reason Whitecrest’s combat-cant played on childish themes, but the simple truth was that life-or-death firefights for the highest stakes were fun.
Killing was fun. Not a civilized thought…but the truth.
Fergiil slap-stuck a sensor bug to the bank’s doors, and looked through its eyes into the building’s shadowy interior.
“…Kitchen’s empty,” he reported.
Genshi duck-nodded sharply. “Cubs steal food.”
Mere hardened security glass was no impediment whatsoever to a Whitecrest with the correct tools, and within moments of the order being given the eight of them were ghosting across the bank’s stone tile floor, checking every shadow or potential hiding spot.
They cleared the room without incident.
“Suspicious,” Fergiil commented immediately. Genshi duck-nodded. The young Brother had good instincts.
“Sticks,” he ordered. They all drew a shieldstick from their harnesses and held them in their left paws, ready for immediate use.
Champions were leaders, not dictators. They held their position through being unafraid to do the same dirty work as the Clan’s most junior members, which was why Genshi took point between the glass consultation rooms at the back of the lobby, where the potential danger was at its closest.
The fact that he had the skills, experience and reflexes to survive if there was an ambush may have had something to do with it too. All of the brothers in his Claw were unaugmented and relatively young. They were well-trained and intelligent as a Whitecrest ought to be, but he was the only true veteran among them.
Which was why his shieldstick hit the ground and flared into life the instant he sensed movement where there shouldn’t be any. It was why the pulse shots splashed harmlessly against his freshly-deployed cover rather than pulverizing his bones and pulping his flesh. It was why the three biodrones that tried to kill him all went sprawling dead in the space of two seconds, each dropped by an efficient double-tap to center mass that sneered at their mere military-grade combat shield harnesses.
Fergiil and Yagu shot the last two, and a deadly ambush was over before it had even really begun. The biodrones were going to have to do much better than that to best a Champion.
“Playtime’s over. Cubs—kill.”
The power had failed and the lights were down, so with their cloaks the Claw were a ghostly wave among the shadows, crashing through, over and around anything that got in their way. Every Gaoian body in the bank that wasn’t a Brother died the instant there was a straight line between it and a Whitecrest.
Genshi could only see his Brothers by their infrared lasers in his goggles. Even when they fired their weapons, the flash was negligible.
In seconds, they were standing outside the vault. The Biodrones had been attempting fruitlessly to penetrate it with explosives and fusion cutters. The door was twice as thick as a Gaoian was tall, with subsurface forcefield reinforcement, sophisticated armor materials and the kind of metallurgy in its construction that had been impossible to Gaoian science even twenty years ago. Their efforts so far had ruined the Goldpaw livery painted on its surface and torn up the tiled floor in front of it, but achieved exactly nothing in regards to actually penetrating the vault.
Genshi simply entered the access code.
This was not entirely as straightforward a process as he might have liked, because one thing the drones had achieved was to completely demolish the control panel. In fact, it took nearly ten nervous minutes while Yagu excavated the shattered unit and replaced it with a portable unit that hopefully was up-to-date with Goldpaw’s security systems and wouldn’t inspire the vault to totally lock itself down.
Once that was installed, however, Genshi entered the access code, and the door opened outwards, toward them. No amount of explosives were ever going to smash it inwards thanks to its slight conical shape, but once opened correctly the door pushed itself outwards and rolled aside with little fanfare or difficulty. Fractured tiles crushed and splintered under its weight with a noise like an expensive accident in a plate factory.
They ignored the stacks of silver, the assorted land deeds, artworks and cultural artefacts. Perfectly unscathed historical treasures were snubbed, priceless artworks were disregarded entirely. Their goal was a black composite crate resting ignominiously in a corner. Not shoved there—Goldpaw bankers were far too proud to treat the treasures in their vaults with anything but reverence—but certainly not exactly in pride of place. If the vault was a private museum or art gallery, then Genshi’s crate was not in favor with the curator.
And that was exactly how Whitecrest liked it.
Its contents were three smaller boxes, with carrying handles and straps. Handing them out to the strongest Brothers was the work of seconds.
Genshi checked his timepiece. Four minutes ahead of schedule.
“Mother’s coming,” he said.
Seconds later, the vault was closing behind them, and once the small fusion charge they left behind went off the Hierarchy would never be able to find out what they had stolen.
Date Point: 14y2d AV
Farthrow Facility, Lavmuy City, Planet Gao
Lieutenant Anthony “Abbott” Costello
Costello had no idea how Warhorse had managed to hold up. He hadn’t taken off his Mass, ran his shifts like absolute clockwork, hustled around the base treating wounded, eating and keeping himself limber and loose via calisthenics when there was nothing else to do. The man was like a machine.
A quiet, monotone, unemotional machine.
Protectors conditioned to wear the Mass harder and longer than anybody else. It was one of the essential differences between them and the other two classes of HEAT operator—Aggressors killed, Defenders labored, Protectors turned the EV-MASS into a second skin, to the point where it seemed to liberate rather than encumber them.
But the best body in the world was no good in some circumstances. Adam was supposed to be a happy man. Even on-mission he had an essential positivity to him that couldn’t be suppressed, and seeing the liveliness drained out of him was almost too much to bear.
Fortunately, it might just come back.
Costello found him doing effortless one-armed handstand push-ups in the yard round the back of the facility where a ring of Hescos had been laid down to create a free space. He’d been at them for some time, judging by the puddle of sweat in the dirt and the small divot where he repeatedly touched his nose. A handful of servicemen who apparently had nothing more important to be doing right then were watching the show with totally awestruck expressions.
Costello glared at them, projecting a Powell-esque certainty that their continued presence would see him exercise the full extent of his power to make their lives difficult, and they promptly remembered their important duties elsewhere.
Adam noticed Costello approach and, in one fluid motion, pressed himself up so hard he practically flipped upright and straight into the position of attention. The man moved like the Mass weighed nothing at all.
Costello waved at him to relax. “Stand easy, ‘Horse. Got some good news for you: Kovač is alive and well.”
His monster Protector practically fell apart on the spot, relief causing all the tension and emotional lockdown to visibly slide off his body like a shed coat. He muttered something in Spanish that Costello didn’t catch, glanced skywards, and then gave Costello a grateful look that was hungry for more information.
“She made it out?”
*“Cally*’s lifeboats are a couple thousand klicks east of here, but she did indeed make it out,” Costello confirmed. “Unfortunately, none of the officers did. Powell’s promoted her to second lieutenant. She’s in charge out there until we can establish superiority in the region and bring them home.”
Warhorse nodded and, for the first time since he’d learned about the Caledonia, bounced on the balls of his feet. No smile yet, but that was okay.
“Of course, we now have a problem of fraternization…” Costello joked, and there was the smile, chased by a Muttley snicker of a laugh that lasted just until Arés could get his expression under control again. He cleared his throat and straightened up.
They didn’t in fact have any such problem, the regs having predicted and accounted for this particular scenario, but morale was everything in Costello’s book and unlike Powell he had the luxury of teasing his men to build them up. He was damn well going to use that tool until it was taken from him.
Arés definitely wasn’t averse to returning the joke. “I wouldn’t worry sir. She wouldn’t want me until I get a shower anyway.”
Costello took a sniff. “I don’t blame her,” He agreed, putting on his best sardonic snark before sobering. “Now, I should note she’s not out of the woods yet, but she’s got Corporal Wilde and his team with her.”
“He’s good. They’re good.” Arés’ face was finally starting to warm up again. “I’m glad.”
“Thought you would be…how’s Dexter holding up?”
Costello admitted to a weakness here—He wasn’t as familiar with the Gaoians as he’d like to be. The Whitecrests’ whole raison d’etre was being a closed book, and being an officer was always a barrier anyway. They only truly opened up to their fellow “Brothers,” of whom Arés and Firth were about their closest and most trusted.
Arés paused for a bit. “Gaoians…they’re funny sometimes about this kind of thing. He’s…lookin’ to kill a lot of biodrones, sir.”
“Yeah. Grief isn’t really the same for them. They’re all about honoring a memory more than, I dunno.” Arés shrugged expansively. “He’ll be okay as long as he’s busy.”
“Well,” Costello nodded. “I think I can indulge him there. Go find him for me and point him my way. We need his expert eye on some planning to bring the Champions together for a strategic meeting.”
“Will do sir, was just about to make my rounds. I was gettin’ bored anyway.”
“‘Horse, the day you get bored of exercise will be marked in my calendar for sure,” Costello told him.
“Oh no, it was too light, you see. I miss my grav plating…”
Some things couldn’t ever change, thank God.
“I doubt you’ll lose any of your gainz,” Costello interrupted him indulgently. “Now go: The sooner you find him, sooner you can get back to intimidating the airborne troopers.”
Arés grinned cheesily. “Will do! One thing sir, a medical issue—how’s your head?”
Costello rubbed his skull, where the memory of a sniper’s bullet was still making it tender. An EV-MASS helmet was sturdy beyond belief, but all the energy still had to go somewhere, and it had chosen the path of least resistance—his scalp. “Seems fine to me.”
“Can’t be too careful. Crude may be spacemagic but that don’t mean I completely trust it. Any dizziness? Spots in your vision? Forgetfulness?”
“Not that I noticed.”
Arés had an unique way of practicing tactical medicine—gentle, but inexorable. Before Costello knew what was going on, his head was firmly grasped in one paw while the other paw shone a light into his eyes. Costello went limp and let him tilt his head back and forth, interrogating his eyes for signs of trauma with practiced suspicion.
He’d never had the balls to refuse ‘Horse’s attentions. Nobody did, not even Firth, who’d given his only fuck long ago.
Finally, Arés seemed satisfied. “…Seems okay,” he grunted, dubiously. “We’re gonna do memory tests later though.”
“Fine, fine. Are you gonna go find Dex now?”
Arés smiled, “Yessir.” He nodded—there was no saluting “downrange,” especially not with known sniper activity in the area—grabbed a bag of his stomach-turning high-energy food ‘slurry,’ bounced off and left Costello alone with his thoughts.
There was a thump felt through the soles of his feet rather than heard, and the sound of yet another Weaver firing up its thrusters to lift itself out of the jump array. They were up to four arrays now, each fed by a fusion plant that alone could have kept a small rural county powered back on Earth, and each one was bringing through trucks, men, planes, food, medicine, ammunition, beds, and latrines.
The latrines were important. There was a small corps of engineers doing the rounds being reminded every two minutes by a passionate and inventively descriptive NCO that their efforts were all that stood between Gao and another Cimbrean skidmark, and they’d jury-rigged a device that combined all the features of a max-strength biofilter forcefield and an incinerator to handle the waste.
Every new pair of boots through the Arrays was getting a similarly descriptive lecture about the important relationship between Gao’s class nine biosphere and a human’s class twelve effluent: Namely that they must never, ever, under any circumstances, be allowed to come into contact.
Every boot through was also getting a shot, followed by an emergency Frontline implant, followed by three mandatory days of “theatre acclimatization” and light duty while they…well, acclimatized.
This time, the reason for that acclimatization was effectively reversed. It wasn’t to contain the spread of sickness among the troops, it was to prevent the spread of sickness from the troops to the locals. Gao would hardly be saved if the Common Cold got loose and finished off what the Hierarchy had started.
That meant three days of waiting with an effectively wide-open sky over their head before the campaign to secure the planet could really get started, but it was a horribly necessary gamble. Gaoians may have been tough and hardy but no chances could be taken, not now, not in such a dynamic situation. All of this was necessary to protect the cubs and the elderly, both of whom would be essential to recovering the population and preserving Gaoian culture.
Costello didn’t like to think about it, but Gao was fucked. Even in the best-case scenario where they successfully defended it and it remained the hub of Gaoian civilization…Their infrastructure was smashed, and from what could be gathered, there were now several massive ecological disasters either ongoing or imminent: nuclear, chemical and otherwise. Their great institutions were either shattered or operating in the most dire of emergency modes. Farms were abandoned as the clanless fled them and Stoneback consolidated its forces, roads were choked with wreckage and corpses, as soon as the power went the drinking water would go with it, and worst of all, most Gaoians had absolutely no idea why so many of their number had suddenly betrayed their fellows.
And that was just the practical stuff, saying nothing of the culture, the shell-shock, the long-term repercussions to Gaoian psyche and society. It was every man for himself out there, and Gaoians naturally formed fiercely loyal groups—As the old Clans collapsed, the Clanless formed their own without any of the tradition and restraint that came from age. There were gang wars raging out there between groups of perfectly unimplanted Clanless, Straightshield was running ragged since most of their Judge-Fathers had been sequestered or worse, and Emberpelt simply could not keep up with the emergency. Openpaw’s hospitals were either overrun or burning, and the female communes had been either evacuated or massacred.
The only safe bubble was around the Humans and around Stoneback. That, somehow, had been noticed by the civilians, and that all by itself was the only tenuous thread keeping things from descending into complete chaos. The Females did what they could for the cubs, and Costello knew that problem was even now being heatedly discussed by men and Gaoians far above his paygrade.
His tour of the base took him past the Array field, where a number of MPs—many of them women, an old tactic to calm frightened civilians—were shepherding refugees into the field boundary for evacuation to Cimbrean. Cimbrean itself was still reeling from the implication of potentially millions of refugees…it was completely untenable.
Noah had been granted ample warning to build his Ark. The Allied military were building theirs in the space of hours, drawing from scenarios gamed only in the imaginations of the most feverishly paranoid analysts.
Those same analysts had worried about a possible hack on Frontline implants as well. Those fears, blessedly, had been swiftly put to bed by AEC’s resident Corti expert on advanced biochemistry, Nofl, who had ‘patiently’ explained at length that the implant was purely chemical in function and had no electronics by design.
Too many questions for one man to handle. Too big a problem for a whole army to solve. And the war had only just begun.
He watched the MPs step back. There was a black blink, another boot-tickling thump and the Gaoian evacuees were gone, replaced by a pair of armored personnel carriers that carefully backed out of the marked area and drove towards their mustering area.
Aware that he had better sleep while he had the chance, he turned toward the Mayor Cell to find out where the hell his bed was, and resolved to shut out all those problems, just for a few hours.
There would be plenty more when he woke up.
Date Point: 14y2d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Father Gyotin of Clan Starmind
So much despair. The air reeked of it. Of fatigue, and fear, and unwashed fur; of blood, smoke and concrete dust. It smelled like the end of the world.
Hope, meanwhile, smelled like warm stew and fresh blankets. It sounded like an acoustic guitar, like Human children teaching Gaoian cubs how to play soccer, and people calmly calling out orders and organizing themselves. It looked like the population of Cimbrean, turning out their pantries and their closets to bring something like comfort back into the lives of so many numbed refugees.
And it felt like the warmth that settled in Gyotin’s belly as he watched a pack of cubs who hadn’t eaten in two days dive nose-first into a warm meal with endless enthusiasm and an equally endless lack of manners.
The young Mother watching them wasn’t touching hers, however. She was just staring into the bowl and through it, watching something only she could see.
“May I sit here?”
Gyotin managed to ask so softly that the female didn’t even jump. She simply emerged from whatever horrible reverie she’d been stuck in, glanced at him, and her ears parted sideways in a mix of relief and welcome. Gyotin could guess that right now, the sight of somebody who looked even vaguely positive was probably an anchor.
He gathered his robes and sat down beside her. His seat was an upturned agricultural feed bucket next to a “table” that consisted of a couple of planks held up by more buckets. Amazing that somebody had donated what was essentially just trash to the cause only for it to become among the most useful stuff there.
“You should eat,” he prompted gently.
“I feel sick,” the female replied. “I’m so hungry it hurts, but every time I try to eat, I…”
She trailed off despairingly. Gyotin duck-nodded and laid his satchel on the table.
“Gyotin,” he introduced himself, opening it.
“It’s bad, back home?”
She duck-nodded slowly and solemnly, watching while Gyotin produced a brushed steel thermal flask from his satchel, along with a small teapot, a couple of cups and his favorite loose-leaf green tea. He’d tried the powerful dark black stuff in little porous bags that the British Humans seemed to prefer, and found it bitter and cloying.
Seema watched him without comment.
“The locals seem to believe that tea can make anything seem better,” Gyotin told her as he laid out the rest of his utensils.
“So far.” Gyotin gave her an amused flick of the ear, and got a weak, faint chitter for it. “But if you can’t eat, you can perhaps drink.”
The point, in fact, was less to have a drink and more to focus her mind on something unimportant. He’d studied tea ceremonies from several human cultures, from the precise, neat ones favored by the Japanese and Koreans, to the Chinese one where more of the water was spent cleaning everything and being poured away rather than making a drink, and the fussy ornamental British one with the milk and the silver spoon.
He’d invented a Gaoian one, on the basis that he was intent on rediscovering and reinventing Gaoian spirituality, not wholesale converting to another species’ traditions. The important elements were simple enough - ensure that the water was pure, the utensils were clean before used and cleaned afterwards, that the cups were warm and that the resulting tea was perfectly brewed at the correct temperature.
Everything else was about precision. Place the items just so, fold the cloths like this, dampen one of them with exactly so much hot water, hold the utensils thus. In troubled times, simply focusing on doing something simple in a perfectly precise way was…cleansing.
It certainly got Seema’s attention. She watched him work with her ears first at a puzzled angle, then slowly to an interested angle, then finally a relaxed one. She accepted the cup he handed over with a whispered thank-you and took a deep cleansing breath of the beverage’s steam with her eyes closed before sipping it.
“…Interesting,” she commented politely after a second.
“I usually add honey to sweeten it,” Gyotin confessed. “But I’m lucky that I’m not allergic to it. Not every Gaoian is so lucky.”
“I think I like it as it is,” Seema mused. She sipped again, and duck-nodded thoughtfully. Plainly, the restorative powers of tea were working their magic yet again.
“I’ll be sure to make you some more, sometime,” Gyotin replied. He drank his own tea with her in comfortable silence before packing his equipment away, accepting her cup last and cleaning it with the damp cloth. “You’ll be okay?”
“I feel…better, now.”
“Good.” Gyotin tucked the last of his tea set into its satchel and stood. “I’d better go see if somebody else needs a drink.”
She duck-nodded gratefully. “Thank you.”
Gyotin bowed, shouldered his bag and turned away, heading for a knot of bewildered-looking new arrivals who clearly needed to be found somewhere to sit down and process matters.
He glanced over his shoulder after a few seconds. Seema had picked up her stew. As he watched she sniffed it, then grabbed her spoon and ate.
Another soul, helped.
A whole species still to go.
Date Point: 14y2d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“I don’t care if we have to bribe them, threaten them…whatever. The point is if they have land to put up some refugees, they’re going to put up some refugees. One big central camp is just inviting a disaster, we need to spread them out into manageable units.”
“At this rate it won’t matter how manageable we make them, Chief. Sheer numbers will overwhelm us.”
Not so long ago, Gabe wouldn’t have been able to cope with today at all. The chronic pain and lingering weakness in his back and leg would have made being on the field the next best thing to impossible.
Today, he was striding about the place absorbing everything. The latest refugee count, the statistics on how much had been volunteered and by whom, and he was doing it all on the ground where the numbers were real, rather than marching abstractly across his desk from far away.
They were big numbers. The Allied operation on Gao was sending civilians—especially cubs, females and elders—through the array practically as fast as they could be marshalled into it. Folctha was suffering brown-outs trying to keep the Array powered, never mind charging the vehicles to transport those refugees from the Array to the staging area in Quarterside Park.
If Folctha’s citizens hadn’t stood up like heroes, it would all have been an order of magnitude more difficult. As it was, a lot of families were going to bed hungry tonight.
Gabe’s map, meanwhile, was covered in little bright flags made from toothpicks and post-it notes. The farms out around New Belfast and Sellers Lake that were making their barns and sheds available; the businesses in Folctha that were donating their services, and the public buildings that were donating their rooms; the farms, buildings and businesses that weren’t doing those things; a whole color-coded political web trying to make sense of who could go where so as to minimize the risk of fights and friction.
Then there were the progress reports. How the tents and other disaster relief from Earth was faring as it passed through decontamination for alien use. How big the vehicle fleet was grown, how many volunteers they had in the soup kitchen…
…How many rank rot-in-Hell festering sons of shit they’d had to arrest for trying to exploit the situation. A small number, that one, but Gabe was resolved that he’d later crawl across red-hot metal if it would ensure that those few individuals served as a powerful deterrent to the rest and if he had to bring back the public stocks and pillories then so be it.
They were a minor thorn in his sock though. Disproportionately irritating. The fact was that Folctha’s community were showing their character to an inspiring degree, and that character was tough, empathetic, charitable and industriously honest.
But even they could only handle so much. Cimbrean Colonial Security was already stretched to the point of twanging, the hospital’s alien-safe wing was bursting at the seams, and God only knew how they were going to cope while the aid workers coming from Earth went through a mandatory three-day quarantine as their new Frontline implants made them alien-safe.
Interstellar war was a bitch.
“What about the livestock farmers?” he asked, skimming the food supply reports. There, Cimbrean was ahead of the game—The colony’s most prolific and profitable industry by far was agriculture. Even with thousands of refugees flooding them they had a vast food surplus.
“The colony negotiated emergency powers years ago to seize and slaughter their herds so long as they’re reimbursed and their breeding stock is left intact.”
“Do we need to do that yet?”
“But we should begin preparations,” Gabe decided. “Write up the recommendation to the First Minister and stick it in front of me to sign when it’s needed.”
Another CCS officer arrived to replace the one he’d just dismissed. “Coffee, Chief.”
Gabe accepted it gratefully. “Thanks. Who made this?”
“Your missus, Chief. Made enough for everyone, and sandwiches.”
“She’s an angel.” Gabe sipped it. Strong and rich, just how he liked it. An anchor to saner times.
“Okay,” he said. “Next.”
Date Point: 14y2d AV
Camp Farthrow, Lavmuy City, Planet Gao
Champion and Stud-Prime Daar of Clan Stoneback
Gao didn’t smell like home. It smelled like death. A lot of death, that punched Daar right in the nostrils the second the jump field collapsed and deposited him back on his home planet.
One more little thing to add to his pile of rage. He’d had to work at keeping himself under control as it was. Every second of his trip back had been agony.
Lieutenant Costello was waiting for him off the Array. Daar was inclined to like Costello—the lieutenant was friendly and relatable in a way Powell and Knight couldn’t be, and he never made the same mistake twice, if he made it at all.
He stood at a respectful distance, did a not-very-discreet look-over of Daar, and decided to keep back. Daar couldn’t blame him.
“Good to have you back in the fight, Tigger.”
Daar barely managed to suppress a flash of anger at having been reminded of what he’d just lost. “That’s Champion Daar from now on. I’m not in SOR anymore.”
“…Right. Yes, Champion.” Costello fell in alongside him, gesturing toward the large aircraft-hangar-lookin’ building that seemed to be a centerpiece for the human base. “Stainless and Templar are bringing things together for a full briefing soon. The short version is that orbital space is mostly secure, though we’re being probed by Hierarchy fleets coming in from further afield, mostly from out-system and the colonies. They’ve made it impossible to secure air superiority.”
“You need to fix that.”
“We are aware, Champion. This way.”
Costello led him smartly into the building, where a trio of biofilter fields made absolutely certain he was free of any lingering diseases from Akyawentuo and Earth, and a pair of guards made certain his head was still 100% biology.
Daar practiced his calming thoughts while he waited.
Farthrow facility. He’d heard about it, of course, by unofficial Champion means. Allied Clans were careful to let each other know just enough about each other’s big projects to allay suspicions, and Daar had initially been suspicious of the Farthrow project. It was ambitious, and if successful could radically alter the Gao’s prospects. A lot of Clan Stoneback scoffed at the idea that the Longear ‘geeks’ might ever pose a threat to the established economic order, but Daar knew better than to sneer at geeks. They tended to come up with the nastiest ploys.
Fortunately, Meereo was an even more savvy political animal than he was an engineer. Daar had once invited Meereo over for freshly-killed game and a friendly and competitive game of chaseball between Clans, which then inevitably devolved into a massacre of boisterous wrestling. Meereo knew how to fight but he was tiny and the result was…satisfyingly predictable. He’d politely put up just enough of a fight before capitulating, both physically and metaphorically, and once everyone was happy and trusting and the pecking order had been sorted out…he shared the details.
The actual Farthrow generator was buried in a sub-basement somewhere, Daar knew. The humans had commandeered the facility’s ground floor and converted it into a thrumming command center. Intel analysts were bustling around like worker insects, assorted officers and NCOs were shuttling in and out like Goldpaw auctioneers at a livestock market, and there was a constrained quality to the susurrus of people hard at work. Not quiet, but not loud either. Just intensely industrious.
The nexus of it all was a spread of tables toward the back of the room, layered in maps, tablets and the paraphernalia of command. Powell was leaning on them, measuring and taking notes and turning to say something to a man who nodded and departed, only to be replaced.
There was quite an entourage around him. Mother Yulna, Champion Meereo, Regaari…he felt a sick lurch when he spotted Myun standing behind the mother-supreme sporting an ugly injury up one side of her mouth that had twisted her pretty features into a permanent feral sneer. It looked recent.
Rebar was standing toward the back, alongside a human Daar didn’t recognize who managed to look important even while standing in the background. There was something…weighty, about the case he was carrying.
First things first. Even in the fall of everything, Daar attended to protocol.
Yulna ducked and bowed primly. “Champion.”
That was as much as she was going to get from Daar. “Your guardian…”
“Myun saved my life,” Yulna glanced back at the huge sister behind her. “Two of my personal staff were biodrones.”
Yulna was smart, Daar knew. Smart enough to catch a very blunt power play. “She’s good. That’s why we placed her on your entourage.”
Yulna duck-nodded sagely. If she was remotely upset at such a show of political force, she didn’t let on. “…My thanks,” she said, and left it at that. She was definitely a little better at playing the game than the last time Daar had spoken with her.
He turned to Myun, now. She had been so beautiful… Though in fact she still was, in a new way. “I am…very proud of you, daughter. You reflect well on our ancestors.”
A younger Myun would have probably bounced off the walls at the compliment. He could see that the events of the last two days had aged and sobered her, however. Myun simply duck-nodded respectfully, with a grateful set of her ears, but declined to speak. Possibly, speaking was painful.
Innocence, murdered. And hers was but one tiny drop in the ocean of tragedy.
It was time to fight back. He turned to the group, found a good place to stand, and looked about at the people gathered.
The man standing next to Rebar shifted a little, as if he’d been expecting a continuation of the formalities, but everybody else at the table knew Daar well. Powell just nodded grimly and gestured to the map.
“For now, the bulk of the fighting is in the cities. We estimate…somewhere between one point two and one point four billion Gaoians with implants have been ‘droned. Most were city dwellers, where network infrastructure was dense enough to enable it.”
That was a number too large to really get. “So many? And so quickly?”
Meereo spoke up. “Our analysis of captured Ghosts suggests that they can, well, simply embed a controlling application in a person and turn them into robotic agents. It isn’t perfect control, but it’s enough for their purposes.”
“Is there any hope for them? Can we, I dunno, do some network magic or somethin’?”
Powell shook his head. “Maybe if we had time,” he said. “Maybe. But we don’t. Hunter scout elements were already watching the system when we arrived, and they sunk HMS Caledonia in a surprise attack. We’re still tryin’ to figure out the rationale behind that, as far as Templar can tell it looks like a tactical blunder on their part. But one consequence is that we’re a ship and its Bulldogs down. That’s made the difference between bein’ able to claim orbital superiority an’ not. ”
Daar looked towards Regaari. “What is the composition of this billion? Clanless? Clan? Talents? Do we know?”
“Sixty-one percent Clan, Twenty-seven percent Talents,” Regaari reported promptly. Something was badly off with him, Daar could tell even through the sharp professionalism that was his Cousin’s trademark, but now wasn’t the time to delve into it. “Ten percent Clanless, two percent Females.”
Instead of commenting on Regaari’s off-ness, Daar nodded respectfully and made his esteem known. “Excellent as always, Father Regaari. On the Females…and cubs. What is their disposition?”
“Stoneback prevented a massacre at Wi Kao and several other major Communes, though there were still…” Regaari paused for a painful fraction of a second, “…losses. Most of the remaining large Communes with augmented Sisters and Mothers suffered severe losses or were massacred outright. The smaller Communes fared much better, and we’ve devoted our efforts to evacuating them to Cimbrean. The Humans have been…most generous. And understanding.”
Daar clamped down on his feelings and pressed on. “Understood, Cousin. Do we…I hate to ask, but I must know. What does our future look like?”
“Evacuating the Females and Cubs is paramount. If we don’t…and regardless, we can at the very least expect severe depopulation in the near- to mid-term future.”
“Understood. Stainless,” he turned to Powell. “How much can Cimbrean handle? And for how long?”
Powell picked up a document. “In the long term, there’s no reason the planet Cimbrean couldn’t accommodate the entire Clan of Females,” he read. “In the short term…the bottleneck is how quickly Folctha can power its jump arrays. And each jump from here needs a matching jump of aid supplies from Earth, which we can’t provide indefinitely. Our humanitarian resources are already workin’ overtime as it is.”
Daar thought hard about that for a moment. “Stoneback has emergency reserves that can help to a degree. Laid in against livestock failure and all that…some of it is quite old but it’s been stasis-preserved. I will make them available to you immediately. Where is my Grandfather?”
“Garl and Champion-In-Stead Fiin are returning from a mission. They’ve been focusing on rescuing females…We expect them shortly.”
“Good.” Daar gave in to his nervous habit, dropped to all fours and started pacing. “You didn’t give me hard numbers, Stainless. How many?”
“Right now?…Twenty thousand, realistically. More over the comin’ months, but for now that’s already pushin’ Cimbrean to the breakin’ point.”
“…” Daar could only pause and contemplate that. It was…
“How…how many Females do we anticipate surviving this, Father Regaari?”
Regaari stiffened, the way he did whenever he was delivering bad news. “Optimistically, sixty percent. That assumes we can contain this quickly.”
Yulna spoke up. “Champion, we will be extremely lucky if a billion survive this, and that assumes the survivors don’t starve to death in the countryside. Biodrones are specifically targeting Females and the only ones that stand any chance of survival are those near Stoneback installations or other well-protected places. Most are not. And many of those that were lucky enough to be near such a redoubt are…under duress, as the Females are quickly becoming a…*currency*…between the surviving Clanless.”
Yulna spat that line out with particular fire, and Daar found himself growling along in agreement. Still. “Mother, I need hard numbers. How many do we expect to live?”
“Realistically…five hundred million, at most. I expect far less.”
Daar almost chittered to himself from the sheer crushing weight of it. Perversely, Mad Max came immediately to mind, and the more he thought about what was coming, the more he understood why.
“So…what we’re facing, then, is a huge population of survivor males in competition for breeding rights and basic necessities. They’re already Clanning up and fighting turf wars. They have nowhere to go, no cause to unite them, and therefore have no incentive to cooperate. And in thirty years time, assuming optimistic projections and assuming we survive this…our population will drop by billions almost overnight. Do I have the right of it?”
The room nodded in a long, uncomfortable silence.
“The mere fact of this happening is a potential extinction event,” Meereo said quietly. “Even if we win.”
“Not extinction,” Costello said. “We already evacuated enough females to ensure the Gaoian species will carry on.”
“Think, Costello.” Daar didn’t have time to be friendly. “A people is more than their blood. How will the Gao survive this? Twenty thousand females is not a culture. That’s hardly describable as healthy livestock.”
“To be perfectly bloody frank, you won’t,” Powell said. “This is the end of Gaoian civilization as was. We intend to ensure there’s enough left to pick up the pieces.”
“I know that. And…I am thankful. Just…” Daar decided he need to pause for a moment and breathe. It was so very, very much worse than he’d dared to imagine.
And he knew what he had to do.
Powell swept a hand at the map again. “The fight in orbit is our priority,” he said. “Our ground forces are focused entirely on supporting that, and until we have secured total control of this planet’s airspace we cannot devote any resources elsewhere. If we do, the Swarm of Swarms will come an’ finish what the Hierarchy started. The fight to save the Gaoians from what’s already here is on your back, Champion.”
He gave Daar a sympathetic look. “God help you,” he added.
Date Point: 14y2d AV
Camp Farthrow, Lavmuy City, Planet Gao
“I do have a question.”
The briefing was over. Plans had been made, the process of war had been decided upon. Yulna’s role in it was, of course, going to be a relatively minor one. At this point, as they had been far too many times in Gao’s history, the females of the species were a prize and an objective, rather than allies.
Now there were just…questions. She didn’t want to ask them of Daar specifically but he was the only one to answer them.
She made sure to ask them in private, however. Or at least, in as much privacy as the human camp afforded. Private space was a practically nonexistent luxury, for the time being.
Paradoxically, Daar’s foul mood was what allowed her to talk with him at all. In a less guarded moment, without his iron self-control in place, he might have brushed her off. As it was, he was working so hard to contain himself that he might actually be at his most approachable. All of which explained why his expression, when he turned to hear her question, was standoffish and hostile but nevertheless alert.
“…Ask,” he growled.
“Why didn’t you tell us?”
Daar all but snarled at her. He was doing an admirable job of restraining himself considering how much he clearly wanted to claw the guts out of everything in reach, but a mood like that didn’t exactly make for clear thinking. “You know why, don’t play the fool.”
“That wasn’t an accusation, Daar. I’m not talking about telling all the Females. I’m not necessarily even talking about me, if you couldn’t trust me.”
She stepped closer and spread her paws. “But you told Myun,” she pointed out. “Did you tell anybody else?”
“We told every Female we could trust.” He wielded that word like a weapon. “That is a very short list. Niral. Mothers at some of the more defensible communes.”
Yulna duck-nodded slowly. “…Thank you.”
She turned to go.
This, apparently, was more than Daar’s patience could hold up, because rather than letting her go he surged round in front of her on four paws before rearing up onto two to glower down at her.
“Do…do you truly not grasp the scale of what you have done, Yulna?” he accused.
Before, Yulna might have flinched or cowered. Now, with the whole of Gaoian civilization collapsing around them, she found she had something tougher than courage to hold her up even if it was built from little more than grief. She stared evenly up at him, sniffled a little to settle her whiskers and gathered her robes.
“Enlighten me,” she said. It was a subject that had been weighing on her mind for the last two days, but she wanted to hear Daar’s perspective.
“…Very well.” He dropped to all fours with the distinct air of disappointment. Somehow, that stung worse than his careful, formal speech. He paused for a moment, growled to himself, then pressed on.
“Where…I’m honestly not sure where to start. You chose at the worst possible moment to make the most flagrant display of personal rebuke you could possibly show before the whole of the Gao. You ordered a flotilla to Cimbrean—with no notice to even our allies—expressly to demand an audience from me. Everyone knows that, Hierarchy and otherwise. Any hope I had of bringing the Females in on the plan was shattered that day. There was no longer any possibility of briefing you or any Female of consequence on DEEP RELIC, and that meant we had to rethink our entire strategy, on the fly, and make do with what we could.”
Daar prowled about. He’d been doing a lot of that today. “The direct consequence of that shattering meant we could not hope to properly defend the Communes. We had to assume virtually all of them would be slaughtered. We were proven right. We couldn’t pre-position large Claws because the Females would notice, we had to plan around detection, on and on…do you begin to see how that tiny slip of trust paid such compound interest?”
Yulna didn’t argue. She’d seen all of that compound interest for herself as she’d read DEEP RELIC and thought about its consequences. It had opened a wound in her belly, knowing that her own decision had been a victory for an enemy that, at the time, she’d had no inkling even existed. The fact that she’d made that decision on the advice of Sisters whom she now knew had been that unknown enemy did absolutely nothing to balm her conscience.
She didn’t really have a reply for him, just the words of a woman far wiser than herself.
“…Daar, my predecessor passed on a number of writings, journals, video diaries and collected thoughts to me. One of them was on the nature of trust.”
Daar paused and regarded her with a tilt of his head. “Did she, now?”
“Trust…is like bravery, she said,” Yulna revealed. “You can only be brave when you are afraid, yes? Bravery is not the absence of fear, it is how you overcome fear.”
Daar duck-nodded grudgingly, so Yulna forged ahead. “Giymuy felt something similar must be true about trust. She felt that if you never have any doubts about the people you trust, then it isn’t actually trust. Trust inherently implies the possibility of betrayal.”
She spread her paws again. “The Females have always been afraid, Daar. We have never been entirely certain that the day wouldn’t come when we’d be forced back into the harems and become property again. We have trusted Stoneback all these long centuries…but that gave you power over us. I am truly sorry that I was not braver, I am truly sorry that I flinched…but even if none of us lived in those cages, we still remember them. We’ve always been scared of what you could do to us. You, to whom we exposed our throats and bellies.”
She sighed, and shook her head. “I don’t expect you to forgive me. You’re right, I blundered terribly and I know now that I’m partly to blame for the deaths of millions of my Sisters. All I ask is that…” She paused, then shook her head and stopped, letting the request trail away into a despairing silence.
“How could I have foreseen this?” she asked instead, and waved a paw at the whole world. “A mere falling-out between the Mother-Supreme and the Champion of Stoneback would be unfortunate, but repairable…Great Mother, it’s not even unprecedented.”
“No,” Daar agreed. “No it isn’t. That’s why we have very simple principles. It’s easy to understand what to do when the rules are clear. We protect and we provide. We do nothing else.”
Yulna nodded, sadly. The rules were indeed simple…But as the Humans so eloquently had it, the devil was in the details. And when simple principles collided with complex reality…
“…Thank you,” she said again rather than voicing her thoughts, and turned away for the second time. This time, Daar stood motionless and watched her leave.
Date Point: 14y2d AV
Three Valleys, Amanyuy Territory, Planet Gao.
Second Lieutenant (brevet) Martina Kovač
The farm turned out to be abandoned. Recently so—the heated underfloor was still warm, the refrigerator was full of food, and there were dirty eating utensils scattered here and there which suggested the place was a bit of a bachelor paradise anyway, but none of them was sporting any kind of fuzzy life. Assuming Gao had that kind of aggressive food-ruining mold.
It probably did. Kovač wasn’t an expert, but presumably any living planet needed some kind of fungal action or else dead material would pile up everywhere. So, probably it was present, but slower than the Earth equivalent.
Wherever the occupants had got to, the Marines didn’t find more than some shed fur of them. There was a greasy patch in the barn which suggested a vehicle was usually stored in there, but the vehicle itself was absent.
Otherwise, it was… a farm. No stupid spacefuture stuff here, this was a place where dirt got turned into food.
There were some differences. Gaoians liked to sleep communally all snuggled up in their nest-beds, and the workhouse at the center of the farmyard wasn’t so much a country residence as a hard-working dormitory with basically nothing in the way of private space. But it was sturdily built out of poured concrete with a rustic decorative cladding, small double-glazed windows and a commanding view of the fields in every direction.
The things missing that Marty’s non-agricultural imagination suggested a farm should have were the lack of a water tower or windmill. Instead there was a well, powered by a no-nonsense electric pump which in turn was fed by solar panels on the barn roof, a technology that was about as out-of-date in Gaoian terms as finding a steam-powered tractor on Earth.
To Kovač’s eye it seemed dark and claustrophobic, but the marines took an immediate liking to it.
“Sturdy stuff,”Hodder said approvingly. “Should stand up to small arms quite well, assuming the walls aren’t hollow.”
“Any improvements to make?” Kovač asked.
Rees ran a practiced eye over it. “Sandbags or something like that if we can find ‘em, dig some holes if we can’t, and fill the windows. Of course, if we had air superiority we wouldn’t even be here, we’d just be waiting on a ride out of here, so…”
“Unless there’s something we can do to help ourselves there, I don’t need to know,” Marty told him. An airstrike would wipe them out in a heartbeat, but that had been true from the moment their lifeboat hit soil. There was no sense in stressing about the things she couldn’t control.
“Actually, there might be,” Hodder said. “We’ve got those field emitters from the lifeboat. They aren’t powerful enough to stop a hit, but they might make an incoming weapon explode high up, rather than down here.”
“That’s something for Patel to do, then,” Marty nodded. “You two focus on the dig-in.”
The two men nodded and hustled to work on it, leaving Marty to deal with the shortwave radio. She’d elected to carry it herself—the radio itself wasn’t a big deal, being a sturdy chunk of hard-wearing equipment about the size of a shoebox, but it was attached to a hundred meter antenna on a reel, all stored as a hard-wearing olive drab backpack. With that thing deployed and strung between two posts or buildings, the radio’s effective range was more or less anywhere on the planet.
Right now though, she had it plugged into its other antenna, the shorter one that flopped and helicoptered crazily around above her head. It was all she could do to keep it from slapping her in the back of the head every time she bent down or entertained an impure thought of glancing any way but straight. Deacon, who had the filthiest sense of humor of anybody Marty had ever known, had gone suspiciously straight-faced.
Marty was not a radio operator. None of them were. But it was a survival radio, intended to be used by whoever happened to bail out of the lifeboat and retrieve it, so the basic instructions were stuck to the top in big, idiot-proof print. That plus a sharp mind for technology translated to quickly getting a feel for how it worked, and Marty wasted no time in kneeling down to unsling the pack and uncoil the antenna reel.
In minutes, she had it strung between the barn and the farmhouse, had run the cable through the wall of “sandbags”—repurposed fertilizer bags full of wet dirt—that the others were setting up, and soon enough she had a functional little command post set up, complete with a table. Not bad.
Now to get back in touch with the other ‘boats.
“Allied units, this is JOCKEY at Lifeboat Two-alfa-tango-niner, we have established an operating base and are ready to assist and receive you. Report your status, over.”
She watched as the ALE circuitry continuously strobed through the frequencies and repeated her message, always on the lookout for some other radio’s pilot tone. Probably. It had…been a while since her crash course in radio operations. It didn’t need her attention anyway, so she got out her tablet with the map app. Satcom was still down, which meant its connection to the Fleet Intelligence Center was a low-bandwidth, sporadic link through the shortwave, but she had a decent map of the region, with bookmarks already saved for the ‘boat’s crash site, their current position, and the town Wilde was checking out with Alpha team.
The nearest lifeboat she knew of was three-alfa-tango-four, about twenty klicks to the east. That one had reported in first, and was so far the grimmest for injuries.
They were also the first to check in. The ALE dinged a happy tone, worked furiously to lock a clear frequency, then turned green and opened the call.
“JOCKEY, Lifeboat Tree-alfa-tango-four. We’re prepared to move as best we can, but it’ll be difficult without transportation as we have more wounded than able-bodied. Our coordinates are as follows…”
An annotation arrived on the SMS sideband and automatically updated her tablet. Marty marked it on the map and studied what she could see. They’d landed on a hilltop, in the middle of more fields but as with all farms there was a road with access to the field. All things considered, they could be in worse positions. “…Copy, Tree-alfa-tango-four,” she replied, carefully pronouncing it ‘tree’ for clarity, as she’d been trained. “We are attempting to secure transportation for you. Dig in and hold.”
“Orders received and understood. Tree-alfa-tango-four out.”
As soon as her counterpart signed off, another spoke up. All the other stations had heard their linktones and were piling up on the control channel; the ALE screen blinked every time a new station joined the frequency.
“JOCKEY, Lifeboat Two-alfa-tango-tree.” That was a new one, previously out of contact. The longer antenna was definitely working. She listened as they reeled off their coordinates and connected their tablets for map sync, and ticked air through her teeth in frustration. They were far out to the East, nearly two hundred kilometers away. “We have acquired vehicles, just need a destination. Must report that I have CALEDONIA-FIVE-ACTUAL here among our wounded. She is unresponsive and needs urgent medical treatment, over.”
Marty’s heart lifted in one sentence then sank in the next. FIVE-ACTUAL was code for *Caledonia*’s executive officer, Commander McDaniel. As an experience career officer who’d run Caledonia efficiently for years, she would have been perfect for handing off her brevet authority to.
Hearing how bad she was made for a punishing blow.
“…Understood, Two-alfa-tango-tree,” she called back. “You are…one-niner klicks from the nearest major settlement. Do you have marines, over?”
“…JOCKEY, we have three marines in able-bodied condition, over.”
Marty nodded. Right now, the lifeboats were just going to have to trust that their own training would be enough to defend themselves. The marines needed to be out there doing stuff, not sitting on their asses in a field waiting for an attack that might never come, or might come in the form of an airstrike or rod-from-god. Especially not when they had actual working vehicles, that was an asset too valuable to leave sitting still.
“Two-alfa-tango-tree, how many vehicles and of what type, over?”
“JOCKEY, that would be, uh… two vans and a tractor plus flat-bed trailer, over.”
The tractor wasn’t great. It would be slow, obvious and vulnerable even if that trailer could carry all the wounded without trouble. The vans were more anonymous, and probably faster. Most importantly, they needed to be out of the open.
“Okay, Two-alfa-tango-tree, orders are as follows: There is a settlement one-niner clicks to your west. Send your marines to scout it, then relocate in that direction. Try and secure allies, supplies and more vehicles if you can, if not report back to for further instruction…”
That process became a rhythm that she fell into almost without noticing. Make contact with a lifeboat, assess their situation, figure out where they were, what they needed, how they could get it. At some point through it all, Rees delivered a comfortable chair for her. Later on, somebody—she didn’t even notice who—delivered a ration pack. It was one of the British ones, and she hardly noticed what the menu was except that it was nice and spicy and the fruit energy bar was far too welcome.
Later on, there was a coffee, which arrived just before Wilde and Alpha Team reported that their initial reconnoitre of the town suggested a minor Big Hotel presence at most, if any. She authorized the corporal to push into town and bring back what he could grab.
After that…nothing. Just an unexpected lack of anything to do as she realized that everybody was carrying out their orders. She stood up, stretched out her back and sore legs, and decided to perform a quick inspection of the farm now that she had a moment.
It was dramatically changed. The Techs were performing like the well-oiled machine they were. They’d all drilled together like a ballet, and knew how to account for an absence among their number as they worked, with the result that under Hodder’s and Rees’ expert eyes the farm had already been transformed into…well, if it wasn’t a fortress it was sure as hell a lot tougher than it had been.
There were earthworks taking shape out there. Not big ones, but enough to put some dirt between a prone man and any bullets that might come his way. Patel was safely ensconced in a foxhole surrounded by sandbags, surrounded by salvaged forcefield tech which she was poring over on a tablet and fine-tuning. Hargreaves and Doyle—Adam’s suit techs, and therefore themselves the biggest and strongest men on the tech team, because that happened to anybody who spent much time around Adam—had cleared a landing area and laid down some guidance markers.
Things were coming together pretty good, in fact. Which meant, for Marty, just a small moment of relaxation and calm in the middle of a storm where she was able to look around and see that there was nothing for her to do at that exact moment.
Wilde interrupted it.
“Jockey, Archer-Alpha-One. Arrived at the town, no sign of hostiles yet. Got eyes on something like a pickup, and signs of life in what could be a pharmacy or clinic.”
Back to work. Marty sighed and returned to her duties.
“Copy, Archer-Alpha-One. Update regarding vehicles, we have…”
She settled back into her rhythm. They had a long road ahead of them.
Date Point: 14y2d AV
Yi-Jan Township, Three Valleys, Amanyuy Territory, Planet Gao.
“Nothing.” Tarraak confirmed. “It’s not sabotage or a malfunction, there’s just no power coming in off the regional grid.”
He threw his toolbag into a corner and glared suspiciously at the bound and straining form of their erstwhile workhouse-leader, Shurren. “He’s still being trouble?”
“He keeps it up I’mma claw his throat out,” growled Pinky. His name was Shun, but he was a rare albino, so to everybody in town he was Pinky. One of many reasons he hadn’t been accepted into a Clan.
Not that that was a mark of shame in this community. Everybody was a dropout in Yi-Jan…but it didn’t help they’d recently discovered Human cartoons; Pinky was strong but he wasn’t very smart.
Tarraak had avoided the nickname “Brain” by way of some carefully applied fights and a few scars. Being the town mechanic, handyman and general smart guy was something to be proud of, he wasn’t about to let the others burden him with a silly nickname.
“How does that happen?” Dinso asked. He was the closest thing Yi-Jan had to a doctor, an Openpaw dropout who’d drifted to an agricultural district to work as a veterinarian and found that broken bones and diseases worked pretty much the same in any species.
“It’s war out there,” Tarraak opined. “If that wasn’t an escape pod that came down out by the farm, I’ll eat my own balls. You all remember the flashes in the sky. That had to be fusion warheads.”
The others duck-nodded.
“They’ll be reconnoitring the area.” That was Kiro, who fancied himself a tactical “expert” and spent far too long studying Stoneback and Human tactics on the infosphere. And even longer playing online strategy games. He was an obese idiot most of the time, but Tarraak was inclined to listen to him for now. He was the only one who might know anything relevant, after all.
“Yeah, but who’s they?” Pinky asked.
“That pod hit hard,” Tarraak noted. “So they’re probably Clan with access to really good inertial…thingies. Whatever they’re called.”
“Aren’t you the mechanic?” Dinso asked.
“I fix tractors and water pumps. I don’t know spaceships,” Tarraak growled at him. The skinny “doctor” flattened his ears submissively and didn’t press further.
“They could be humans. Humans could survive a hard landing…” Kiro said.
“Just because you want to meet a deathworlder, Kiro, doesn’t mean they’re about to fall out of the sky,” Tarraak told him. He glanced out of the window. “It’s getting dark, and we aren’t getting the power back in,” he said. “We should use the last of the light to light a fire.”
“What good will a fire do?” Pinky asked.
Tarraak was about to launch into a lecture on cooking the perishable food, boiling some clean drinking water or just plain keeping the four of them warm. He didn’t get the chance—the door exploded inwards, disintegrating around the lock in a blizzard of cheap wood fragments that scattered themselves across the workhouse floor.
Something dark, fast and violent followed them, followed by two more. Before he’d even finished reeling from the shock and suddenness of it all, he was being shouted at, by a voice that would plainly brook zero resistance.
Pinky, whose eyesight was kinda bad at the best of times, was desperately sniffing the air. His ears flattened, and he hastily bundled himself to the ground. Kiro was a second behind him, followed by Dinso.
Tarraak promptly found himself with three weapons aimed by his chest, held tight and aggressively by three of the very creatures he’d just claimed weren’t falling from the sky.
He raised his paws slowly to let the humans know he was no trouble, and imitated his colleagues.
The instructions were simple. Keep his paws visible, stay still, stay down…he obeyed. Something was pressed against his head and beeped. Then against Pinky’s, Dinso’s, Kiro’s and Shurren’s.
The beep was different, in Shurren’s case. A second later, Shurren was dead—the human who’d pressed the whatever-it-was to his skull simply drew a pistol and fired a single dispassionate round into his skull.
Tarraak flinched at the sound of the shot. There was a horrible silence punctuated by the slithering thump of Shurren’s corpse toppling over, and the ringing in Tarraak’s ears.
“…Alright lads, you can stand up now. Slowly.”
Tarraak glanced at his friends, who glanced back at him. They had a silent conversation by various ear-angles and expressions before he finally took the plunge and stood up first. Slowly, as ordered.
He’d never seen a human up close. These ones probably weren’t actually quite as big as they looked—that armor looked bulky—and they’d smeared their faces with a dark substance so that their eyes almost shone in the encroaching night. But the smell was something else. Pure dangerous alpha-male aggression, with hints of oil, grease, soot and hot metal. And something else. Blood? But not theirs, nor Gaoian.
“I was beginnin’ to think this place was deserted,” the one who’d so far done all the talking said. “Town like this oughta have a couple hundred people livin’ in it. Where is everyone?”
Tarraak glanced at the others again, and discovered that they were designating him as their spokesman. At least, that was probably what Dinso’s urgent gesture meant.
“They…left,” he said after a moment. “When we heard the news reports and the civic alerts, they loaded up their vehicles. Most of them went over toward Yeego’s compound, others thought they’d be safer in the cities.”
“Sucks to be them,” one of the other humans muttered.
“Who’s this Yeego?”
“He owns most of the land in the Three Glaciers Valleys. Very rich, has contacts in the Clans.”
“Right…So why didn’t you leave?” the leader asked. “How much do you know about what’s going on?”
“Enough to know that bombs and stuff were going off in the cities,” Tarraak replied. “Kiro convinced us to stay.”
“How many of the ones who left had neural augmentation?”
“Uh…?” Tarraak looked to Dinso for the answer to that one, who mulled it over.
“…Ten or so?” he ventured after a some thought.
[“Fuckin’ ‘Ell.”] That sounded like a curse to Tarraak’s ears, and the human sagged a little.
“Is…that why you shot Shurren?” Kiro asked.
“That wasn’t… Shurren, was it? Sorry mate, Shurren died a couple days ago. We just put down the thing wearin’ his corpse like a suit.” The human leader lowered his weapon. “Corporal Wilde. This won’t mean owt to you, but we’re Royal Marines. Our escape pod landed a ways out of town.”
“With just you in it?” Tarraak asked. It had looked much bigger than that.
“No comment, mate. Point is, it’s gone to shite out there and if we’re gonna get back in the fight and make anything good come of it all then we need supplies and vehicles.”
“…We need those supplies, too.”
“I’ve heard of the Royal Marines,” Kiro spoke up. “Semper Fi, right?”
The human snorted. “Wrong. That’s the Yanks. Decent try, though…” He looked around, then grabbed a chair, while the other two Humans busied themselves with…whatever it was they were doing. “Look, we’d better explain…you better brace yourselves, this one’s a bit of a bloody [revelation], believe me.”
Tarraak had no idea what ‘Revelation’ meant, but he quickly discovered how it felt. It felt like the world turning upside-down and dumping a whole Naxas-pen full of shit on his head. It felt like knowing the Swarm-of-Swarms was coming, and that probably most of Gao’s military had been compromised by an enemy that would have just stood aside and let them come.
It felt like a Keeda tale come to life.
“…That’s…” he ventured, when Wilde had finished. “…asking us to believe all this, that’s…it’s big.”
“I fuckin’ know it, mate. But… he had implants, right?” Wilde jerked his thumb out the door, where the other two had removed Shurren’s body.
“I don’t know. Dinso?”
“…Yes. He did.”
“And you don’t,” Wilde said. “We coulda just shot the lot of you, mind. Would have been easier and safer for us…So why didn’t we?”
Tarraak couldn’t think of an answer. This was bigger than he was used to—He was a handyman, a hammer-and-nails kind of guy. If it couldn’t be swapped out for a spare part, patched with tape, glued, screwed, nailed, filed, sawed, hammered back into shape or lubricated then he was about at his limit. The end of the world was too big for him.
“I guess…” he began, then faltered.
“He smells like he’s telling the truth, Brain,” Pinky spoke up, suddenly. He’d been silent so far, letting others do the talking. But he had the best nose Tarraak had ever personally met, possibly as a compensation for his poor eyesight. If Pinky said that a person smelled truthful, they were truthful.
“…Brain?” Wilde asked, and a smirk pulled at the corners of his mouth. “And… his name’s Pinky?”
“Yes, yes. It’s a reference,” Tarraak admitted. “And I told you not to call me that,” he added.
Wilde simply chuckled, then stood up. “Jockey’s gonna fuckin’ love you two,” he said, cryptically. “Arright, look. You know the area, you’re smart blokes, you’re clean in the head. If you want to curl up in the basement and wait for the end or for rescue that’s up to you. Me, if I were in your position, I’d want to fight back somehow. And right now the way to do that is to help us…And I bet the safest place on this planet right now is wherever we happen to be.”
Tarraak had to admit, there was some logic there.
“So…” he said, and realized he’d made his mind up. “About those supplies…”
Date Point: 14y2d AV
Lavmuy City, Planet Gao
Champion Genshi of Whitecrest
Hunters had better cloaking technology than anybody, a consequence of Fyu-alone-knew how long they’d spent raiding and reaping their harvest of the galaxy’s sophonts. Their obsessive focus on a few specific things had made them the undisputed galactic leaders in their narrow, perverse fields.
Whitecrest, however, had managed to acquire one of their ships some years ago. The same one that had violated the Rich Plains, in fact, only for Sister Shoo to do what Humans did and put the Hunters in their place.
The Dominion authorities had simply cast it off from the damaged diplomatic vessel and left it to drift, the fools. Genshi had recovered it personally.
They hadn’t done anything so crass as commandeer it, though. There had been Gaoian carcasses hung up in a meat locker aboard that thing—a memory that still made Genshi shiver—but they had taken it to pieces and squeezed every last secret they could out of it.
Most of those secrets had been shared with the other Clans. Little diplomatic favors, gifts, peace offerings, bargaining chips…over the years, every scientific mystery that ship yielded had been bartered away…except for the cloaking tech.
Whitecrest’s fleet was tiny anyway. In the end, only three ships to date had benefited from the reverse-engineered cloaks—the Lancing Shadow, the Flying Midnight, and Genshi’s personal favorite, the Moving Nothing.
Decorum—and an intense desire to not be shot by his allies—demanded decloaking as they approached Lavmuy’s airspace, however. The Humans had established impressively tight-fisted control over the sky around the capitol, and even if the fighting in Lavmuy itself was still brutal, the skies were wholly owned by the relief force.
And if Whitecrest’s intelligence on the fate of a cloaked ship on Earth some years back was anything to go by, the humans had a few ways of sneering at cloaking tech, too.
He activated the primitive digital radio the Humans had given him and hailed them, using codes and phrases that had been shared between Whitecrest and AEC some time ago. In a way, he was a little disappointed—most of his Brothers and other Gaoians working with the humans had exciting and dynamic codenames, wrapped in fascinating layers of meaning or containing twisty references and in-jokes that might take months to fully decipher.
His was dismayingly functional.
“Human aid force, this is WHITECREST-SIX-ACTUAL. CASPER on approach, request clearance to land, over.”
‘Casper’ was the code phrase for a friendly cloaked ship. He had no idea why.
As expected, the reply was punctual and forthright. “WHITECREST-SIX-ACTUAL, you are not cleared to approach. Decloak and set down at the following coordinates where you will submit to a security inspection…”
Genshi carefully followed the instructions to the letter, and parked the Moving Nothing exactly where he’d been ordered—on a makeshift landing pad in the middle of what had been a major intersection near the spaceport but which was now just so much open space where there was enough room to land an aircraft and the highway overpass provided a decent spot to build a forward base protected from indirect fire weapons.
Human soldiers with what were plainly some kind of anti-aircraft weapon system tracked him every inch of the way down to the ground, and he barely had time to order his brothers to brace themselves against the wall with their paws up before the boarding force stormed aboard.
Somebody was going to have to come up with a reliable, more comfortable and more dignified neural scanner soon, he hoped. The one the humans used was so uncomfortably robust that it almost felt spiky.
Still, it worked, and the inspection was mercifully brief. He was given the option of waiting with his ship until an inspection team had thoroughly checked it over, or being delivered to the Farthrow facility in an armored vehicle.
He took the armored vehicle. They were well past industrial secrets at this point.
He had to give credit to the humans. He’d had some inkling of their deployment abilities thanks to Whitecrest’s careful probing and secret-gathering—it always paid to know what one’s allies were capable of—but seeing them realized was something else. They’d converted the open concrete of the spaceport into a fortress, and their foothold was getting firmer with every passing minute.
His vehicle passed through checkpoints, jinked through chicanes and between offset barriers, tracked all the while by heavy weapons. By the time he alighted at the command facility, he’d had lethal firepower pointed at him for every second of a full twenty minutes.
The security was commendable.
Father Regaari was waiting for him. He didn’t duck his head to show respect, but the set of his ears was deferential. “Champion. You had us worried.”
“I had business to take care of…” Genshi gathered his younger colleague into an affectionate embrace. “I heard what happened at Wi Kao. I understand you were close with one of—”
“Please, Champion…I’d prefer not to discuss that, right now.” Regaari interrupted him, gently, but every line of him was a sketch of pain being held tightly in check and channeled towards a purpose. “Did you hear that Champion Daar is here?”
That brightened Genshi’s mood substantially. “I hadn’t! Where is he?”
“Organizing a massacre,” Regaari replied cryptically, gesturing toward the command building. “May I ask where you were?”
Genshi indicated the boxes his Brothers were unloading from the transport. “Collecting a few essentials. I had hoped for more warning, and so couldn’t retrieve them as smoothly as I would have liked.”
Regaari twitched his whiskers at the boxes curiously. “What are they?” he asked.
“The grand strategy is to knock out planet-wide communications, yes?” Genshi asked. He’d figured that one out some time ago—it was the only realistic way to ensure that they could deploy a system defense field without it promptly being shot down from within by Gao’s own defenses.
“…Yes,” Regaari agreed. Genshi panted happily, and allowed himself to look smug.
“I prepared a few things to make that task easier…” he said.
Date Point: 14y2d AV
BGEV-11 Misfit, Armstrong Station, Cimbrean System
She dreams of being hated.
She’s in a warehouse, or something. An industrial, cold building full of little rooms, delineated by cheap, dirty, coarse chipboard walls. Each room has, little tables, little whiteboards, little chairs…and somebody she cares about, waiting to finally confess their hatred.
It’s not an angry or shouty kind of hatred, but it’s relentless. All her friends, her family, her loved ones, line up to calmly, sadly and unflinchingly tell her how disappointed they are, how much they dislike her. She knows it’s a dream, but she’s powerless to stop the catalogue of criticism mercilessly playing out behind her eyes.
She tries to argue back, but her own guilt grinds her down. She did run away, after all. From Gao, from her Sisters, from her Clan. From her family, from Earth, from her ambitions…
The worst room has Allison in it. Her expression is stony and cold, her eyes sad. She says nothing, just shakes her head, turns her face away.
The room is an airlock. Xiù bangs on the glass, pleads for forgiveness but none comes. Just the hiss of the door opening. She turns, the blast of air lifts her and throws her into the void—
Xiù woke with a gasp.
The real Allison was peacefully asleep just a few inches away and Xiù took a moment to examine her face and fix it in her mind, remembering the little solid minutiae that were the hallmark of the real world. The real Allison had a pair of small brown moles in front of her right ear, some light acne scarring on her jaw and forehead, and a faint splash of melasma on her cheekbones and nose. There were tiny dimpled spots in her ears, lower lip and left nostril where some old piercings had healed, and she’d never plucked her eyebrows in her life.
She was gorgeous.
And apparently she was psychic, because after only a few seconds of being scrutinized she sleep-scowled, grunted, then blinked her eyes open. It took her a few seconds to focus on Xiù’s face, but when she did she smiled faintly and raised a hand to excavate the sleep grit out of one corner of her eye.
That little smile had been exactly what Xiù needed to see. “Hey,” she replied, with forced lightness.
Allison wasn’t fooled. She stretched a little more then settled back down. “…You okay?”
Xiù shook her head. “Bad dream.”
Allison made a soft, sympathetic sound and scooted closer to cuddle her. “Amazed I didn’t have one myself,” she confessed, rubbing Xiù’s back. “How bad?”
“…You hated me.”
“Yeah.” An alarming spike of insecurity shot through Xiù’s head and she pulled back from the hug to look Allison in the eye. “You don’t hate me, right?”
“No!” Allison even laughed, which was a sound Xiù hadn’t heard in days. “No, dummy. I definitely don’t hate you.”
Xiù relaxed and buried her head in Allison’s chest. “…Sorry.”
Allison laughed again, more softly this time, and kissed her hair. “Dummy,” she repeated fondly, then scooted away and threw the blankets off.
“We don’t need to get up yet…” Xiù pointed out. The wall clock said 05:30, ship time. Heaven only knew what time it was on Cimbrean or Gao.
“Yeah, but I gotta pee.”
Figuring that neither of them were going to sleep again anyway, Xiù rolled out of bed herself. While Allison used the bathroom and shower she folded the blankets and sheets, then packed the bed back down into couch mode before stowing it away in the wall. She stretched upward to the ceiling, bent down to touch her toes, twisted her back from side to side and took a few meditative breaths to clear her head.
“Coffee?” she called.
“Love you!” came the reply. Xiù took that for a yes, and two steaming cups of coffee were waiting on the counter when Allison emerged from the shower while scrubbing her hair dry. The absence of the usual cloud of steam suggested a cold shower this morning.
She kissed Xiù on the cheek as she grabbed her cup, sniffed appreciatively at the scrambled eggs sizzling in the pan, and ambled across the room to grab a tablet and check their messages.
Seconds later she gasped. “Babe? Babe!”
Xiù’s heart leapt into her mouth. She abandoned the eggs and dashed to Allison’s side. “What? What happened?!”
“Read!” Allison thrust the tablet into her hands.
F 330142Z-CIM SEP FM DUCKTAPEfirstname.lastname@example.org// TO MISFITemail@example.com// INFO STAINLESSfirstname.lastname@example.org// T O P S E C R E T SAR-BROKEN-STATUE DEEP-RELIC SUBJ/(U) STATUS UPDATE-AKYAWENTUO// ► (C//SAR-BS) Situation now resolved. BIG HOTEL presence nullified, planet now believed to be secure. PLAYBOY and others are well. ► ► (TS//SAR-BS-DR) To properly secure the system, we require a FOOTBALL be deployed to the Akyawentuo L2 stellar-planetary lagrange point. Your mission on return will be to effect this deployment under Ten’Gewek witness. Please record the moment for future posterity and make certain the People understand the ramifications. A combined briefing from the Department of State and the Foreign Office is included. As you are the extant experts on Ten’Gewek language and culture, you should translate as appropriate. ► ► (U//FOUO) As this is an opportunity for interspecies diplomacy, we are preparing a courtesy package with food, educational material, and other such amenities as suggested by Professor Hurt. See enclosed list and amend as appropriate. ► ► (U//FOUO) This mission has been coordinated with Byron Group and your services contracted in accordance with the FAR and the terms of our Agreement. See riders, attached. ► ► (U) Further questions can be directed to my office or to me directly, if the need is urgent. You are authorized prep time and funding for this mission immediately, to depart no more than 72-hours from the time of this message. Further instructions to follow shortly.
Pure relief shot straight down Xiù’s back and knocked the knees out from under her just from reading the first paragraph. She didn’t really notice the way she sank to the ground as she read the rest, nor really absorbed anything else about the message on the first readthrough—All the important content was neatly contained in the five words of the third sentence.
“Christ,” Allison leaned against the wall. “All that stress and…everything, and it’s over like that.”
“I’m not complaining. I’m really not complaining!” Xiù told her. She read the message again, drinking it in.
“I wonder what swung it, though,” Allison said. “One minute it’s like a flat ‘no’ and the next out of the blue everything we asked for just…what the fuck happened?”
Xiù nodded, but let out a huge sigh that seemed to blow all the stress of the last few days out with it, and stood up again. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth?” she suggested.
She handed the tablet back, and returned to the eggs, which she hastily took off the heat and stirred up a bit—they’d been on the brink of burning. Allison nodded, read the message again, then put the tablet down and reached up to deploy their table from its roost in the ceiling. She looked every inch just as relieved as Xiù felt
“Yeah,” she agreed. “I’m just glad that everyone’s alright…”
Date Point: 14y3d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Unclaimed Space, Near 3Kpc Arm
Vemet met his final rest in a sky burial.
Julian wasn’t quite prepared for the finality of the thing. He’d thought they’d probably light a funeral pyre, maybe leave Vemet’s body exposed somewhere out of the way…but that wasn’t at all how Ten’Gewek paid respects to their dead.
For them, it was all about balance. Balance demanded a man Give the last of himself to the gods, and the best way to do that was in a high place where all could see. The top of a mountain, for instance.
“You come,” Yan had said. “Vemet would want.”
It was the Given-Man’s duty to transport the body up the mountain, on a litter bedded with young Ketta foliage. Vemet’s face had been painted with white and red clay, a wide leather strip had been tied over his eyes like a blindfold, and two more gently bound his ankles and wrists, arranging his body into a dignified posture with his hands folded across his chest and his tail coiled between his feet.
It wasn’t a difficult hike, for Julian. The People were perfectly mobile on the ground, but they were far more comfortable in the trees and a human’s longer and straighter legs made easy work of terrain that they found exhausting.
Rather than show that off however, Julian walked along with Vemik and the Singer, whose young new apprentice Dancer—so new that she hadn’t yet properly given her name to the gods, according to Vemik—was trailing behind carrying several large and awkward bags, baskets and pots. Nobody seemed to be offering to help her and she didn’t seem to expect help, so Julian left well enough. Presumably it was all part of the magic of becoming a Dancer.
Despite the fact that the climb was obviously taxing for Ten’gewek, they shared a lively conversation and stories about Vemet: enduring moments, embarrassing ones, or simply poignant memories. Julian’s contribution was the anecdote where Vemet had almost fallen out of his tree the first time he heard Julian’s rifle fire, on a hunt.
“He tried to play it off like he was hanging by his tail on purpose, too. Didn’t fool me.”
[“He was crafty like that!”] Vemik had settled into his native tongue for this, and Julian followed suit.
[“He liked to sneak up on me, too.”] Julian chuckled at the memory. Ten’gewek were remarkably stealthy in the trees, but couldn’t stack up to some of Nightmare’s critters. Vemet had taken Julian’s practiced vigilance as a challenge and an opportunity to practice.
Vemik trilled, [“Maybe you’re easy prey, Jooyun!”]
[“Nah. He only got me sometimes. He was a better wrestler than you, though.”]
[“Old men know all the tricks.”] Yan nodded sagely at that, just as they reached the summit. The mood was suddenly much more solemn. He gestured to Vemik, who helped him lift the litter onto a prominent flat rock. There were faded red and white markings on the rock, which the Dancer skipped around and touched up with fresh paint.
That done, the villagers formed two circles around the body. The smaller inner circle was his closest friends and relatives—Yan, Vemik, a couple of Vemet’s nephews and cousins—and the outer one was for all the other men and women of the village, plus Julian.
The Singer stood by the body, looking toward the sun. She raised her hands, spread wide, and sang.
Julian had heard her plenty of times. It was a kind of punctuation to Ten’Gewek daily life. There was the song for the dawn, the song for high noon, the song for sunset. There was a song for food, a song for a successful hunt, a song for children and for healing. There were songs for purely spiritual moments, when the People were just being people, gamely facing down a harsh universe with a knife in one hand and spirit straightening their backs.
He’d never heard the song for the dead before. She sung it from her belly, supporting and lifting it so that it sounded strong even unaccompanied on a windswept hillside save for the thump and rattle of her singing-stick and the clattering of her Dancer’s bead jewelry and the heartbeat rhythm of her drum.
He listened intently to the words—he wanted to remember them.
[“Gods of the sun, the fire and sky! Gods of the earth, gods of the bones of the world! We Give you our brother Vemet, who tapped on stone! You Gave his life to us and he lived as one of the People, but now his life is in balance! What he Took from this land, he Gave to his tribe, and now he can Give no more! Gods of the rain and wind, gods of the tree and beast, carry his spirit and accept his body! Care for him and love him as we loved him, comfort and strengthen us as we prepare for the days without him! Smile on him, and on us all until the day we meet again and the world is in balance.”]
She lowered her hands, then bent forward to plant a kiss on Vemet’s forehead. With that last gesture, she backed away from the body and took her place in the outer circle.
Yan led the inner circle in stepping forward, and rested his hand lightly on his friend’s upper arm.
[“Vemet Stone-Tapper, you were my good friend, and you never gave me bad counsel. I ask the gods for your wisdom,”] he said.
Vemik laid his hand on Vemet’s hands. [“Vemet Stone-Tapper, you were my father and you always lifted my spirits with your words. I ask the gods for your laughter,”] he added.
The other three members of the inner circle made similar requests, honoring Vemet’s skill as a hunter, his bravery, and—a request that sent a trill of laughter around all the mourners—his success with women.
Yan looked around to ensure that the last request had been made, then bowed his head sadly.
[“And now…we Give you to the gods, Vemet. We love you.”]
He closed his hands around Vemet’s shoulder joint, sighed deeply, and—
He pulled the arm clean off Vemet’s body as easily as Julian might snap a stick, then broke it apart at the elbow with just as much ease. Vemik flinched at the sickening cracks but nodded solemnly when Yan handed him the grisly pieces. He laid them down reverently, reached for his good steel knife and set about flaying them to the bone.
Julian stood there, stunned and disturbed right down to his gut and fighting back a sudden nauseated surge that tried to claw its way up his gullet.
[“We Give him to the sky.”]
Right. Yes. Disassembling the body. It was a necessary part of any sky burial, so that the body could re-enter the food chain quickly and cleanly rather than decomposing…but in all the beautiful sadness, Julian had forgotten. He hadn’t been mentally prepared to see a man he’d liked and respected being literally…
…Well, butchered. Lovingly. By his own son.
Yan moved on, breaking Vemet apart and handing the pieces off to different mourners. Mercifully, the mourners didn’t ask Julian to join in; Ten’Gewek really weren’t dumb, and they knew perfectly well that Sky-People had their own ways, so none of them objected when Julian bowed his head and tried not to listen too closely.
Yan made very quick work of it, thankfully. Within minutes Vemet had been more or less completely pulled apart, his bones snapped and the marrow exposed, his skull split open, and his flesh neatly placed on the bare rock where the carrion birds and insects would pick him clean in a matter of hours. The weather would do the rest, and presumably the mourners would come back to do something with the clean bones in time. The Singer sung another deep, powerful song to the gods while the Dancer scattered a powder about the site.
The whole thing was…traumatic, but strangely healing, in that it left Julian feeling sickeningly connected to his own mortality. It was a literally visceral reminder that today he was alive but one day he wouldn’t be, and that they were all just animals in the end. Like a lot of things about Ten’Gewek life it was unflinching in the face of reality and not for the squeamish…but all the more potent as a result.
The men scrubbed their hands and arms with finely powdered ashes or something from one of the Dancer’s larger pots once they were done, until their dark grayish-brown skin was almost chalk white.
Yan offered the pot to Julian. “Bones of men-before,” he said in English. “We remember.”
Julian nodded, took a deep breath, then imitated what he’d seen them do. The fine, soft powder stuck to him like flour and caked in his arm hair. Yan grunted, nodded, and then spread some in two lines on Julian’s face as well, a T shape across the forehead and down between his eyes.
[“We only do this for men of our People,”] he added, reverting to his native language, [“but…Vemet would have wanted this, too.”]
[“Then I will honor him,”] Julian promised. Yan gave him a knowing half-smile.
[“It’s not your way, I know,”] he said. [“How do you honor your dead?”]
[“Different tribes have different ways.”] Julian told him. [“Some do it like this. Others burn their dead into ash. Sometimes, on a great fire we call a] pyre. [Others bury in something called a] grave…” He thought for a second, then decided to speak his mind. [“…Mine has some words I think are appropriate.”]
[“Then say them.”] Yan waved a hand.
Julian wasn’t any kind of a priest, and he wasn’t exactly devout in any case. But still, he knew the words from his youth and they felt…right, somehow.
He spoke in English. “We commend Vemet Stone-Tapper to Almighty God; and we commit his body to the ground. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…amen.”
Yan nodded approvingly, and returned his attention to the burial. The birds were circling already. “…Good words,” he said, also in English.
[“…This is actually the first funeral I’ve ever been to,”] Julian confessed.
[“May it be many seasons until the next.”]
[“…Thank you. What happens now?”]
Yan shrugged. [“You take as long as you want. Think. Say something…sing, if you want. When you are ready, you walk away. It takes as long as it takes, and there is no shame if you leave first.”]
He clapped Julian on the shoulder, leaving a powdery handprint, and left him to his thoughts.
Julian…hovered. He honestly had no idea what to think, or say. And as for a song…nothing came to mind. In the end he just closed his eyes and let the world soak in through his skin, his nose and his ears. The biggest presence was the wind: its fresh clean mountain scent, its rumble as it plucked at his tattered shorts, and its silky coolness down his arms and across his face.
The last day or two dropped away like a bad dream, and when he opened his eyes he found himself thinking about the future again, rather than just living to see the next minute. It felt like waking up.
He turned, and walked away. He wasn’t the first.
Date Point: 14y3d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Unclaimed Space, Near 3Kpc Arm
Professor Daniel Hurt
“Daniel? You look like you’re a mile away.”
Daniel jumped slightly, jolted back into the here and now. He did a little mental filing, figuratively bookmarking his thoughts so that he’d remember where he left off, then cleared his throat and stood up.
Julian looked…well, he looked back. Behind the dusting of white ash on his arms and face his expression had regained its usual affable quality, rather than the knife-sharp terrifying lethality of a killer in pure survival mode.
“Good service?” Daniel asked him politely.
Julian considered the powder on his skin for a moment. “…Not for the faint-hearted,” he said, “But I’m glad I attended. It was…good for the soul.”
“Say no more. I think I’m too faint-hearted to know the details,” Daniel told him. He gestured down the slope, and they strolled back toward the village together. “I’ve been doing some soul-searching of my own.”
“Well…we won. Right? No more Abrogators?”
Julian nodded. “That’s what JETS and the Air Force say.”
“It’s a pyrrhic victory though,” Daniel said. “All our high-minded ambitions about cultural conservation are…well, they’re just not feasible any longer.”
Julian paused, and when Daniel turned back to look up at him he was resting his weight on one leg and had crossed his arms over his chest. He was a lot more intimidating in that posture than he seemed to realize, especially while covered in tribal markings.
His words were gentle, though. “…Yeah. I’ve been worrying about that too.”
“I was thinking about different approaches we could take. I think…the Ten’Gewek understand the threat we pose to them now, but I think they know how to play with fire and not get burned. We succeeded there, at least.”
Julian looked like he wanted to say something but he held his peace. His lips pursed thoughtfully for a second, and Daniel decided to prompt him.
“Say it, please.”
“…What do you know of my people?”
“Any of them.”
“I confess, I never studied the Dutch.”
Julian’s solemn expression split into an involuntary smile and he chuckled softly, which was a thoroughly welcome sound after the last few grim days. “They like cheese, I hear.”
“Navajo didn’t,” Julian pointed out. “Severe lactose intolerance. Neither did the Ojibwe, but they adapted. The French, of course…”
“But that’s the funny part. I’m half native, right? I grew up with my grandfather, knew people who were active in, uh, movements. I’ve been to Pow-Wows, I make a mean frybread…” Julian gestured to his upper arm, indicating his natural skin tone where he wasn’t covered in white dust. “But sometimes the only thing that maybe gives me away is black hair and a good tan. If I’ve got any kinda stubble at all I’m basically a white fella…and I happen to love cheese.”
Daniel gave him a solemn look up and down. He wasn’t wrong—If they ever came to make a movie about the Misfit crew, the hunt for Julian’s actor would most likely involve wading through a lot of well-tanned European hardbodies. The hard part would be finding a guy who could get the attitude right, rather than a physical match.
“You’re…well-integrated,” he ventured.
“I’m what they call an ‘Apple’,” Julian said bitterly. “Red on the outside…”
“…Right.” Daniel shook his head.
“Xiù got called a ‘banana’, too. It’s…whatever.” Julian shrugged. “I dunno about integration, ‘cuz if you take the Ojibwe their myth is…well, when the missionaries and the voyageurs came along, converting them to Catholicism didn’t take much convincing. They go together, almost eerily well. In a generation the Metis people had their own language, and two generations after that they were already dying out. Then there were the Indian boarding schools, the Dawes Act, all sorts of sad stuff…”
Daniel had spent enough time around rambling academics to recognize a man who liked to think up his hypothesis on the fly while he was in the process of describing it. He’d long since mastered the art of poking them in the right direction with a few simple words.
“But the thing is—” he prompted.
“…But the thing is, we’re still here.” Julian said. “The Navajo? Well…there’s a reason my grandpa moved to Minnesota. There was nothing for him in Arizona. At all. Some tribes were wiped out, others were warlike…on and on. But the Ojibwe? We’re still here.”
“Are you, though?” Daniel asked. “Or are you just another subset of white people nowadays?”
“Well…if you asked me fifteen years ago if I would settle down on the rez and marry a nice indian maiden like grandpa wanted? I’d have laughed and said no, except that would’ve made grandpa sad. So…what does that make me?”
“Somebody who doesn’t really give a crap about your own ethnicity, perhaps?” Daniel suggested.
Julian shook his head. “Nah. It’s…I don’t think of myself as indian. Never really did, ‘cuz firstly, which tribe? Ojibwe and Navajo aren’t anything alike.” He paced around a bit, slightly agitated. “And secondly…we’re not supposed to talk about it. But a lot of the tribes are broken. Like, fundamentally. They’re basically under the BIA’s thumb and that…yeah. Sorry.”
Julian shrugged hugely. “I dunno. I got ideas but they ain’t very nice.”
“If Ten’Gewek sky burials are anything like Tibetan ones, I know what you just watched. So, to Hell with nice. Today isn’t a day for nice. In fact, this is shaping up to be a bad decade for nice in general.”
“…Yeah. I’ve been thinkin’ on that, too.”
Daniel could tell there was a complicated knot of inter-related thoughts playing themselves out in Julian’s head. He was really quite intelligent, but introspection and eloquence weren’t his strongest skills…Not that he’d ever really had the chance to develop them. He needed a teacher.
“Okay. Have a seat, big guy. Tell me what’s really gnawing at you.” He gestured to a nearby rock.
Julian looked at it, then shrugged again and sat down.“…This is gonna sound totally unrelated to all the other stuff,” he said, “but…kids.”
“Ah. One of the big ones,” Daniel said sympathetically and sat down next to him.
“Thing is, I’m pushin’ thirty. Xiù an’ Al aren’t far behind me. And I’ve got this mission, and for the life of me I can’t see that I can do all the things I need to do all at once.”
“Well, okay. I think the People need me. Well, no. I think they need someone like me, and I’m not sure there are many people who fit the bill.”
Daniel nodded. “Big, physical, and you come from a sympathetic place.”
“Right! Exactly that.”
“So make it simple and just say that they need you, if for no other reason than another Julian isn’t likely to show up and even if he does he won’t share your history with them.”
“…Right.” Ah, Minnesota Nice. Nothing seemed to beat it out of anyone.
“Seriously,” Daniel pressed him. “The People need you. Own it.”
“Okay. Right. They need me. But, here’s the thing. What does that mean? It means I gotta live here with them, right? I gotta do People-stuff with them. That means I gotta be People. I’ve gotta probably do their manhood thing, I gotta hunt and survey…and I gotta train my ass off, too. Books and weights, probably a lot of both.”
“That’s a big commitment,” Dan agreed, understatedly.
Julian tucked some hair back behind his ear, unheeding of the powdery gray smudge he left in it. “And if the girls stay here with me, then that puts kids out of the picture because gravity plays fuckin’ hell with pregnancy…”
“Low gravity, for sure. The jury is still out on high gravity, but…”
“Not taking the chance.”
“Nor should you!”
“And then there’s the Byron Group who might just tell us to get out of here and start making them money again…”
Daniel nodded. “But you’d feel like you were abandoning the People if you do either of those things.”
“Yeah. But if I quit the exploration I’d also feel like I was abandoning humanity.”
“Julian, I think on that point you can quit guilt-free,” Daniel smiled. “We aren’t exactly short on people fighting in our corner.”
“No, I get it. So. Let’s think this through. What would it take for you to stay? I’ll be honest I very much want you here, because I’m a soft old man and I need someone like you as an ally.”
“We’d need…the girls and me, we’d need to be able to make a life here.”
“True, but you just jumped way ahead. Think more immediate first. What do you need to do?”
Julian rested his prosthetic foot on his opposite knee and thought about it for a long moment, tinkering with it as he did so. “Well…I need to be a man in their eyes.”
“Whose? The People’s?”
“The other twenty thousand Ten’Gewek I haven’t met yet. They see me, they just see a strange tall thin-skinned tailless little guy. These cavemonkey fellas are big on first impressions and what they all think of me right off the bat is weak.”
“You’re neither little nor weak, though,” Daniel reminded him.
“Nope, and this mission is why. But I’ll need to keep training as hard as I can so that I’ll eventually compare to their average man. That’s a lot of broscience…which hey, it’s fun! But…well. There’s more. They have rites. I know they involve drugs.”
Daniel rubbed his palms together thoughtfully. “So the metacontext here is that you’ve clearly thought hard about this and already made up your mind.”
“…Yeah. And what’s eating me is I don’t wanna do it. Or…I do, but I don’t wanna pay the price. After the last couple days, I…” Julian sighed. “I know what I need to do to keep their respect, and I know it’d basically involve throwing away…a lot. But if I don’t then I’m…I dunno. No better than the voyageurs. Or worse: They at least had no idea what they were doing.”
“But you do.”
They sat thoughtfully for quite some time. Occasionally, one of the mourners from up the mountain would traipse past them, headed back toward the village and lost in their own thoughts. It was a thoughtful day. Judging from the big fire that had been lit down in the village, the drumming, singing and the generally pregnant air of potential debauchery building up among the People, however, the night was going to be far less cerebral.
“So…” Daniel began, after turning his thoughts over in his head at some length. “The question is, what is our strategy for the People? Is the original plan dead? Do we have to be missionaries now? Are we…guides to a strange new future? Or are we maybe the sages on the mountain that they have to go through many trials just to seek our wisdom?”
Julian stared at him blankly for a moment, and then slowly a gentle, trollish grin spread across his face. “You…really do love the sound of your voice, don’t you?”
Daniel chuckled. “I’m an academic who spent years going on talk shows to promote my own books, Julian. If I could marry the sound of my voice we’d have eloped years ago.”
“I’ll take forest living and…hell, I guess meatslabbin’ any day over that.” Julian grinned for a moment but it quickly faded into a furrowed brow. “But…I dunno. I feel like no matter what I do, someone’s gettin’ fucked over.”
“Okay. So. Who’s the last person you’d ever fuck over?”
“Allison and Xiù,” Julian replied, immediately. There wasn’t a microsecond’s hesitation.
“Well then. Question answered.”
“Well, did you bother to ask them how they felt about all this?”
“I haven’t exactly had the chance!”
“Then it’s a question for another day.” Daniel stood up. “Right now what you should do, if you’ll let an old fart who loves the sound of his own voice convey some wisdom on your meathead skull—” He earned an amused snort for that. “—Is go to that big party that’s brewing up down there, pick a fight, get drunk, sing, throw your axe, whatever you do to have fun, and cross your bridges when you come to them.”
“…We do have that beer they sent over…”
“Then maybe risk a little cultural contamination and get Yan and Vemik rip roaring drunk.”
“…That’s surprising, coming from you.”
Daniel shrugged. “Maybe we need to stop worrying about slavishly maintaining something that can’t survive the future. We’re deathworlders, let’s damn well act like it. They’ll keep what they can, discard what might harm them and the rest…is cheese.”
Julian gave him a Look, of the kind that Daniel mentally inserted a capital letter onto. “…‘The rest is cheese’?” he asked, skeptically.
“Eh. It’s a good book title at least.” Daniel turned away down the hill and followed his nose toward the scent of roasting meat. “Come on.”
He listened carefully, and had counted to five when he heard Julian finally stand up and follow.
Date Point: 14y3d AV
Three Valleys, Amanyuy Territory, Planet Gao.
Second Lieutenant (brevet) Martina Kovač
Marty had found the time for a power nap. It didn’t feel much like she’d been asleep, but when she looked around and then checked her timepiece, it turned out to have been nearly two hours. Dusk had turned into definite night-time out there.
She looked up at Lance Corporal Rees, who’d woken her, and rubbed at her eye to help herself wake up.
“Wildey’s back, ma’am.”
Marty hauled herself up out of the corner she’d fallen asleep in with a groan. She’d swept it clean and laid down a thin bedroll, which pretty much made it a five-star hotel by the standards of their current situation, but she was definitely going to spend some time appreciating the gargantuan emperor-size bed in Adam’s apartment when she got back.
And a shower. God she needed a shower. Thank fuck for Frontline, or she’d be stinking like a vinegar-soaked pig right now and posing a serious biohazard to all of the planet Gao in the process. As it was, she just felt greasy, gritty and rough.
None of those thoughts escaped the confines of her head, though. She put her helmet back on and followed Rees down the stairs and out the front door.
Wilde was standing in the back of a Gaoian pickup, a four-wheeled grunter of a thing that was clearly built for agriculture in a big way. It looked like it could handle the huge neglected bales of hay that dotted the surrounding fields, and carry them over any terrain that wasn’t actually a ravine.
And its back was absolutely full of boxes, crates and bags.
Wilde beamed at her from atop his loot throne. “Happy to report mission success, ma’am,” he grinned. “Food, blankets, medical supplies, bottled water…” he threw aside a tarpaulin “…and an emergency water-fuelled fusion generator.”
“Water? Not deuterium?” Marty asked.
“Nope. Any old H2O should do, according to our new Gaoian mates.”
Marty turned around and cast around for their electrical expert. “Patel!”
The skinny British sailor showed up in seconds. “Ma’am? —Ooh!” Her face lit up the second she laid eyes on the generator.
“I take it you’re familiar with these things,” Marty observed drily.
“Always wanted to get my hands on one!” Patel enthused as Doyle obligingly hoisted it down off the pickup’s bed for her. Her face fell a little as she examined it. “…I just wish the Chief could have seen it.”
“Pretty sure he’d want you to get it set up and running ASAP,” Marty told her. Patel snapped back to the here-and-now, nodded, and Doyle helped her cart the generator array.
Wilde hopped down off the truck, while SOR techs swarmed it to strip it of its cargo and file everything away. “There’s another load to come, but this is all the most important shit,” he said. “What’s your call on bringing the Gaoians up here?”
“You think they’re harmless?”
“I think one of ‘em’s about as close as we’re gonna get to having a doctor.”
“A harmless doctor?” Marty insisted. Wilde grimaced.
“…Probably harmless,” he said. “And another’s a mechanic, handyman sorta bloke.”
“Probably harmless,” Marty echoed, flatly and skeptically.
“They’re clean. Just…well, when the rest of the town fucked off to figure out what’s going on, these four stayed put. Now, for me that says they’re smart enough to keep their heads in a crisis…” Wilde gestured as his sentence tailed off, saying the rest without speaking it.
“But you can’t discount an ulterior motive.” Marty finished for him.
Wilde nodded. “Still…I’d put my money on harmless, to be fair,” he added.
“…Fine. Bring them up,” Marty decided. “We need the local knowledge. But keep one of the techs assigned to watch them, or an MP or marine if any show up.”
“Got it.” Wilde hopped back up into the pickup as the last of the supplies was borne away to be stored in the farmhouse’s most secure inner sanctum. “Shouldn’t be long.”
“Keep an eye out for the convoy from three-lima-bravo-seven while you’re out there,” Marty warned him. “They checked in a couple hours ago, they should be close.”
Wilde knocked on the pickup’s cabin roof. “They can help us load shi—”
Something crunched into his armor’s chestplate with enough force to stagger him, and he fell on his ass with a curse. Three more bullet holes manifested in the pickup’s windshield, and Marty threw herself behind the pickup for whatever cover and concealment it provided. All around the farm, the SOR techs flung themselves at whatever cover they could find, while Rees and Hayes ducked down inside the truck.
Wilde slithered off the truckbed beside her. “Fuckin’ ‘ell,” he commented, sounding far less concerned about it that Marty felt he should be.
“You okay?” she asked him. He chuckled grimly.
“Eh…” He scooted round her and raised his weapon, aiming it into the night.
“…‘S’ bloody dark out there,” he observed after a second, then flinched back with a grunt as another round cracked past, missing him by what felt to Marty like inches. He gave no other indication of its passing.
Of course, the enemy could see them just fine—the farm had outdoor lighting. Marty squirmed sideways in the dirt to the other side of the truck until she could see the ’pit’ where their forcefield generators and batteries had been installed.“Patel! Kill the lights!”
Wilde nodded as the power shut off, plunging them into midnight darkness. He reached up to his helmet and lowered his night-vision into place. “Cheers.”
“Any idea where they are?” Marty asked him.
“Gotta be one of those hay bales. Too bad there’s a hundred of the bloody things…Here, you’d better get inside, LT. Wait for my word then run for it.”
Marty nodded. “Waiting.”
“Rees? Hayes?” Wilde keyed his radio to call the pickup’s driver, who’d sensibly remained inside the vehicle. “You both alright in there?”
The reply floated back from the truck’s open rear window. “‘S’ a bit drafty in here, Corporal. Some twat shot out the windscreen.”
“Just cuddle up to Reesy for warmth, mate. Better yet, open the door: Let’s see what our friend out there does.”
Hayes didn’t reply, but after some thumping and muffled cursing the pickup’s door swung open.
Hayes waved a hand at Marty. “Now.”
She went one way, he went the other. There were only three steps of open ground between the truck and the farmhouse, and she was through them before she even knew she’d made them.
Nothing appeared to happen. There were no new holes in the pickup door, and Wilde’s charge forward had ended with him sliding on his belly to fetch up behind one of the meagre earthwork-and-sandbag arrangements they’d set up around the yard, alongside Deacon.
“…Wills, where are ya?” Wilde asked after a moment.
“North end, behind the tractor. Can’t see him.”
“I’m in the barn. Got a good view of the field, no target yet.”
“Guess I’m headin’ out there, then,” Wilde told him. “Rees, Hayes. Out the van and back me up.” He squirmed forward around the earthwork and crawled forward until he was able to drop down into a ditch that ran around the farm’s perimeter, and Marty lost sight of him.
She retreated upstairs to track their movements via radio, and inwardly cursed whoever had neglected to think of putting a Flycatcher drone or something like it in the lifeboats. That one was definitely getting stressed in her debrief.
Interminable, indeterminate time passed, marked here and there by terse updates as the marines co-ordinated a glacially slow manhunt through the long grass. It came to an end with heart-stopping suddenness—the crack of gunfire, the squelching thump of a pulse gun firing three times, another burst of human weaponry. Silence.
“Yep. Four of ‘em. Wills, Reesy, get up the hill there to the north, watch the fields.”
Marty got on the radio. “Patel. Keep the lights out, but see if you can patch that new generator into our forcefields. I’d like to have some real shields before the sun comes up.”
“Rest of you get yourselves under cover,” Wilde ordered. Seconds later, the SOR’s techs bustled into the farmhouse from their respective hidey-holes. There was some nervous chattering, some laughter, and a few jokes.
Wilde sauntered in about twenty minutes later. His gear was muddy from crawling through a ditch and a field and he’d stuck a long grass stalk in his mouth, but he looked pleased with himself.
“That was fun,” he commented in a way which left it totally unclear whether or not he was being sarcastic.
“All clear?” Marty asked him
“Aye, for now. Hope Patel works some magic with those shields though. Or better yet, that Big Hotel have bigger things to worry about than us lot.”
He laid a rifle on the table. “This is a bit annoying, mind.”
“What is it?”
“It’s what our friend in the field shot me with.” He laid his own weapon next to it. The two looked practically identical. “Our own fucking weapons,” he commented. “Perfect carbon copy. Look, it’s even got ‘HK’ and ‘A3’ on the upper receiver.”
“Who says they’re copies?”
Wilde sniffed. “Well if this was made on Earth I’m gonna find out how it got here and kick whatever bastard’s responsible right in the balls.”
“I was thinking it might have been on a Caledonia lifeboat,” Marty told him. “Two of them still haven’t reported in.”
“…Shit. Mind you, his mates only had pulse. If this came off a lifeboat, I’d expect more than one.”
“Which means there are probably more groups out there.” Marty sighed and grabbed the longwave radio. “I’d better alert the other boats.”
“Guess we’re in for a long night.” Wilde rolled his shoulders and headed for the stack of ration boxes. “Cuppa?”
Marty nodded at him and set about contacting the other survivors. She was due a sitrep anyway, and she needed to report this incident back to Stainless.
When Wilde put a mug down next to her a few minutes later, she barely noticed.
Date Point: 14y3d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Unclaimed Space, Near 3Kpc Arm
Timothy “Tiny” Walsh
Getting Vemik drunk had turned out to be exactly as awesome as Walsh had dreamed. It had sure as shit gone some way to restoring Vemik’s usual bounce and vigor, at least—he’d spent the evening bouncing from place to place cooing curiously about everything. Especially how beer was made and also glass because glass beer bottles were really interesting and—
…And quite abruptly, he’d fallen asleep. Upright and bouncing to curled up between some tree roots and snoring in, oh…twenty seconds?
All of the Ten’Gewek turned out to be lightweights. Though, considering their only brush with alcohol was whatever they got from slightly over-ripe fruit Walsh couldn’t exactly blame them. Even Yan had been wobbling, slurring and doing his unconvincing best to remain dignified and respectable after a couple of bottles.
But, the day was up and they had a lot to do. Tribal life didn’t stop just because the world had nearly ended, and the women and children still needed food, which was why Vemik got a wake-up kick to the leathery sole of his foot…or was that the palm? Damn opposable-toe ape feet.
The young alien made a lengthy, pained noise and curled up tighter.
“C’mon, Sky-Thinker. Y’ain’t dead.”
Vemik groaned. “…You are sure?”
“Dead folks don’t talk to me much, in my experience.” Walsh gave him another ‘gentle’ toe-nudge to get him moving. “Up. You just need water.”
“I need quiet,” Vemik disagreed, though he rolled over and sat up, squinting and shielding his eyes from the rising sun. “…And dark.”
“Water,” Walsh repeated. “Trust me. Don’t make me pick you up and dump you in the river…”
Vemik groaned again, but levered himself laboriously upright—or as close as Ten’Gewek ever got to upright, anyway—and spat into the grass. Even that modest amount of exercise seemed to give him a boost though, because he cleared his throat, looked around more clearly and sharpened into the here and now.
“…Jooyun warned me of this. He call it ‘Hangover.’ Said it was the Taking to balance the Giving the night before.”
Walsh handed him his canteen. “Usually worth it, once it’s faded. How many did you have?”
“I had more than Yan!” Vemik said proudly. “Three!”
Walsh grinned as the younger man unscrewed the top. Apparently the Ten’Gewek system was extremely sensitive to booze. “A whole three, huh?”
“I am…” Vemik grunted and swigged from the canteen, “…a man of my tribe. Strong!”
“Hey, no arguing that, bud! C’mon, moving helps. We’ll go clean up our mess.”
There was a lot of it. Two or three Werne had fed last night’s feast, plus a handful of root-birds and other critters Walsh couldn’t name. A few people were still asleep wherever they’d happened to be sitting, and the sounds of the village waking up had a more sluggish quality than usual.
There was quite a pile of beer bottles near the fire. And Yan, who was probably in just as much pain as Vemik right now and doing a better job of pretending he wasn’t. He was expertly doing something useful with the leftovers—the People didn’t waste food, if they could help it.
Those four words of greeting seemed to exhaust him for conversation, so Walsh clapped him affably on the shoulder and started gathering up the glass.
“These are useful so you should probably peel off the label and keep ‘em.”
“Daniel says they break, make sharp edge.”
“They can, yeah. But I reckon they’re tougher than your pottery. Plus they won’t leak, and they never hold a flavor from anything. Easy to clean, too.”
“Flavor of old bowl best bit!” Yan declared. “…Unless go bad.”
“Heh. Have you had water? It makes the headache go away.”
“Made dry mouth go away too.” Yan neatly ran his knife down a rib to clean off the last of the meat. “Need more for stew.”
“Wait,” Walsh laughed. “More water, or more beer?”
“…Cook with beer?” Yan grimaced. “Taste nice, but…”
“The alcohol’s the bit that ruined your morning. It cooks off when you get beer hot.”
“Al-co-hol,” Vemik repeated carefully. “Means—?” he paused, squinted at Walsh, then sagged. “I ask Jooyun later.”
“Ask me what?”
Walsh turned. Julian looked like he’d been awake for a couple of hours, and was fresher-looking than he had been in days, too. Sometime during the morning he’d found time to bathe, shave and change into some clean shorts. He had a towel over his shoulder and was still drying out, but he looked sharp.
The towel, for some reason, had the words “hoopy frood” embroidered in large, friendly letters in the corner. Walsh had no idea why.
“Vemik wants a Barney-style explanation of what alcohol is.”
“Oh, Christ,” Julian shook his head and chuckled softly. “Now there’s a loaded concept. Tiny, should we properly introduce alcohol to the natives?”
“You’re askin’ me? ‘Cuz of course my answer is hell yeah.”
Julian shook his head and chuckled in that gentle way of his. “So racist.”
“I watched you down seven beers last night in less than an hour, bruh. That makes you, like, at least half oppressor.”
“You should see my girlfriends.”
Poor Vemik looked positively crestfallen—literally. His crest actually drooped, just a little. “No answer?” he asked plaintively.
“It’s one’a those things that’s a few branches up the tree, Sky-Thinker,” Julian told him. “Also, alcohol burns, and explodes sometimes. And it can kill you, too.”
“Maybe not all Sky-Person things are for us,” Yan decided, gruffly. “I think this alcohol…not for us.”
“Man, there go my dreams of drunken cavemonkey shenanigans,” Walsh lamented.
“Stick to dreaming-root and magic powder instead,” Vemik agreed.
“But we literally civilized ourselves so we could make more beer. That’s gotta be worth something!”
“Daniel always telling us, do things how we do things. Not have to do things how you do things. Otherwise, what different?” Yan shrugged.
“Definitely. Don’t write it completely off, though.” Julian advised. “It’s worth knowing. Even if you don’t drink it.”
“Medicine, food preservation. You can make paints and dyes, clean metal, clean out wounds so they don’t rot, all sorts of things.”
Yan and Vemik shared a look, Yan’s tail twitched, and that seemed to count for a whole conversation. The Given-Man shrugged and returned to his cooking. “Need herbs for stew,” he said. “And roots. Vemik know kind.”
That ended that conversation. Walsh and Julian exchanged a silent face-conversation of their own, again punctuated by shrugs, and Julian nodded.
“Okay. Lemme grab some stuff and I’ll go with,” he said.
The two humans wandered back toward their own end of the camp and left Vemik alone with Yan. Walsh checked over his shoulder and sure enough as soon as they were out of earshot the two Ten’Gewek got to chatting.
Too bad Daar wasn’t around. He could’ve heard every word from a distance. Walsh would’ve killed to hear what they were talking about.
Date Point: 14y3d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Unclaimed Space, Near 3Kpc Arm
“…I don’t like this *‘beer,’*” Yan confessed.
“It felt nice last night…” Vemik ventured.
“So does a woman, and I didn’t get one last night because I was too…beered.”
“Dwunk,” Vemik corrected him, then corrected himself. ”…Drunk.” Vemik paused, then trilled. “Wait! Did mighty Yan Given-Man fail to Give it good and hard?”
Vemik knew what was coming, and tried to skip out of Yan’s reach…to no avail. Almost before he could even blink Yan was sitting on his waist and pinning him to the ground with his full weight. Vemik couldn’t even breathe, it hurt so much.
“Are you volunteering?” Yan trilled, with maybe a little more malicious satisfaction than usual. Even pain-headed from beer and early in the morning, he was still the fastest and strongest man Vemik had ever known.
Vemik shook his head vehemently, and Yan blinked then sighed and rolled off. “Sorry,” he said, helping Vemik to his feet. Yan was like that, all angry power one second and then almost as gentle as a Dancer afterwards.
Vemik felt he’d crossed a magic line himself. “It was a mean joke.”
“…Funny though,” Yan relented. He hauled Vemik off his feet in a crushing bearhug, affectionate this time but still painfully inescapable. “But don’t make a habit of jokes like that. Can turn to a bad Taking.”
That was fatherly advice. Not something Yan made a habit of, usually…
“Yes, Yan.” They pulled apart and looked at the neater pile of beer bottles. “It’s interesting. Jooyun and Wawsh…very different ideas about beer.”
“Walsh likes to have fun,” Yan said sagely. He almost managed to hide his smirk. “But maybe, we be careful about beer. Alcohol. Whatever. Feels like tricky magic.”
That wasn’t rejection, Vemik noted. It was just…caution. And caution was usually wise, so Vemik decided he could live with that.
“You should get ready,” Yan returned to his stew. “Long day ahead.”
“But shorter than the ones before,” Vemik guessed.
“They always are, Sky-Thinker,” Yan sighed. “They always are.”
Date Point: 14y3d AV
Three Valleys, Amanyuy Territory, Planet Gao.
Everything was fucked, and they knew it was fucked. That was the start.
An enterprising male like Yeego thrived in situations like that. While everyone else was running around with their tails on fire, Yeego had sat down and…thought. Carefully.
Life crystallized into simple facts. Facts like which courses of action were more likely to result in survival, both in the short term and the long term. Which was the foundation of all civilization, of course…and therein lay his course of action.
If the civilization that had permitted his own livelihood was collapsing around their ears, then they needed a new civilization. They needed stability, leadership, somebody who could fill them with confidence that tomorrow was going to have water, food, and willing females in it. Gaoians who didn’t have those things would swiftly abandon all pretense of civilized behavior until they were either dead, or had secured them.
Problem the first: Yeego wasn’t exactly a fighter. He had his share of duelling scars, but he was a silverfur—distinguished and handsome to look at but not of much use in the mud and the rain. Solution: find some big tough lump and sweet-herb his way into friendship.
Easier said than done. As it turned out, even in a crisis people weren’t inclined to feel well-disposed toward their landlord. Especially not one as wealthy as Yeego. Never mind that he’d earned all that money and property honestly and over long years, the Clanless didn’t like paying rent, and thus didn’t like they guy they paid it to.
He did have a very defensible estate, however. With its own water, power, plenty of room to build, high solid perimeter walls and a warren of basements. All apparently quite ancient, but Yeego would be nutless before he lived in anything that lacked for modern conveniences.
In the end, an offer of food and shelter won over the locals. A tomorrow with water and food in it, as promised.
Problem the second: Figuring out why some of their colleagues had gone completely Keeda-fuck crazy and started killing folks. That one was…vexing. Nobody credible had any idea, and the only ones who claimed to know were the real dropouts, the mangy lank-furred losers who wasted their lives on the datasphere dreaming of a real female’s touch.
But they were the only ones who’d ventured an idea: Implants. Could be translators, could be cybernetic memory or logic boosters, could be systems interface implants…the dropouts all babbled about conspiracy theories and why the Humans had been so reluctant to adopt cybernetics.
Why hadn’t the Humans shared that concern, then? They seemed like lousy allies.
For lack of any other kind of an explanation, he’d run with that idea. The farmers, laborers and working-class Clanless had pounced on anything to blame for the chaos swirling around them, especially when it came from a suave and successful silverfur rather than some lank-eared loser.
Dismayingly, it appeared that their crazed idea might actually be the truth.
Problem the third: they had to defend the property. That meant Yeego needed to learn the rudiments of such…uncivilized work, and learn them quickly. There were a great many Clanless out there, all clamoring for access to the resources Yeego’s estate promised and most, if admitted, would contribute nothing or worse than nothing. His fledgling pseudo-Clan’s territory could not admit an unlimited number of newcomers.
Force—It all came down to force. What stopped the desperate and thirsty from rushing his gates? Force, or the threat of it. What kept his new “Clan” in line and made them contribute to the greater good, or dissuaded them from complaining about their ration payments? The threat of being forced to leave and rejoin the hapless mob outside.
Really, Gaoians weren’t so civilized at all, when it came down to it.
Problem the fourth…naming his new Clan. An identity was vital, for cohesion and loyalty if nothing else. Once the immediate survival challenges were overcome, long-term prosperity would hinge on their sense of group-belonging.
All good things in time. There were more pressing concerns.
Concerns like the Clanless outside his fiefdom complaining of having lost some of their number to an attack by unknown forces wielding alien weapons.
“What do they mean by ‘unknown,’ exactly?”
Yeego had acquired a seneschal of sorts, Tuygen. In fact Tuygen was a Goldpaw associate, a skinny wheaten toothpick of a property surveyor and a highly-educated expert in the value of land and the common laws of ownership. Passing on the reports from the walls and gate checkpoint was a jarring change from his previous work. “The shots seemed to come from a great distance,” he explained. “Nobody saw or smelled the shooters, nobody is certain where the shots came from, and they’re all too scared to go out there and check.”
“What about our people? Could we send somebody out to scent the area? This happened…when? This morning?”
“Yes, Yeego. During a rain shower.”
Yeego grimaced. It would take a truly legendary nose to even identify any scent laid down in the rain, let alone track it.
“So what you’re telling me is, there is no evidence at all.”
“No, Yeego. There’s evidence, it’s just…hard to believe. The victims weren’t killed by pulse weaponry, you see…they were killed by fast-moving kinetic projectiles.”
“Kinetic…like during the Clan wars a few hundred years ago?”
“More advanced than that, Yeego,” Tuygen replied. “I had one of the bodies brought inside. Seymi retrieved these…fragments.”
He handed over a small transparent plastic bag. Yeego studied its contents without opening it and sniffed. If this thing was a kinetic projectile, it seemed like it must be a nasty one—The bag was full of tiny jagged fragments that between them couldn’t have assembled something bigger than his thumb-claw, and he could see immediately that the disintegrated shards would be far deadlier than a simple sharp, solid penetrator.
“I assume,” he said, feigning calm, “that our ‘experts’ have something to say on this?”
He’d hired the most…enthusiastic datasphere-dwellers. The ones who’d had the most to say on the subject of implants and so on. They’d turned out to be right about the implants, after all…
“I asked them. They…think it might be a Human weapon, Yeego.”
“…And we’re certain of our friend Dinso?”
“His message didn’t leave much room for interpretation,” Tuygen duck-nodded. “Humans are ransacking Yi-Jan Township.”
“Ransacking,” Yeego repeated skeptically. It seemed an unlikely word—Yeego had got where he was in life on the back of a keen instinct for sniffing out people’s motives, and there simply wasn’t a compelling reason why a force of Humans might ransack anything on Gao, let alone a tiny farming township too insignificant to even have a permanent Clan presence. Yi-Jan was little more than a couple of farmer’s workhouses and the handful of services the workhouses needed.
But if there were Humans in the area and a Human weapon really had been used to murder Clanless refugees outside his own gates…At the very least, the threat loomed that the desperate mob might do something foolish.
Best see what all the trouble was about. Leaders needed to lead, after all.
“…Vehicles,” he ordered.
Date Point: 14y3d AV
Lavmuy, Planet Gao
Brother Fiin of Clan Stoneback
Finally being able to shed the too-heavy mantle of Champion-In-Stead should have been a relief. In reality, it was terrifying to see exactly what kind of a creature the male whose pawprints he’d been walking in really was.
Daar was The End. He was pure anger given fur, claws, teeth and a city full of foes to destroy.
Any Stoneback Brother could tear through biodrones with well-practiced ability, and Fiin had lost count of how many he had personally put down…but Daar was on another plane of skill, backed with a body no Gaoian—and only a tiny pawful of Humans—came even close to matching. It was like the old days and the old stories. He was a force of nature as the Humans said, and nothing the biodrones could do offered the barest hint of effective resistance to him. The ‘drones and all their devices fell before him like grain before the harvester.
Yet despite his awesome lethality he killed with absolute economy; maybe a triple-shot burst with his weapon or a swipe across a throat without even pausing to finish the job. He instinctually knew when a target was destroyed and just let them bleed out. He’d move on, servicing more without a bound of space between.
One moment he could be a charging hammer-blow, the next a twisting, flowing acrobat moving from twopaw to fourpaw and back again, all without any hitch or clumsiness. Where there were too many to personally service, he simply bowled right through them, killing them with his sheer size and strength. Where they were too spread out to personally destroy, his enormous body would weave from cover to cover almost too fast to track, led by the sharp staccato punch of his Human-made machine gun.
He even managed to practically explode one especially unfortunate biodrone with a rear kick that raked his claws up its belly and left guts flung across the gutter.
Fiin found himself very grateful for all the grueling and repetitive training Tyal had put the Fangs through before the end. Keeping up with Daar was more physically and emotionally draining than anything Fiin had ever experienced, including the Third Ring and the Final Rite. The fight went on and on and the enemies kept coming, each painful step forward brutal and bloody, until at last they were all dead and Daar had slaughtered a mountain of corpses, one which Fiin’s entire Claw had barely managed to match.
When the killing had finally stopped, and the subway station was properly secured, only then did Daar, Champion of Stoneback, deign to lift his helmet and take in the scene. His eyes were shining with the slaughter. It wasn’t joyful, and it wasn’t angry. It was something horribly both at once.
“We have minutes at most,” he announced. It wouldn’t be long before the ‘drones regrouped and re-attacked. “Collapse the tunnels.”
Fiin moved to obey. Anything to get out of Daar’s terrible presence.
The ground fighting in Lavmuy was chaos on a scale he’d never dreamed of seeing. Every building that wasn’t actually a blazing pillar of flame and smoke or a collapsed field of rubble was a knot of either the hungry and desperate unaugmented, or the blank-faced ruthless augmented ‘zombies’. Half the time both groups were liable to shoot on sight.
It wasn’t like the first day of the war. Anybody who’d made it this far had reverted to Clannish instincts at their most feral, trusting only their closest brothers to help them stay alive in a world where everybody else seemed to want them dead. Fiin’s Growl was missing several patches of paint despite its small-arms shielding. There were a surprising number of gauss, firearm and plasma weapons out there.
High-powered kinetic pulse was a recent development and entirely dangerous, the Dominion’s answer to Humans and insurgent Hunters. Daar in that miracle suit of his might be able to shrug it off, but not even a full-blooded Stoneback was going to come out of it well if they took a bad hit. Three from Fiin’s Fang were out of the fight with broken limbs and punctured lungs. One more was dead, and the culprit hadn’t been a biodrone, oh no. It had been a building full of dehydrated, panicking Clanless salary workers who’d managed to somehow arm themselves, and had rained a remarkably accurate volley down on the Stonebacks from their lofty position.
Daar had responded by flattening the building.
Granted, the Humans had done the actual flattening—a pair of dart-shaped fighter craft had thundered in and raked the building with bullets that tore its facade to shreds and collapsed any forcefields the occupants might have erected in the instant before a missile plunged into the tower’s innards and broke its back. Once the collapse was over, there had been nothing left but a twisted pile of steel, glass and concrete, and a dust cloud that lingered for two hours.
The Humans had done all that in seconds…But it had been at Daar’s command. He hadn’t even flinched, just moved on to the next thing that attracted his wrath.
All for this. The metro system was a vital line of communication that the Hierarchy were using to move their forces around unmolested by human air support, orbital weapons and indirect fire. Those tunnels made taking the city a near-impossible task and they were in the first-tier circle of concerns for both Grandfather Garl and Champion Daar.
Stoneback would take and hold Lavmuy no matter the cost, and make it the first major base of operations in the war to retake Gao. Fortunately, the biodrones seemed amateurish where ground tactics were concerned. That was possibly because the infosphere was in lockdown by Longear and operating in a special emergency services mode only; Fiin wasn’t privy to the complete details. That seemed to be limiting the control their Hierarchy masters could wield, and that was perhaps the only small advantage Fiin’s Fang had in this terrible mess.
And it wasn’t like Daar’s tactic was pointlessly destructive. A few judicious demolition actions in theory served the double purpose of securing the Clan’s own hold on the city, but if the biodrones were too slow to see the danger then they might even corrale a significant enemy force. Or, who knew, maybe even trap them entirely and leave thousands of biodrones to expire in the dark behind impenetrable tonnes of rubble.
None of that stopped him from growling happily when the building came down.
The Champion was cleaning his claws. It wasn’t a fastidious gesture but a practical one—they were caked in gore, and needed to be clean to work at their best. But he was doing it while aiming a look in Fiin’s direction that clearly said ‘get yer tail over here right now.’
Fiin obeyed, with a degree of hesitation. Daar absolutely reeked of dominance and aggression.
“I ain’t got time for a timid ‘Back, Fiin.”
Stung by an exact echo of the words Tyal had once spoken to him, Fiin straightened up and bustled to his Champion’s side.
“…Yes, my Champion?”
That drew a sigh and some of the tension flowed out of Daar’s body.
“You have a deal with the Straightshields,” he said. It wasn’t an accusation, just a statement of fact.
“…Your contact was a Hierarchy agent.”
“…I didn’t know.”
In a moment so fast and stunningly violent that Fiin couldn’t even hope to keep up, Daar grabbed him and took a single, deep sniff. This seemed to satisfy him, because he let the younger male go almost immediately.
“…You smell as honest as a ‘Back should, at least,” he allowed.
Fiin resolutely refused to acknowledge the implied insult and the lingering pain in his neck where the Champion’s arm had dug in, beyond shaking himself as he straightened up. “…Did I do something wrong, Champion?”
“How much did you tell him?”
“Nothing. All he ever asked me to do was report any criminal activity within the Clan if I saw it. I saw no harm in agreeing because…well, we’re Stonebacks! If one of our Brothers was breaking the law, we’d all pounce on him. Right?”
“And if he’d asked for more than that?”
“I would have taken it straight to Father Tyal.”
Daar huffed and shook out his neck, then scratched at the top of his head. “…Yeah, I know. I just needed you to say it. An’ I’m sorry.”
“The Clan comes first.”
“Yeah. It does. Thing is though, my concerns lately are more than Clan.” He watched Fiin’s brothers laying the charges for a second then growled. “You were there when Tyal was killed. Garl thinks it mighta gone different if the young pup hadn’t dug his claws in an’ argued so much, so what happened?”
“…I think he’s probably right,” Fiin confessed. The fate of his brothers and of Mother Ayma had been weighing on his conscience.
Fiin had learned much about controlling his body language over the years since his induction into the Clan, which was why he successfully resisted the urge to fidget or scratch at his ears as he thought. He just paused, and allowed the words to assemble themselves before he spoke them.
“…I gotta face facts,” he said. “I’m good at what I do. Tyal picked me into the Clan for a reason. I passed the Rings quick, got big quick, became a Fang leader young. I guess I got so used to knowing I’m good at this stuff that I forgot how to know when I’m not.”
This got a humorless chitter out of Daar. “Humility ain’t a ‘Back’s strength, Brother Fiin. It’s good you got it, I know I don’t. But…now I gotta ask, ‘cuz this part’s important. You gonna fuck up again?”
“…The best I can promise is that I won’t if I can help it. And I’ll never fuck up the same way twice.”
“Good. We live through this, I’ll share some truly epic fuckups of mine that’d make Keeda’s nuts crawl up his ass.”
Fiin couldn’t help himself and chittered slightly at the imagery. Daar favored him with the ghost of an amused look before his expression of break-everything focus returned. “But now ain’t the time,” he said. “I got something else buggin’ me. You’re afraid of me. All of you are. I can smell it.”
“You’re terrifying,” Fiin told him, simply and truthfully.
Daar betrayed no reaction to that statement. “I can’t have that from you, Fiin. I’ve already lost one good successor to exactly that, and I can’t help but wonder if that swipe at his self-confidence is the reason he’s dead now.”
“…I promise this, Champion—I don’t lack for confidence. It’s just that I never considered myself your equal in the first place, while Tyal fancied himself your eventual replacement. He was wrong. Me, I’m gonna strive for seeing reality.”
“Good.” Daar duck-nodded. “Don’t underestimate ‘yerself but don’t be deluded, either. Give it time…Anyway. I am sorry I ever doubted you, Fiin. You ain’t gotta fear a Fyu-damned thing from me. Just do your job, lead like ‘yer meant to.”
Fiin politely disagreed with a respectful shimmy of his head. “Right now? I’d rather be following somebody who scares me. I think scary is what we need to make it through this.”
Daar didn’t say anything, just stood there lost in thought. Presently one of Fiin’s Brothers approached respectfully. “The charges are set, Fangleader. Champion,” he nodded at Daar. “Set like you taught us.”
“We’ll see, won’t we?” Daar replied, sternly. “Everyone withdraw to the rally point!” Daar favored them with the single most fearsome, toothy grin Fiin had ever seen, re-seated his helmet, and led the charge back up the stairs.
From street level, the demolition was beyond impressive. As soon as the charges went off the entire street rippled like a Nava grub on the verge of splitting open, then fell into itself, sinking into a trench that dropped the fronts of several glass-fronted shops and offices. Several severed water pipes and sewers started to drain their contents into the newly-dug channel, and if Fiin was any judge the whole street would be a filthy, stinking bog of a canal in a couple of days, assuming the water pressure stayed up.
“…Not bad.” There were voice ports in Daar’s helmet which did little to mask his feral growl. They didn’t have much time, though, because the ‘drones reacted instantly to the tactical change, and started boiling out of buildings exactly like one of those Human horror films. There were so many they almost moved like a fluid.
Daar gave them a steady look and audibly sniffed through his mask, as though he was looking at a handful of vermin rather than a tide of mind-controlled berserkers. “Well, we got more important shit to do than slaughter ‘em all by claw,” he declared. “Mount up! On to the next job! We’ll roll right over ‘em!”
Fiin obeyed immediately, as did the rest of the Claw and shortly thereafter the rest of First Fang. In only a few heartbeats, almost two hundred of Stoneback’s finest had mounted their Growlers and proceeded along the egress path, grenades and kinetic pulse weapons blasting apart any resistance like the pitiful wall of bodies it was.
That gave Fiin a moment to reflect, while his driver and gunner thoroughly enjoyed themselves. And his Champion; he was practically wallowing in the bloodshed.
If Fiin was honest with himself…he was beginning to, as well.
Date Point: 14y3d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Unclaimed Space, Near 3Kpc Arm
Timothy “Tiny” Walsh
The humans (and Daar) had set up camp a respectful distance from the Ten’Gewek village. Close, but far enough away for some privacy and to avoid loose talk around the fire at night from maybe causing problems with awkward questions in the morning.
Walsh liked their camp. Even though it was a camp, it was a clear reminder of which species was the more advanced. Synthetic fabrics, carbon-fiber rods and nylon rope were a heck of a lot different to the furs, leathers and wood used by Ten’Gewek. Then there was the photovoltaic tarp which still had a place in the era of forcefields—they didn’t need a kick-start of power to get them running, and they didn’t produce detectable emissions.
Metal cooking utensils, the weather station with its scientific instruments, and the music completed the impression. It was Professor Hurt’s turn to put on some tunes, and he’d elected to start the day gently with some Norah Jones. Not Walsh’s style usually, but he had to admit that her voice went well with breakfast.
Hurt was napping in a camp chair with a book over his face, and Coombes and Hoeff were probably off getting in their morning ablutions over at a nearby Yshek-free stretch of river.
All of which made for a good moment for Walsh to ask Julian something that had been tickling at him.
Julian paused at nibbling his fingernail and shook the finger out. “Yeah?”
“D’you have this whole big feelin’ like… ’okay… now what?’ too?”
“…Yeah. Been thinkin’ about that a lot, actually.” Julian scratched at his head as they ambled towards their tents. “I mean…I gotta figger you fellas won’t be hanging around forever. Daniel’s great, but he’s not exactly an outdoors man…we gotta whip him in shape, too. And am I staying? What about the girls?”
“Well…can I be honest?”
“You’re totally gonna stay, bro.”
Julian half-turned to look at him with his head slightly on one side. “How d’you figure that?” he asked.
“The Air Force pays me for more than my dashing good looks, y’know.” Everybody kept forgetting that behind everything else, Walsh was intel.
“Yuh-huh. And your actual answer?”
“You’re giving off all sorts of microsign. Word use, man. You’re talking past the sale, like it’s a foregone conclusion you’re gonna be here for years. Why else you talk about we whipping our nutty professor into shape? And if I’m not mistaken,” He gave the campsite a good look, “I somehow doubt you’d have built out something this nice if you weren’t planning on staying.”
Julian stopped and Walsh watched him survey his own handiwork. The campsite was…
It was a Human campsite. The People knew living in the woods and in the wilderness because that was their daily life and they’d been doing it since probably before they were even properly sapient. They were good at it, but their approach was a way of life. There was a layer of tradition and ritual on top of everything that said they did a lot of what they did because that’s how they’d learned it. It was all correct of course, but…
But Julian had learned how to live in the wilderness as a citizen of a civilized nation, and blended that knowledge with what his grandparents’ people had taught him. Everything he did, he did because he knew exactly what and why he was doing it. The tools, the materials, the placement and layout, it was all more scientific. Not sterile or lacking in character, but different in character, in hundreds of small, barely-definable ways.
He seemed to get the point. “…I maybe didn’t need to build a shelf, I guess.”
“Yuh-huh. So really, way I look at it? You’ve got a culture that’s depending on you to guide them through this. That’s a hell of a fuckin’ burden but duty calls, and all that. You’ve got the prof to help but he needs you too; we gotta whip his ass into shape ‘cuz he’s gonna die of a heart attack if he’s not careful. And you gotta study.”
“Gotta whip my ass into shape, too,” Julian grumbled. “And that still doesn’t fix the girlfriend problem.”
“Nah, it does. They’ll be on-board, trust me. Besides…we have a jump portal here, and Colonel Jackson’s gonna be deploying a system shield pretty quick, so…”
“…So, don’t worry about it?” Julian seemed incredulous.
“Nah man, just stop assumin’ like you gotta do this all on your own. ‘Cuz you’re not gonna, bro!” That seemed like a good time to pull the shorter man into a crushing sideways hug.
“Okay,” Julian said once he’d managed squirm out from under Walsh’s arm and come up for air. “So, again…what now?”
“Realistically? We’re prob’ly gonna be here for a while, ‘cuz SOR ain’t gonna be re-deploying us until they got a better mission. That’s maybe gonna be, like, a year or more away.”
Julian crossed his big arms and tilted his head, which Walsh knew was one of those subconsciously dominant postures he’d recently favored. Julian was a rare man; he had no real idea how dangerous he was nor how much his body language telegraphed it.
If they had time some day, maybe Walsh would teach him the fundamentals of body language. Julian was a newly-big dude who still carried himself like a smaller man; he tended to posture himself to ward off attention in a friendly sort of way, which worked just fine when he wasn’t unintentionally looming about. Now those same habits could seem aggressive to people who didn’t know him, or at least impressively intimidating.
That was only a problem when he was stressed out, though. Tensed up, Julian moved an awful lot like a big predatory cat, and it was unnerving. Relaxed…he was much more like a lazy wolf who wanted belly rubs. Walsh just needed to get him to unwind.
And with Julian, the best possible way to do that was with honest, relentless optimism.
“Schyeah! With Gao and all that they’ve got their hands full and they’re gonna be full for a long damn time. They’ll want this system on fuckin’ lockdown too, and I bet they’ll want explorers for the surrounding star systems…”
Sometimes it was good to drop a little hint about what the future might hold, and if Walsh was perfectly honest with himself, it was maybe a teensy bit manipulative. But to be fair, it did at least have the advantage of being the likely truth…even if he would need to suggest it to his chain of command and encourage the correct outcome.
Julian took the bait and pondered that possibility, which seemed to take a little worry off his mind. “That’d be…nice. Still, we’d need to do all sorts of prep, I gotta worry about—”
“Nah, one step at a time, bro. First, we make Yan’s stew—”
“Heh. Yan can cook.”
“…I feel like I missed something.”
“Old TV show my gran’ma loved. Older’n me. Anyway after we’ve done with that, then what?”
“Well,” Walsh felt a little off-kilter for a moment. “Okay. Next, we’re gonna laze about for a while and answer all of Vemik’s questions. Day of rest and all that. And then, I’m gonna put both our asses through the wringer. Good stress relief!”
Julian actually seemed to like the notion of a good, solid weight session, and if Walsh were honest, he did too. But Julian still wasn’t happy. “…And after that?”
“We take it as it comes. You need to get stronger? No prob, we’ll get’chu fuckin’ beastly, you just tell us when to stop. Smarter? Dude, tell me the Prof ain’t chompin’ at the bit to fill your head with all sorts of cool stuff. Hell, I’ll be right there with you for all of that, man!”
“Allison and Xiù…”
“Them too! Duude,” Walsh chuckled and shook his head, “You really don’t know how fuckin’ valuable you three are, do you? Man, people are gonna bend over fuckin’ backwards to make this work, ‘cuz you three have drive and talent, the locals trust and respect you, and nobody anywhere doubts you can get the mission done. Don’t worry, man! Shit’s gonna work out, You’ll see.”
Julian still seemed a little skeptical and resumed his defensive posture. Oh well, Walsh had said what he could. Best to leave it be.
“Alright bro. It’s cool. But honestly? If life’s taught me anything it’s that you gotta go with the flow, dude. Only thing you can do right now is…what you can do.”
That probably wasn’t what Julian was looking for. Walsh could tell he really didn’t like the massive cloud of uncertainty that hung over his future, and if his suspicions were right, a big part of that was his girls’ futures as well.
But that was how things had to be. No point worrying about the future when the future was so precariously in the balance. The least Walsh could do is help him prepare.
He slapped the big woodsman on his shoulder. “C’mon, man. Dwelling on shit’ll just make you die younger. Sooner we get Yan’s stuff, the sooner we eat and the sooner we get to lift.”
That seemed to get at least a sideways grin from him. They wandered back toward Yan’s fire together, and Vemik was already there, bouncing about and ready with Julian’s lab-in-a-pack.
“Samples!” the young man declared happily, his hangover apparently forgotten.
Julian chuckled. “Okay, Sky-Thinker. But we’re getting wet today. I want samples from the river.”
Vemik pulled the best disgusted face that Ten’Gewek could, considering they didn’t have a nose to wrinkle. “River? Wet, muddy, full of Yshek and sickness,” he said.
“And fish. Good source of food, fish,” Walsh added. Vemik’s tongue lashed—a human would have blown a raspberry.
“Sickness is a good reason to study it,” Julian said, in the calm way he did when talking to the excitable young alien. “You can learn a lot from studying sickness.”
“Like?” Vemik asked, skeptically.
“Like how to cure it,” Julian replied. “Come on…”
Walsh chuckled and fell into a slow rolling step behind the two. He had a soft spot for the Misfit scientist and his cavemonkey Igor, but the life of training and protecting a researcher wasn’t for him.
He was thinking about the future, and he was pretty sure of exactly two things. One: This JETS team was done. Daar was gone and almost definitely not coming back, and if the war on Gao didn’t shake shit up to the point where recruitment to the SOR went skyrocketing, he’d let Firth kick him in the balls.
That meant more JETS members, which meant the current members would end up with increased seniority, maybe training roles. All for the good…but that wasn’t Walsh’s style.
Which meant thing number two that he was certain of: the second he got off this planet, Walsh was going back on the Crue-D, and back into the HEAT pipeline.
And this time, he was gonna fuckin’ well finish it.
Date Point: 14y3d AV
The Jitney, somewhere above the northern plains, Planet Gao
Technical Sergeant John “Baseball” Burgess
“So when LT said *‘retrieve the Champions for a strategic meeting’*…”
“He meant them an’ a buncha other guys as well,” Firth nodded. “Figgers Champions wouldn’t go nowhere in times like this without their buddies.”
“Be glad so many of them are still alive,” Regaari told them, flatly. He’d been in a morbid mood for two days, but as much as they were all worried for him there wasn’t a lot anyone could do. ‘Horse was adamant that the healthiest thing for Dexter right now was to keep him busy, and Regaari seemed to know it too—even in-flight he was constantly reviewing intel reports, combining the data that flowed to him from both the FIC high above and the ground intel from Human and Gaoian sources alike.
He was going to fall apart if that kept up forever, but they were all there for him. He’d keep it together long enough, Burgess was certain of it.
There were a lot of Gaoians on the Jitney. Champion Reeko, the Straightshield, was easily the most imposing of them. He was tall, stately, and looked like the kind of person who’d carefully and painstaking researched humor and then decided it wasn’t for him. His Brothers had similarly serious ears and the rigid posture that said there was a pole so far up their ass it was tickling their breakfast. They did not, apparently, trust Humans.
The Goldpaw Champion was every Hollywood stereotype about a medieval spice merchant all at once, and even in the middle of a crisis he was flaunting his Clan’s wealth by wearing it. It was like running into a playboy white kid with a Patek Philippe watch buying blow on the corner of ‘Base’s old neighborhood, except somehow less classy. Even his whiskers had precious metal braided into them.
…Okay, the whiskers were fuckin’ boss. He wasn’t about to admit that to Titan, though.
Titan was less than amused. He was a Japanese fireplug of a bro whose family had clawed their way up from poverty on the back of all their hard work. He was, in his own way, the hardest motherfucker John had ever known, and there weren’t much that he hated more than a Jive-ass motherfucker fronting it for all he was worth.
Watching Champion Reeko attempt to pry any bit of intel out of Adam was probably the most entertaining thing John was gonna see for a long time.
Then there were the Firefangs. Champion Halti, and Grandfather Ruuli. Neither was in any mood to speak with a human at all, and ‘Base almost couldn’t blame them. Their clan had been hit harder than any other by this war, first losing the great bulk of their Brother pilots to implants, and then watching as the fleet massacred those lost Brothers. By all accounts the brief high-speed knife fight between Firefang strike fighters and the 946th had been…ugly.
Human ships held a strong hand. The pilots were tougher, stronger, could handle G-forces that’d straight break a Gaoian. They had the edge in reaction speeds and the Firebird itself stacked up well against whatever it was that the Clan preferred to fly. When it came to straight-line acceleration the Firebird won by a wide margin, which meant they ruled the kinetic energy advantage.
Still. Gaoian tech was a long way ahead of where humanity was at. Probably the only reason the fight hadn’t been an order of magnitude nastier for the 946th was that the war—and intel gathered from a captured Igraen source—was highlighting an important difference between different “grades” of biodrone. Most were being controlled via a civilian implant suite—translators, cybernetic memory, that kind of thing—which could certainly subsume their will and march their body around, but didn’t seem to retain full access to the host’s skills and abilities.
Those “zombie” drones might be sitting in a pilot’s chair, they might have access to the knowledge of how to fly…but they weren’t seasoned, experienced pilots. They had no ability to interpret their orders or employ tactical cunning. In the absence of which, the tech advantage was much less important.
Even so, the 946th had lost people. The only saving grace was that when a Firebird was destroyed, the pilot and WSO probably didn’t feel a thing.
John thought a peace offering was in order. He sidled up next to Regaari, “Yo, bro. Can I snag one of your rations?”
Regaari glanced up from the combined report he was assembling and snapped to the here-and-now with a blink. After a second to mentally replay the question he duck-nodded and gestured to his pack. “If you suddenly crave cod oil and liver, be my guest.”
John nodded and dug one of the meals out of Regaari’s pack, then ambled over towards Champion Halti, who recoiled subtly. John kneeled and offered the food. “Dex says it’s pretty good.”
Halti gave the foil pack a long and suspicious look before taking it off him. He probably hadn’t eaten in the last couple of days if ‘Base was any judge. If he had, he probably would have refused it.
He sat down and let the Gaoian eat. At least in the pressurized air that whole airline food thing applied, dulling the pungent fishy scent that Gaoians seemed to love so much.
It was hard to tell if it had a positive effect on Halti’s mood. Hopefully it did—when the world went to shit, sometimes it was the little pleasures that made the biggest difference. Murray had a story about UKSF training in the Brecon Beacons mountains when he’d got soaked to the skin in foggy weather, wound up on the very edge of collapse and a simple cup of cheap hot chocolate brewed from a thermal flask had been the difference between failure and selection.
Before long, though, the food was gone and Halti was delicately licking the oily gravy from his chops.
“We’ve got more, one for everyone.” Without needing to be prompted, each of the Whitecrest operators reached into their combat packs and fetched their meals.
Diplomacy wasn’t all that hard, really. Still, Halti in particular seemed to be a tough shell to crack through. He said a polite “thank you” and sat in silence, watching the sky roll by outside the Weaver’s tiny porthole windows.
‘Base could play that game just fine. He settled in and waited, going over a few things in his head he’d been wanting time to go over anyway.
He got what he was waiting for after about twenty minutes. Halti’s ears had flicked a few times, until he finally sat forward and spoke to him directly.
“You seem very…calm.”
“That’s my job,” Burgess told him, emerging from his thoughts with practiced seamlessness.
Halti scoffed and looked away. “I wonder how easy you would find your job if this was your homeworld…” he mused, and went silent again.
“Ain’t about findin’ my job easy, sir. It’s about doin’ it anyway, especially when it’s hard.”
Halti didn’t reply, and ‘Base gave up. Some people, you could extend the hand to them and they’d rather fall into the ravine than take it.
He only hoped that insular attitude wouldn’t cause trouble later on…
Date Point: 14y3d AV
Three Valleys, Amanyuy Territory, Planet Gao.
“That’s the farm Dinso mentioned.”
Yeego stood up and got out a pair of optics to take a good long look at the farm in question. The whole area was glacial valley, wide and mostly flat with the occasional smooth roll to stop the terrain from being soporifically dull. The farmhouse was built on one such rise, just high enough above the surrounding fields that its occupants could survey their fields without difficulty.
The makeshift fortifications were obviously new. There were low walls of what looked like feed sacks or fertilizer bags, the farmhouse windows had all been filled in, and the whole property had a…prickly quality that Yeego didn’t normally associate with the agricultural life.
The bright yellow warning sign nailed to a tree probably wasn’t standard either. Yeego doubted that even the most fervently territorial farmers would be quite so aggressively defensive.
It read, in clear Gaori script: “Restricted area. Unauthorized approach will be met with lethal force.”
There were other markings below. Yeego couldn’t make sense of them, but if he had to guess he imagined that it was the same message repeated in a second language.
Below that, in smaller text, were the instructions. He scratched at his whiskers as he read them, then read them a second time. They weren’t difficult instructions, but…how to proceed?
Option the first: Turn around and return to the compound. Increase patrols around the treeline. Try to maintain order now that they knew there were armed Humans active in the area. Safest in the short term…too many volatile unknowns in the mid to long term, not least of which would be the accusations of cowardice from among his own ranks.
Option the second: Approach en masse…and get slaughtered, no doubt. Not truly an option, therefore.
Option the third: Follow the instructions on the sign. Approach alone and unarmed, and proceed to a spot that was still some considerable distance from the farm itself.
This was the option that posed the most personal danger to Yeego, but the known consequences of the other two options and the need to keep face in front of his followers made it also the one he was mostly likely going to have to take.
That settled it, really. If he was going to build a Clan, or at least a focus of stability in a world gone mad, he needed respect. Lose that, and the disillusioned Clanless would probably tear him apart anyway.
Tuygen cleared his throat. “I, ah…I heard that it is a Human tradition to use a white flag to indicate a desire for peaceful contact,” he suggested.
“It seems to me that too many people in our compound know a lot about Humans,” Yeego muttered.
“At least it’s proving useful?” Tuygen submitted.
Yeego sighed. “Any other useful nuggets?”
“…Don’t fight them. They’re stronger than you.”
Truly, a seneschal without peer. Yeego resisted the treacherous urge to flick his ear in irritation, and settled instead for grace and poise. “I will bear that in mind,” he replied. “Let’s find that white flag…”
In the end he made do with a dirty light gray tarpaulin. Hopefully it would look white enough, fluttering above his head on a pole. He borrowed a two-wheel vehicle from one of his scouts and kept his speed on the cautious side as he followed the route clearly laid out on the sign, until he reached the meeting spot.
He’d never met a human before. He’d seen them on the infosphere or broadcast media, but reality was something else, bringing with it the sheer impact of a deathworlder’s presence. There was nothing tangible about the sensation, just…an energy. He was looking at a being strong enough to rip his limbs off and crush his body accidentally and everything about the Human from his scent to his stance was a reminder of that fact.
This one was a robustly-built male burdened under a heavy-looking pile of combat equipment and armed with a black mechanical knot of a weapon which he leveled directly at Yeego’s chest.
“Halt!” he commanded. “Drop to your knees, paws behind your back!”
He stank of strength, authority and command, not to mention solvent, blood, mud and explosives. Disobeying an order like that from a being like that would have required Yeego to fight hard against his own instincts, and he’d already resolved that the best approach here was to let the Humans be in charge, for now.
Yeego was not, however, quite prepared for the indignity of being shoved face-down into the dirt and having something painful shoved against the back of his head.
Implants, he realized. The Human was scanning for implants, which dissipated his last lingering doubts over the advice he was getting from his “nerd squad” advisors.
He was, quite abruptly, let go and hauled unceremoniously to his feet. The human made sure he was upright and then backed off. It wasn’t a deferential or polite distance, but the room he needed to shoot if need be.
“Name,” he demanded.
Yeego flicked some dirt out of his chest fur and straightened. “Yeego.”
“None. But I own a lot of land in the three valleys…including that farm.” Yeego indicated it with a tilt of his head.
“Why are you here?”
“I want answers, mostly. Some of our people were shot, using a weapon like that one.” Yeego indicated the Human’s rifle. “And your people have been scavenging from a township in the area. I’d like to know what’s going on before anything…unwise happens.”
“Is that a threat?”
“No. I’m not stupid. But my people are desperate, scared and under attack. I want to make sure they lash out in the correct direction, yes?”
The Human’s expression behind his dark glasses was unreadable, but after an uncomfortably long moment of silent scrutiny he stepped back again, turned aside and indicated with his head in a manner which unmistakably said ‘this way.’
Yeego duck-nodded and followed the road, aware of the fearsome weapon behind him every step of the way.
He glanced sideways at a rustle from the brush at the edge of the path. A second Human, hitherto invisible among the foliage, materialized from behind a bush. The message was clear: ‘You don’t know how many of us there are, but we’re watching. Behave.’
Nice of them to warn him.
He could vaguely remember the last time he’d visited this farm. It had been…what? Fifteen years? Seventeen? Animal fodder wasn’t the most glamorous side of agriculture, but it was a solid investment. Naxas would always need hay, after all. In some senses, not much had changed. The still buildings all appeared to be present. The tractor looked like a newer model and he was quite sure the cheap PV panels on the barn had been a later upgrade, but mostly the layout was the same if one ignored the Human fortifications and holes, or the way they’d methodically smashed every window to replace it with sandbags.
He was ushered into the farmhouse and up the stairs, where a Human female with bright gold head-fur gathered into a neat bun looked sharply up at him from her position of power at a makeshift desk.
“Gave his name as Yeego, ma’am,” his captor reported. “Clanless. Apparently he’s the local land baron. Says his people were shot by attackers with firearms.”
The female sat back and gave him an appraising look. “So you came here to parlay? That’s quite a risk.”
Yeego gathered his paws in front of him and duck-nodded politely. “These are risky times,” he said smoothly. Which was nothing but the truth, in fact—the whole point of his exercise in Clan-building was that the world had gone insane and that daring action needed to be taken by those who intended to come out on top. Daring, by definition, meant risk.
“Hmm.” The female stood and extended a hand. “…Lieutenant Kovač, Spaceborne Operations,” she introduced herself. Yeego detected with interest a small hitch or hesitation in the moment before she said it, as though she wasn’t quite used to introducing herself that way.
Interesting. So Humans weren’t made of bedrock after all—they could be off-balance just like anybody else. That was useful knowledge.
“Thank you for receiving me,” he said aloud. When ko-vatsh or however her name was pronounced gestured open-palmed to the seat opposite, he perched on its edge with his ears up and an alert expression of polite interest on his face. “Forgive me, I don’t know this word loo-tenant.”
She nodded, and spoke in remarkably accomplished Gaori. [“The nearest Gaoian equivalent would be ‘Officer’ or ‘Brother’ among the military Clans.”]
[“I see. Thank you. I assume you did not attack my people?”]
[“We came under attack ourselves,”] she told him. [“By Gaoians armed with our own weapons.”]
[“And looting the town?”]
[“We needed the supplies. Appropriate reparations will be made once the emergency has passed.”]
[“And what, exactly, is the nature of this emergency?”]
Ko-vatsh took a second or two to think about how to phrase her reply, which was a clear sign of a big question. [“In short, it’s an existential crisis for the Gao,”] she said. [“A hostile galactic power has decided to eradicate your species. I presume some of your fellows—the ones with implants—have attacked you or sought to sabotage you?”]
Yeego duck-nodded that it was so and she mirrored the gesture. [“Anybody with an implant works for the enemy now,”] she explained. [“Whether they want it or not. That’s about five percent of your population globally, and substantially higher among some of the Clans.”]
[“And when, exactly, is an emergency on that scale likely to end?”] Yeego asked. [“Promised reparations are a lovely gesture, but if we perish for lack of supplies then the promise was meaningless. I have thousands looking to me for guidance and protection!”]
Ko-vatsh raised one of the thin strips of fur over her eye; Yeego had no idea what that meant.
Yeego duck-nodded. [“Farmers, workers, miners…Clanless from across the three valleys area. It began as dozens, but word spreads fast.”]
She sat back again and looked at one of the males. “That sounds like a militia to me,” she said in her native language. She didn’t bother to deactivate the translator on her table.
“A militia?” Yeego asked.
“…Would you excuse us for a minute?” Ko-vatsh asked politely. She turned off the translator, and she and the male retreated to a corner of the room where they held a brief, low conversation.
The thrust of it was difficult to deduce from an alien language and alien expressions, but clearly the male was a trusted advisor of some kind. He asked a question, she answered it, replied with a question of her own. He gestured with his hands in a balancing or juggling motion and made an observation, she nodded thoughtfully and gave Yeego a cold, clear, steady stare that betrayed nothing except that she was sizing him up.
She made one short comment, the male paused, then moved his head in an interesting way Yeego couldn’t interpret before speaking a single word: ‘Yusmam.’
Ko-vatsh sat back down and reactivated the translator, presumably for the male’s benefit because she continued to speak in Gaori.
[“Here’s the shape of things, Yeego. We’re here because our ship got blown up…by the Hunters. The Swarm-of-Swarms is coming,”] she explained and Yeego totally lost control of his ears for a second—they plastered themselves abjectly to his scalp and he felt a sick, cold feeling settle in his gut. [“And they aren’t even the worst of it. From what I know, the campaign to ensure the very worst doesn’t happen is proceeding on schedule, but we have to hold out here until our comrades can relieve us. Right now, that’s…low on the priority list for them.”]
[“So,”] she continued, [“We want to live through this and get back to what we’re supposed to be doing. You want to live through this as well. Now, we have the backup and the big guns, but you have what we don’t—manpower. We just don’t have enough people to properly secure this place and make something useful out of it.”]
[“You need my help,”] Yeego surmised.
[“Honestly? We probably don’t,”] Ko-vatsh disagreed with a sideways jerk of her head. [“All we need to do is hold out until the] ‘cavalry’ [gets here. But it’ll help all of Gao, it’ll help your thousands of Clanless and it’ll help you personally if we can lay a solid foundation here for them to build on. I don’t want to just survive this, I want a victory in the three valleys—I want to turn this farm into what we call a Forward Operating Base. If we can do that, then your Clanless will benefit. That’s what we would need your people for.”]
[“That seems…ambitious,”] Yeego said. [“Unless you intend to be an occupying force.”]
[“The Stonebacks could use it just as readily as my own people.”]
Yeego flinched and Ko-vatsh noticed. The thought of a bunch of over-mated, over-muscled, testosterone-poisoned browny Stonebacks stomping and clawing all over his land…
[“That’s hardly an inducement to cooperate. Is all of that the reason you’re here, or…?”] he asked, warily. Something about the situation didn’t smell right.
[“No. We’re here because our ship exploded. A lot of good people didn’t make it out alive or able bodied…I’m just trying to make the best of a bad situation. In truth I’m, uh…taking some liberties in interpreting my orders,”] she confessed.
[“Decisions like the placement of FOBs is above my grade, so…I can’t actually promise that my superiors would want to build on anything we achieve here,”] she revealed. [“But I do know that one of the most important things for the Gao right now is finding a stable means of survival. You’ve just had your civilization kicked out from under you and you need to brace for the fall. Seems to me, a working farm that can defend itself from raiders and worse is a good place to start.”]
Yeego found himself duck-nodding along unconsciously. He recomposed himself but it was too late. She saw.
[“Besides,”] she added, [“in a survival situation it’s important to have an objective beyond basic subsistence. If you’re going to survive then your people will need a goal, something to motivate and inspire them. Without that…”]
This time, Yeego didn’t bother to stop himself from duck-nodding. She was perfectly correct, of course—He’d forgotten, behind worrying about things like a Clan name, emblem and motto that first and foremost a Clan was an objective, or a shared common goal. Without a sense of direction, his own position at the top would soon be toppled out from under him by an ambitious usurper with vision.
And Yeego had to admit, he couldn’t think of a better vision right now.
[“…What resources do you need?”] he asked.
Date Point: 14y3d AV
Delaney Row, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Whining and scratching, and the snuffle of Hannah’s desperate nose under the door made for a pretty good welcome home. Ava pushed the door open with her shoulder, her hands being too full of camera equipment and takeaway food to achieve more than fumbling the key into the lock and twisting it, awkwardly.
Hannah, of course, was frantically happy to see her. But she was also a Good Girl, a top-quality, highly-trained service dog, so rather than jumping up her version of an enthusiastic welcome home was to immediately plop her butt on the ground and wiggle it ferociously.
Ava hung up her work bag on the hook by the door and knelt to scratch her ears. “Hey chica.”
Hannah was getting big fast, canine pregnancies being only about two months in duration, and the veterinarian said she was carrying a litter of six.
Six mini-Bozos. The thought was terrifying—Dogs with the intelligent energy of a border collie and the wall-smashing strength of…whatever Bozo was. Part mastiff, part pitbull, part hyperactive bulldozer. Astonishingly, all six of the puppies were already claimed—One for Adam and Marty, one for the Tisdale family, two for ESNN colleagues, one for the Governor-General…and one for Father Gyotin.
Bozo was literally over three times his mass, so Ava had no idea what he was on about…but Gyotin had been adamant.
Hannah was a much more manageable size all by herself. She sniffed at the takeaway bag, whined hopefully and thumped her tail on the floor with a lick of her lips.
“Yes, I got some for you…”
She left the takeaway bag on the kitchen island and got changed first. After a long day at work, the sheer relief of getting out of her bra and high heels and into fuzzy pajamas and an old, enveloping T-shirt that she’d stolen off Adam years ago and never given back…mere food could wait. The San Diego Padres were long gone, of course, but she was going to wear that shirt until it disintegrated.
A Red White and Blue burger for herself, and some lamb doner meat for Hannah. It was literally the first thing she’d eaten in twelve hours, and thank fuck for Charlotte and Ben who’d agreed to drop in and take Hannah for walkies. She owed them big for that.
“You wouldn’t believe the day I had, chica,” she said, as she settled in on the couch. Hannah flicked an ear, nose-down in her bowl. “I mean…God, the Gaoians are a big enough story all by themselves, but then, like…” she sighed. “This morning, I got an email landing about the biggest interview ever in my lap, and then two hours ago…gone. Just like that.”
Hannah finished scarfing down her treat and flowed up onto the couch to rest her chin on Ava’s ankle with a soulful expression. She got another scratch behind the ears for her compassion.
“…I mean, come on. The Misfit crew spent how long out of contact? No interviews, no comment, no..nothing. And then bam! Suddenly they want to talk to me?!” Ava sighed and inserted a fingernail under her drink can’s tab to lever it open.
She’d sworn off alcohol. It had been a painful decision, but there were too many negative forces pulling on her. She didn’t need another one…though right then, she would have killed for a glass of wine.
Instead she gulped down half a can of coke, and sighed again.
“I shoulda known it was too good to be true…”
Date Point: 14y3d AV
High Mountain Fortress, The Northern Plains, Planet Gao
Champion and Stud-Prime Daar of Clan Stoneback
“How are they?”
“Shaken and angry.” Powell sighed and scratched at his arm. “My Lads weren’t gentle.”
Daar shook his neck out. “Couldn’t be helped. We get everyone?”
“No. Most of the major Western Clans are here, but the minor ones, or the ones based out east in enemy territory…”
“Right. My thanks. I…need you to leave.” Daar looked around at Clan SOR and nodded solemnly. “All of you. This is a Champion’s business.”
“Aye. We’ll hold our end up. The ground war’s on you now.” Powell extended a hand. “Whatever happens, wherever the future takes us, havin’ you in my command was a privilege I shan’t forget.”
“And bein’ under ‘yer command was a privilege I’ll remember.” Daar echoed. They shook, hand to paw, and Powell turned away down the old stone fortress’ stairs.
Daar took a deep breath, shook his fur out, and turned to the Great Hall’s huge iron-reinforced wooden doors. The historical direction of the Gaoian people had been decided many times over behind those doors. There was nowhere more solemn, more significant or more potent for moments like these.
He turned the latch and shouldered his way inside.
There weren’t just Champions inside. Several had a Father, Grandfather or important Brother at their side, and Yulna had Myun with her as always. It occurred to Daar that he still hadn’t heard his daughter speak in the last couple of days, and a moment’s worry fretted at him that maybe the injury to her mouth was going to cause lasting trouble for her.
But now wasn’t the time for worrying about that. His claws clicked sharply on the stone as he stood tall on two-paw and marched to the head of the table. For once, the appearance of dignity and civilization actually mattered. The buzz of nervous conversation dropped away to nothing.
Champion Reeko spoke first. “…We heard you were back,” he said. “It’s good to see you, Champion Daar.”
Daar acknowledged him with a duck of his head. “You won’t think so when you hear what I have to say,” he predicted. Reeko’s ear flicked, but he duck-nodded and rested his paws casually in front of his belly, listening attentively.
Daar glared around at all of them to ensure he had their attention, then spoke in his deepest, most solemn growl. “It’s time to go on the offensive,” he said. “Right now we’re on the run, retreating, recoiling. That can’t go on, or we’ll be crushed up against a wall and picked apart. Up until now we’ve looked after our own Clan interests. Secured our records—” he glanced at Loomi, “—our secrets—” he directed that comment at Genshi “—and our projects.” Meereo’s enormous ear flicked as Daar looked in his direction.
“That ends now.” Daar snarled. “Whatever unfinished business our Clans have, it’s over. Unless it contributes directly to the survival of our species I don’t give a shit about it, you can pick up the pieces later when we’re alive. As of this moment, we are an army, and you are my generals.”
Stoneback’s allied clans responded predictably. They duck-nodded and held their peace. The more neutral Open-paws, Goldpaws, Green-tooths and Shortstrides hesitated, glanced at each other, and decided not to object.
Even the Ironclaws surprised him. Clan Ironclaw and Clan Stoneback were well-established rivals, the thinking laborers versus the industrious engineers. They competed for the same kinds of male, the same females, the same resources, contracts, work and niche. But Champion Mayru simply looked Daar inquisitively in the eye for a moment, then duck-nodded imperceptibly and settled his ears into a posture of deference.
That left only the One-Fangs and Firefangs: traditional rivals of Stoneback and also among the most heavily augmented Clans. While Champions Hiyel and Halti were both implant-clean and briefed, the prejudices they’d collected over long years pickling in a heavily infiltrated Clan environment weren’t going to evaporate all at once.
“To achieve what?” Hiyel asked. “Our fleets are lost, Champion Daar. The enemy claimed what they didn’t destroy, and the humans wiped out the rest. Almost all of my Clan’s Brothers, assets and ships are wrecks in orbit now. What can we achieve without orbital support?”
“Orbital support is being addressed,” Daar said cryptically. “What I find more important is your defeatist attitude. Is this gonna be a problem?”
“I don’t have a Clan to give to the cause, Daar!” Hiyel objected. “Everything we are is gone. Whatever we have left is yours, but—”
“That’s all I wanted to hear,” Daar interrupted him before he could qualify his support. “What about you, Halti?”
“My Clan is worse off than the One-Fangs,” Halti said, shaking his head. “Eighty percent of our pilots were implanted, and the rest were slaughtered by the biodrones. Our ground-crews and support brothers all lived and worked on One-Fang stations, or at facilities that have been bombed to dust. If I contribute anything to your cause, my Clan dies.”
“Your Clan dies anyway. We all do. This isn’t a fight for territory, Champion. We are fighting to exist.”
“I have to safeguard the future of my Clan, Champion Daar! If this can be done you’ll achieve it, but I can’t—!”
Daar decided a warning threat was in order. He leaped over the table and got in Halti’s face fast enough that he could barely react. In his most menacing growl, “My Clan’s purpose is to preserve the Gaoian race, Champion. I don’t give one watery shit about your sinecures or your privileges. Obey, or pay.”
Halti didn’t take the hint. “Daar,” he pleaded desperately. “If I give you anything then Firefang is gone forever. I can’t—!”
Daar tore his throat out.
It was a quick death, at least. Relatively. Halti fell, choking and fountaining blood from his neck, and was probably unconscious before he slumped to the ground.
Daar spit the blood from his mouth and turned on Ruuli in one smooth motion. He was the Firefang Grandfather and had surged to his feet to avenge his fallen Champion. He charged and leapt onto Daar in a pounce that would have felled lesser males…but Daar simply brushed him aside and let Ruuli stun himself in the collision.
Daar let him get to his feet and gather his wits; he deserved his dignity. Ruuli shook out his pelt, met Daar’s eyes, and nodded solemnly. Daar nodded in return. The Grandfather of Firefang made his peace, swallowed, flattened his ears, and charged.
Daar gave him a quick death too. One swipe of his paw shattered the old male’s sternum and likely ruptured his heart, and another disemboweled him from neck to groin. There were shocked noises and groans from the other Champions as Ruuli sagged, fought desperately to hold onto his own innards, and then slipped out of consciousness and out of life.
Daar stood up, allowing a feral growl to bubble menacingly at the back of his throat.
“Now,” he challenged the stunned, silent survivors. “Is there any other business of command to attend to?”
Not a soul dared take a breath. Good.
“The survival of our species is at stake. Does anybody wanna stand in the way?” he repeated, driving his point home.
The air stank of intimidation and shock, behind the sharp metallic tang of blood and the musty scent of spilled guts. Nobody volunteered.
“Outstanding. We are going to fight back.” He turned to the shell-shocked Highmountain honor guards. “You two. Take care of this.” He gestured toward the corpses, blood still dripping from both paws. “Make sure Ruuli gets full honors.”
Daar didn’t comment on what to do with the former Champion. He trusted them to figure it out. The taller one duck-nodded nervously, glanced at his fellow, and the two stepped out to fetch aid. Daar paced the room while they attended to the matter.
It didn’t take long. Ruuli was hoisted onto a litter as neatly as could be managed, while Halti was dragged out by his rear paws; a failed Champion earned no dignity.
Daar watched them mop down the floor and ambled towards the table head as they bustled out of the way. Only when they had finished did he slowly put his claws away without bothering to wipe them clean.
“No more of that I hope. As ‘fer anyone who’s unlucky enough to have ‘plants, they die or they go in stasis,” He stated plainly. “No exceptions. No excuses. I don’t care if they’re your own bestest Cousin. I don’t care if they’re the Mother who nursed you. I don’t care if Great Father Fyu himself comes back, if he’s got an implant I’ll tear the old fucker’s throat out myself!”
Nobody said anything. He’d managed to shock all the surviving Champions and Grandfathers into total submission.
“So. First thing’s first. We gotta organize an army, and we gotta go kill these Hierarchy fucks…You.” He aimed his bloody paw at a random Firefang. “Name.”
“G—” the younger male choked on his own name, then rallied. “Goruu, Champion.”
“That’s Champion Goruu now. Your Clan needs one. Be worthy of it. Name your Grandfather. Now.”
The newly appointed Champion Goruu was either a quick learner or a good listener. Either way, he came out with a name instantly. “Yaakiya.”
“Congratulations,” Daar told him, with a gallows humor only a Human could match. “You’re young-looking, so learn fast and don’t get killed. As for the rest of you…”
He rounded on the gathered leaders of the Gao. Many hadn’t made it, either because they were dead or they simply didn’t get the message. He caught Reeko’s eye, who seemed to be about the only Gaoian left in the room who had enough courage to meet his gaze.
…No. Yulna did too. For the first time in a long while, he granted the Mother-Supreme a modicum of grudging respect—Whatever her failings, the woman had iron balls.
“You know what bein’ a Male is about,” he told the room in general, via Reeko. “It ain’t just the Stoneback motto, it’s what we all are. Protect and Provide. That is Stoneback’s ancient Contract and mantra, the secret we’ve kept for so long because you were not ready. Well, now you’d better be. And Keeda burn my balls off, I will not allow mine or any Clan to fail that mission. We are gonna win, we are gonna survive, and we are gonna kill the Motherless pieces of shit who did this to us.”
“That’s going to involve slaughtering a lot of people, Champion,” Reeko stated.
“Yeah. It is. I’m told implantation runs to five percent of the whole species. Five percent of twenty billion Gaoians is damn near a billion.”
Daar let the impossible number sink in for a moment. The rest of the Champions needed time to process the implications of that statement, but not Reeko. He winced, his ears flicked flat along his skull for a moment, but then he rallied and stared Daar in the eye a second longer before standing up to his full height and duck-nodding firmly. “…Straightshield is with you.”
Goldpaw’s champion, Sheeyo, surprised Daar by being the second to speak. “Whatever Goldpaw can provide, you shall have,” he promised.
The newly-anointed Champion Goruu was third to speak up. “If it means the end of our Clan, so be it. So long as it’s not the end of the Gao.”
Daar gave him a token nod of respect as the remaining vows flowed in. One of the guards brought in a bowl of water and a towel, so Daar cleaned off his paws while the remaining Champions competed amongst themselves with ever-grander statements of enthusiastic compliance.
“Good,” he said, once the last of them—Genshi, not a coward and thoughtful as ever, and who knew he could be the last without scandal—had voiced his restrained support. “It’s a start. A whole lotta gaoians are gonna die in the coming years and you gotta prepare ‘yerself for that. Yes, years. Spend some effort to preserve the spirit of your Clans an’ send some enclaves to Cimbrean, because none of us are gonna be much after this. Until we have orbital superiority we can’t do anything but meet these fucks on the ground, and no offense, Champion Wozni, but I sorta doubt ‘yer Clan-Brothers know how t’properly fight.”
“You’ve never seen them argue over a bag of ‘Cheetos’,” Wozni replied with a nervous chitter. The Shortstrides were programmers, masters of automation and computer technology. For all Daar knew, their contribution to the war might be negligible, or pivotal.
He favored Wozni with an amused set of his ears—He couldn’t afford to be completely menacing. “Eh, nachos are better. But this goes for all of you. You need to pick and choose who is truly essential to your Clan’s purpose and who can be sent to the lines, because the ones that do are gonna be trialed by fire. Got it?”
They all duck-nodded furiously. They were beginning to understand.
“Good. Here’s the rough outline of the strategy. First, we contain. Nobody gets in or out of a city, on or off this planet without us knowing about it. Critical infrastructure must be secured, engineering disasters averted. My Grandfather is already working on the foundational stuff Stoneback controls but we’re small in number compared to the Old Days. Round-up and recruit as many Clanless as can be trusted to help. Give them a reason to help your Clan. Consider how that may bolster your Clan’s ranks long-term, too. We’ve got a small network of secured locations we can work outward from so we can start there. We advance, we secure, and we contain. Got that?”
“Excellent. The second thing we do once we’ve got a foothold of containment and survivability, is we slaughter. This is gonna focus almost entirely on rural areas and small communities, ‘cuz they’re way easier to clean out and keep afterwards. There’s cropland, there’s every part of foundational industry, there’s favorable terrain and there’s clean drinking water. The countryside controls our dams, our mines, our foundries and our industry. It’s indispensable. We get it free of biodrones, we’ve won. And that leads me to our final act.”
He paused, and took a breath. “Ideally, we get the bulk of the biodrones trapped in-city where they can’t do much. If we can do that, we could of course lay siege and starve them out…but after the initial die-off, that’ll take years. They’ve got stasis fields and Gaoians are carnivores, so they can just slaughter each other and the unimplanted, stasis the corpses, and eat.”
“Secondly,” he continued, ignoring the nauseated looks from the others, “Urban warfare is a special kind of hell. It takes years to get a ‘Back trained properly and I only have, as of this morning, seven hundred and forty-four properly trained Fang-Brothers left. I can’t afford to spend ‘em like cheap peshorkies and I’m not gonna send millions of Clanless into a meatgrinder they ain’t gonna survive. Which makes the solution clear. We nuke ‘em from orbit. All of ‘em, all at once.”
Highmountain’s Champion Loomi looked appalled. “You’re talking about destroying thousands of years of heritage,” he observed. He caught the look in Daar’s eye and swallowed. “…I just want you to be aware of the scale of the damage. If it’s necessary…”
“…Then it’s necessary,” Loomi sagged. Daar couldn’t blame him but now wasn’t the time for sentiment.
“Blame the Hierarchy,” Reeko reminded him. “We’re just doing what it takes to survive.”
“…For a depressing definition of survival…” Loomi muttered. He scratched at his whiskers and straightened his back. “…By any means necessary. I understand.”
Daar nodded consolingly. “Maybe we can be more judicious when it comes to it. Depends on what we have at the moment and what the Humans can provide…but I can’t guarantee any particular outcome. We need to be prepared to lose everything.”
“We should…discuss the particulars,” Loomi said, and waved a despondent paw at globe and maps in the middle of their table.
The conversation delved into the minutiae. Where the food was going to come from, where the refugees could be gathered, morale, recruitment, transport. Lines of communication, both for messaging and for logistics. Where to dig in, where to evacuate, where to abandon. Two gruelling hours resulted in a comprehensive strategy which left Daar feeling almost hopeful.
It was grim, callous and ruthlessly pragmatic…but there was nothing wrong with it. So long as the Humans could keep the Swarm-of-Swarms from landing on their collective heads, it might even work.
“Very well,” he decided once it had reached the stage where the further details could safely be delegated to the discretion of the individual Clans and their Fathers, and he was certain that they were all invested in and understood the plan. “We’re agreed.”
Sheeyun looked skeptical. “I’d still prefer to find a patrol boat for the river Shyun, if we can—”
“We’re agreed,” Daar repeated, firmly. The Goldpaw was correct, of course. Certainly when it came to logistics and the movement of goods and people there wasn’t a finer Clan in all of Gao, and if he said that river would be vital, it would be vital. But that particular question could wait.
Sheeyun glanced at him, his ears flattened slightly, and he duck-nodded.
“…We’re agreed,” he conceded.
“Good. You all know what your role is, you all know what is expected of you and your Clans. I won’t detain you any longer. Get out there and make this happen. Dis—”
He was astonished to be interrupted…By Yulna.
“There is…one other matter.”
She met Daar’s glare with a cool, level gaze of her own then took a moment to look around at all the other males. She was now the focus of their interest and attention, and she duck-nodded slowly and pulled her robes regally around her as she stood up.
“We need something more, Champion Daar,” she said. “Gao needs more. This is a pivotal moment in our history, and we need something bigger than champions to stand at the front of it all. You called this Conclave, pulled resources none of us have to arrange our transport, slaughtered incompetence the second it appeared and dictated our way forward as if we were young cubs at our teacher’s feet. None of us dare challenge your authority. Only one thing remains, and that is to ensure there are no repeats of what happened at Wi Kao.”
She cleared her throat, and looked around, wearing a curiously mixed expression of shame, grief and determination.
“One of my dearest and closest Sisters is dead because of my blunder,” she said, quietly. “When it mattered most, she could not trust Clan Stoneback because I had poisoned my whole Clan against them through a public display of mistrust. We must correct that, or more blameless females will suffer for my failure. More blameless males too, for that matter.
“Champion Daar,” she announced, turning to face him directly. “Out of fear, ignorance and paranoia I made a decision which I now know was profoundly unwise, the ramifications of which have already harmed the war effort and will continue to do so unless we act to restore trust between our Clans. I cannot atone for my shameful error in judgement, nor will any apology I make ever be sufficient…but I think there may be a way to mend the rift.”
She looked around at the Conclave again, taking in the set of ears and the solemn, interested body language of the gathered Champions and Grandfathers. “There is one privilege reserved exclusively for the Mother-Supreme,” she informed them. “None of my predecessors have ever invoked it in all the years since Fyu, Tiritya and the Great Reform, but I invoke it now: I name Daar of Clan Stoneback as Great Father of the Gao, the unquestioned leader of our people.”
Daar didn’t get the chance to object. The entire room barked their approval before he could even open his mouth. By the time the clamor died down, he’d realized he had absolutely no idea what to say.
“You are a rare creature, Great Father Daar.” Yulna gave him a thoroughly appraising look. “We’ve not had one like you since Fyu, nor a collective trial so terrible. You…you are our only hope. From this moment forward, you shall be honored as such.”
“Well.” Champion Loomi once again decided to speak. “Congratulations…my Father.” He did a thing, then, whose true meaning only Champions understood: he sank to one knee and duck-nodded so low, his nose was level with his waist. “I suppose a coronation is out of the question, but…Highmountain gives you its eternal allegiance.” He turned his head sideways to expose his throat, completing the ancient ritual. “We submit.”
That gesture, somehow, drove home the weight of what had just happened to him more than the words itself. Yulna followed suit, and added yet more crushing mass to the moment. “My Father, the Females choose to renew our ancient Contract. May we never again falter or weaken in our loyalty.” Yulna, too, exposed her throat. “We submit.”
Daar still had no idea what to say. He stood there in mute shock as, one by one, the great Champions of the Gao bent knee, exposed throat, and did a thing not even Fyu had ever demanded; legend had it that the gesture happened spontaneously on the battlefield by a defeated Clan’s leader, suing Fyu for mercy. He got it. Rather than the hundred-cut or some similarly inventive form of execution, Fyu had instead torn out his throat, right then and there.
For all of Fyu’s great wisdom, his love of cubs, of flowers and poetry, of wisdom and peace…his wrath was genuinely legendary. None had ever been so terrible on the battlefield nor so ruthless as a leader, before or after. None would have ever dared.
Daar would need to be just as unyielding and remorseless to live up to that title. Which, as he began to realize to his growing dread, he already was. Everyone else knew it already. He was the last to realize the truth.
He wasn’t sure how he felt about that.
“The fate of our species is in your hands,” Genshi observed once he too had exposed his throat to Daar. Not even he had managed to work any dignity into it. It was submission, abject and terrible.
“May we never need another like you,” Meereo agreed, fervently.
They fell silent and looked to Daar expectantly, awaiting the historic first words of Gao’s second ever Great Father. He was now a male that would go down as a titanic figure in their species’ history no matter what, and there was only one thing Daar could think to say in response.
++End Ch.40 pt.3 ++
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The Deathworlders will continue in Chapter 40: War On Two Worlds pt.4 - Retalation.