The Deathworlders

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Chapter 43: Scars Both Old and New

Date Point: 15y5m1d AV Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Jack Tisdale

“So run this by me again. She puked on me?”

They were going home. Well, not home home—Jack still had a room at his parents’ place while he saved up to put down a deposit on a place of his own, so that was home technically—but the base was home enough. Apparently the dorm rooms there were pretty much the height of luxury by barracks standards.

Their progress was definitely impaired by Jack having to stop every now and then as his stomach tried to turn itself upside-down, or when a stab of pain shot through his head, but at least he wasn’t passed out in an oversized ambulance any longer.

“Yyup. Right down your front. And that set you off, but you tried to cover your mouth with your hand like this so it kinda sprayed all over you both…” Jack grimaced, but Miller was relishing the recounting far too much to stop. “….So you both decided you wanted to wash off in the river and then you decided you were really tired so you fell asleep on a park bench and she kinda passed out… and that’s when Moho carried both of you to the drunk tank. She woke up about an hour before you did and went home without her shoes or her purse.”

“Our boy’s a smooooth player,” Moho said with a roll of his eyes.

“Knock if off, I never drunk that much before…” Jack grumbled.

“I’m thinkin’ neither had she.”

…Probably his parents didn’t need to know about this. Mum in particular was a romantic at heart and would probably be quite disappointed that his first kiss had been a drunken half-remembered thing. Dad would probably think it was hilarious but back Mum up while she was in earshot, and then give him some fatherly advice and sympathy in private. He could do without either.

He just wished he could recall more of what had happened.

Actually…

“…What was her name?” he asked, pausing to lean against a lamppost.

Moho shrugged. “I’unno. Never learned it.”

Miller shrugged too when Jack looked at her. “Don’t ask me, I’m terrible with names. It was kinda old-fashioned though. And it started with a B. Like, uh… Betty or something. I’unno. Might’a been Betty.”

Jack resisted the urge to scratch his hand where the drip had been. He’d definitely enjoyed kissing…Her…But not knowing Her name just felt wrong. He felt dirty, and not just from the dried vomit on his shirt.

Moho, in a rare gentle moment, laid a hand the size of a ham on his shoulder. “Bruh. You don’t need her name. We were right, you got game like you were born with swag.”

“…I do?”

“God, what is it with Brits?” Miller lamented. “They’re either massive arrogant twatwaffles or completely fucking oblivious. No middle ground!” She sighed and gave Jack a complicated look he couldn’t really read. “Yes you got game. Don’t let it go to your head, use your powers for good, and just… I’unno. Relax and enjoy.”

“How is it exactly I have this game you speak of?”

“…F’real?”

“Seriously!”

For some reason, Miller just shook her head and wandered off homewards with a muttered “Un-fuckin’-believable…”

Jack looked to Papa Moho for help, and finally got it.

“Bruh. Look. You’re clever, you’re funny, you ain’t conceited. You’re fuckin’ strong and fit without being a fuckin’ tank. You’re prob’ly cute too, I guess. And you’re… How to put this?”

Jack waited as patiently as he could while Moho picked his words with terrible care.

“…Miller kinda confided this in me, right? I ain’t gonna break confidence exactly but… she likes guys who’re kinda intense. Not, like, scary but… you know what I mean. An’ I don’t think she’s alone there, lotsa chicks like that.”

Jack really didn’t know what he meant at all but he was definitely feeling the first bite of what promised to be everything he’d ever heard about hangovers and he truly wasn’t in the mood to think about it any longer. He nodded vaguely and tried to follow where Miller had vanished toward the base.

Moho must have had a sixth sense about pain. “Right, you’re gonna be fucked in a bit. Go see Carebear and get a saline IV, and while you’re doing that eat a Snickers.”

“Why Carebear?”

“‘Cuz he likes jamming needles into humans, and he needs the practice.”

“….Fucking lovely,” Jack cursed.

“Hey, take it from me. He’s still gentler’n Irish or ‘Horse, an’ Baseball’s off-duty tonight.”

“…Right.”

Moho chuckled and almost knocked him over with a brotherly clout to the back. “F’real though, bruh…” he lowered his voice. “You gonna go for it with Miller?”

“…No,” Jack decided.

“The fuck not?”

“I just… I dunno. I like her too much.”

Moho grimaced. “Oof. Friendzoned.”

“It’s just the truth!” Jack objected. “I mean… it’s nice that she’s into me? No, it’s amazing! And I know I’m probably crazy for not…” he cleared his throat. “…But… I don’t know. It’d feel weird, to me.”

“Oh, hell. She turned into a big sis for you, didn’t she?”

“Please don’t get me started on the subject of big sisters…” Jack muttered. Moho was on the money, though, and that was the truth. She’d stepped into a hole in his life he’d managed to forget was empty.

Moho made a low grunt, patted Jack’s shoulder again rather more gently, and said no more.

They went back to the barracks and parted ways at the staircase. Jack was about to follow when he remembered Moho’s advice, sighed, and headed towards CQ.

Maybe the IV would help him clear his head.


Date Point: 15y5m1d AV POW Holding facility, Planet Gao

Cytosis

“I’ve answered that question before. Why ask it again?”

Cytosis had expected torture. He could even have handled torture. It was easy for an Igraen to disconnect from his host and let the body suffer while the mind wandered.

Maybe the Humans could do something similar, because they didn’t seem to consider it worthy of their time to damage his body. In fact, they were making sure that he kept it in perfect trim. He was well-fed, well-exercised, his ablutions schedule was well-managed. The physical shell of Judge-Father Taarken had never been in better shape, truthfully.

No, their tortures (if such they were) were aimed squarely at Cytosis himself.

His interrogator—Bill, the senior and sterner of two—gave him an unimpressed look. “It doesn’t matter why I’m asking,” he said. “It only matters that I’m asking.”

The implicit warning was entirely clear. ‘Resist, and all those hard-earned luxuries and comforts in your cell go away.’ The Humans weren’t cruel. But they were utterly and remorselessly consistent in the application of their rules. Obey, and get rewards. Resist, and lose them.

Cytosis had tried rebelling a few times. He knew better nowadays. “Why did the Hierarchy attack the Guvnurag first?” he repeated, summarizing the question. Bill nodded. “That’s an easy one. Substrate preservation. They’re only slightly less heavily implanted than the Corti, but importantly they’re contained and self-containing. They live in densely-populated cities on densely-populated planets and their economic infrastructure is extremely vertical. Their instinct is to maximize their use of a given area and make it self-sustaining before they move on to the next phase of expansion.”

“Elaborate,” Bill instructed him. Cytosis shrugged.

“It’s a highly controllable environment. Their society, their culture, their natural instincts all make them easy to contain and manipulate. They also have large and intelligent brains, which means lots of spare…I suppose you could call it ‘capacity.’ Each individual Guvnurag can serve as substrate for a proportionately large degree of the dataspace hegemony.”

“So by attacking them you accomplished… what, exactly?”

“We drove them to close their borders, thereby preserving them. When last I was able to check, their civilization was traumatized but thriving inside their two isolated systems. And with so many system defense fields deployed and all external communications locked down the risk of anything happening to further deplete their population or drive them off our planned development sequence is almost nil. Thus the substrate supporting the Hegemony is protected, or at least part of it is. Call it… consolidation and fortification of critical resources.”

Bill nodded and finally didn’t ask him to further review a subject they’d already discussed. Presumably he was satisfied that Cytosis was being compliant. Now, he asked a new one. “Why not just biodrone all of them?”

“That’s detrimental to the Hegemony. Biodrones aren’t sapient, they’re machines built from organic hardware that used to be sapient. An Igraen like myself can occupy a host body indefinitely without degradation, but most of my species aren’t, ah, mentally equipped to interact with meatspace. After millions of years of exclusively data-based life, we need special training to properly understand concepts like matter, energy, objects and so on.”

“It’s that different?”

“There is, for example, no such thing as momentum in the Hegemony. There isn’t really such a thing as movement: A datum’s address is updated and it ‘goes’ from one ‘place’ to another. There’s no intervening distance and thus no movement, thus no momentum. There’s no mass, only file sizes, and large files don’t attract one another thus there’s nothing remotely like gravity. That sounds alien to you, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Matterspace is just as alien to an Igraen. The training necessary to understand it is exhausting. Many fail, and those who don’t have their understanding of the universe irrevocably altered.”

Bill nodded and made a note on his tablet. Cytosis suspected the gesture was possibly a delaying tactic as he thought, maybe just acting for his benefit. Possibly he was in communication with somebody.

“Could a properly trained Igraen survive in a synthetic body, rather than an organic host with implants?” he asked.

Cytosis nodded. “Temporarily.”

“Why only temporarily?”

“You’ll find the concept alien. I doubt I can properly convey it.”

Bill settled back in his seat and laced his thick fingers together on his stomach. “Try anyway.”

Cytosis thought. “…Warmth,” he ventured. “A Human who gets too cold dies, yes?”

“Sure.”

“Imagine instead if the cold was not a threat to your life, but your sanity. As if every second spent feeling the chill frays at the edges of your sense of self-worth, makes the mere fact of existence seem increasingly pointless. Where it is cold, or dark, or wet, you grow nihilistic and despondent. The longer you stay, the more you see only the Chaos and lose sight of the Order.”

“People are… warm?”

“Substrate is, for lack of a better word, warm,” Cytosis corrected him. “And dry. And bright. It is… orderly. Or rather, it takes the great crushing unknowns of the universe and imposes Order. To be severed from the substrate doesn’t feel exactly like drowning, or freezing, or starving, or being lost in the dark, but those are perhaps the closest physical sensations.”

“And there would be no Substrate in a completely synthetic body,” Bill surmised.

“No. Nor in a computer system, nor in a data network grounded solely in electronic hardware. If we could live without Substrate the Hierarchy would never have been needed. We could have built massive supercomputers out there in the infinite dark and explored the possibilities of the Hegemony in perfect safety.”

Bill regarded him for a long moment. “Well. That’s a problem, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” Cytosis ventured a small Gaoian smile. “Did you think we exterminated all those species and ruled the course of galactic civilization for fun? We did it because it was that or…starve, I suppose. Drown, freeze, die of thirst, die of hunger, go insane and self-terminate, slowly and painfully, all at once.

“I envy you, you know,” he added. “You’ll never know what it’s like to go without Substrate. You can’t.”

Bill did the thing with his tablet again. “So…back to my earlier question: Why not just biodrone all the Guvnurag? Do biodrones…generate…Substrate?” he asked.

“The question is: Are biodrones substrate?” Cytosis corrected him. “To which the answer is yes, sort of. Like breathing thin air, or being cold but not dangerously so, or… Imagine how well a civilization would function if all its citizens were nearly getting enough food, nearly dry and nearly getting enough sleep.”

“Is there no other source of Substrate? No other way to acquire it?”

“Mu!” Cytosis replied. “The question is nonsense. Substrate is not a resource or a commodity. There’s no source of it, it isn’t generated. It is a function of being alive.”

“But you can be deprived of it?” Bill’s face was a picture of incomprehension.

“As I said, to you it is an alien concept. Too alien to properly understand, I think.”

“You’re being inconsistent in your language. You called it a resource earlier.”

“Yes. I apologize.” Cytosis shrugged. “Neither English nor Gaori are equipped to properly discuss Substrate.”

“…What, if any, more peaceful alternative solutions to this problem have the Igraens pursued?” Bill asked, after a second of considering his tablet with a pensive expression.

“I… don’t know. I was always told that the Hierarchy’s solution was the only viable one.” Cytosis shrugged again, more apologetically this time. “I was, after all, indoctrinated. When I became aware of the Cabal, the mere idea that there might be an alternative was a relief.”

“The Cabal’s solution being…?” Bill asked. They were back on previously explored territory but Cytosis had no objections to answering.

“We don’t have one. The Cabal’s only defining doctrine is that the Hierarchy’s doctrine is no longer viable. If Cynosure—Six—ever devised a comprehensive strategy, he never shared it with me. So far, his policy has been to experiment, observe and adapt.”

“To what end?”

“The indefinite survival of Igraen civilization of course.”

“So you’re saying you have no real plan, nor even a strong idea on how to form one,” Bill summarized.

“…No. I think…Cynosure was hoping your species might help.”

Bill gave him a long and unreadable look. “Let’s be certain I understood you correctly,” he said. “You think that your leader’s plan is to get your enemy, whom you have made a concerted and credible attempt to exterminate… to help you?”

“We were hoping you would have alternatives,” Cytosis clarified. “If there is a way for our two species to coexist, the Cabal wishes to know.”

“After all you’ve done?”

“All we did, we did because we saw no other option. Now… You have us on the back foot. Our estimated likelihood of victory keeps declining, especially in light of your victory here on Gao… I presume we are still on Gao, yes?”

Bill said nothing. Cytosis hadn’t expected him to.

He nodded and continued. “Uncertainty equals defeat. If we must continue to be at war with Humanity then we’ll fight… but we would be foolish not to at least attempt to find an alternative, don’t you think? Our mandate has always been to take the most parsimonious course in pursuit of indefinitely preserving the Hegemony.”

“And what about justice for the dead?” Bill asked.

“What justice? They’re dead, they don’t exist! Whatever punishment you inflict on us will only satisfy your own instincts: The dead can’t appreciate it, by definition.”

Cytosis sat forward as far as his usual restraints would allow. Humans weren’t stupid enough to grow complacent over their physical advantages, not even burly specimens like Bill. They knew perfectly well that they could lose an eye to a well-aimed claw, or worse, and so they didn’t give him the opportunity. “But if that’s what your people demand, then I am willing to die for my people, Bill,” he said.

“You’d pay for their crimes?”

“Any member of the Hierarchy would. We’re already martyrs to our species’ cause. As I said—merely becoming Hierarchy requires us to irrevocably alter the way we think. We can’t ever really go back.”

“And you believe that your personal sacrifice is sufficient to atone for what your entire species has done over millions of years.”

Cytosis shrugged. “Sometimes, an act of chaos is necessary in pursuit of a more significant order. That does not exempt us from the consequences, which are a price I have already volunteered to pay if necessary.”

“And what about the things you aren’t personally responsible for?” Bill asked. “How can you be punished for what somebody else did? Is that justice?”

Cytosis sat back. “Justice is an invention of society. It is whatever we define it to be. From your questions, we seem to have reached an impasse—your people cannot be satisfied without justice, and my people cannot survive your definition of the word. A pity. I wonder who’ll blink first?”

Bill didn’t answer. Instead, he made a note on his tablet again then quite abruptly he stood up.

“That concludes today’s session, Cytosis. Thank you.” He left the room, and the utterly dependable, utterly trustworthy guards entered to escort Cytosis back to his cell.

He followed their directions without objection and wondered if, perhaps, he had finally scored a victory.


Date Point: 15y5m1d AV HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Jack Tisdale

Thurrsto was… interesting. Jack had grown up around Gaoians of course, but Thurrsto was about the biggest he’d ever got to know up close.

He wasn’t necessarily tall—in fact, Jack was slightly taller than him—but he was broad-shouldered and stocky enough that he out-hulked most anyone, Gaoian or human. As with most ETs however he simply wasn’t built the way an ape was. For all Thurrsto’s impressive strength, and it was impressive even in human terms, Jack got the distinct impression that a good, solid tackle to his ribs might give him a surprising amount of hurt.

But then again…claws. And he could do things a human couldn’t, like smell his patient and make a diagnosis before they’d even staggered down the hall and into his care.

“You smell like you had fun!” The enormous Gaoian chittered in a deep, rumbling tone, then sniffed again and flicked an ear. “…Up to a point.”

Jack, sitting on a medical bed with his feet dangling, nodded agreement. “Until the last—ow!”

“It’s a big needle, what do you want?” Thurrsto flashed his fangs charmingly. He was in a great mood.

“Why are you so chipper?”

“Myun gave birth tonight! Twin females!”

“Holy shit!” Jack exclaimed, hangover temporarily forgotten. Twin female births among Gaoians were like unicorns, and any male lucky enough to father such a pair was probably going to have Females knocking his door down like he’d won the lottery. “Congratulations, man! What happens now?”

“Well…I’d like to keep in touch, y’know? That’s not traditional, she’ll move on to other males… but I never really liked that side of tradition anyhow. We won’t ever have more cubs together, but I kinda wanna stay in their lives.”

“Well, why not?” Jack asked. Thurrsto shrugged as he taped down the drip.

“It’s…the idea is that a cub should start out in life without any expectations on ‘em. We’re loyal sometimes to a fault and that doesn’t work out well most of the time, so…anyway. This way, they can choose who they want for, well, I guess ‘father figures’ is the right word?”

“I guess I can see the logic…” Jack conceded.

“Logic, yeah. Very logical.” Thurrsto’s ears swivelled and he sniffed. “Ain’t exactly warm, though.”

“No. But, uh…I think maybe societies do that. Like, I read somewhere that we humans would be basically content in groups of a hundred or so. A lot of our bullshit comes from being so many all close together.

“Besides,” he added. “Take it from me, I know all about being crowded by your parents.” Mark and Hayley had become endlessly more protective after Sara died. Really, if it hadn’t been for Adam’s influence he doubted if they’d have given their blessing for Jack to join the Royal Navy… not that he’d needed it, but getting it had definitely made him feel better.

Thurrsto duck-nodded. “Fair enough. Also, if I were being honest to myself, part of it might be who she has her eye on now. She’s been sending notes to Grandfather Garl of Stoneback. And Champion Fiin has her eye too…you’ve never met them. They’re impressive.”

Now what would Moho or Miller say to something like that? Oh, yeah. “Yeah, but they’re follow-on acts to you, man!”

“Or the main course.”

“Yeah, well. You have twin female cubs. I seriously doubt they’ll manage that.”

That perked Thurrsto right up. “Heh, yeah. I got more daughters than the Great Father now. Not bad for a brute like me.”

“Weren’t you all friends with him?”

Thurrsto turned to the medicine cupboard and fetched some ibuprofen. Jack wasn’t too familiar with Gaoian body language, but he looked… stung. Aggrieved, somehow.

“We were, until Yulna murdered Daar. Now there’s just the Great Father.”

Ah.

“…Sorry.”

“No, no. It’s fine. Yes, we were friends and Brothers. I’d never been friends with anyone like him…I kind of miss it, actually. I think, maybe Champion Gyotin would say he had a pure soul. I’m glad I knew him before everything blew up.”

Jack didn’t quite know what to say, but the shadow passed quickly enough. Thurrsto shook out his shaggy white crest—which on him was threatening to be more like a mane—and handed Jack the painkillers. “What about you? What’s her name?”

“…Uh…” Jack could feel his ears going pink. “I never learned it. Or if I did, I forgot.”

Thurrsto chittered again, for rather longer this time. “Fyu’s furry sack, Cousin! You work fast! Wish I had game like that!”

“You know, you’re like the third person tonight to tell me I have game, and it’s weirding me out…” Jack confessed.

“It’s the smell. You smell healthy and smart. Confident, too. Well,” Thurrsto chittered, “Underneath the vomit, anyway.”

“—Bullshit!” Jack exploded. “You can’t smell smarts on a person!”

“Can too! Maybe you can’t, with your stupid little Human nose…” He waggled his ears in what Jack had learned meant teasing humor, “But Regaari reckons y’all do smell that stuff, you just don’t get it all consciously. But take it from me, you smell like a male near the top of the heap.”

“…You can really smell that?” Jack asked, trying not to dwell on what it meant. He didn’t really buy into the whole ‘dominance hierarchy’ stuff that all the SOR’s operators seemed so fond of. It ran against the grain of what he wanted to be right in the world.

Thurrsto duck-nodded. “Yeah-hup. And my sense of smell is only above average, too. Daar could smell what you had for dinner a week ago, or if someone you passed by yesterday was thinking about lying!”

Jack’s nose wasn’t so bad that he couldn’t smell bullshit when he heard it. “You’re exaggerating,” he accused.

“Eh. A good Whitecrest never lets the truth get in the way of a good story.” Thurrsto chittered again, then continued. “Anyway—and I swear this one’s completely unembellished—I’ve seen him detect corndogs still in their packages from the other end of town. We were out loping around, just getting some fresh air, and he stops dead in the middle of his run, right? He points his nose, takes one quick sniff, and says ‘the stand opened early!’ Then he charges off so Fyu-damned fast none of us could keep up…and sure enough, he ambushed that nice old lady before she’d actually opened for business. He bought her out right then and there.”

Jack consulted his mental map of Folctha. “…Myrtle’s? In the car park on Peach Street by the hardware store?”

“Yup! And he smelled that from out at the obstacle course, too.”

“…Bloody hell…” Jack mused. “…What’s it like to have a sense of smell like that?”

“Dunno! What’s it like to be able to feel a metal’s grain with your fingertips? Or see this ‘red’ color? Ah!” Thurrsto looked at the IV and noted it was done. “There we go. You’ll want to hang out near the latrine for a while but that should keep the worst of the symptoms at bay.”

Jack eyed the bag with a sense of mild surprise. He had to hand it to Thurrsto, the big furbag had kept him well entertained with his unconventional bedside manner. He hopped down from the bed and steadied himself. “Moho said grab a Snickers…”

“Protein and sugars. Can’t hurt. Fruit juice is good too. Preferably orange juice so you get some Vitamin C, ‘cuz allegedly your immune system’s a little weakened right now.” Thurrsto chittered again. “By human standards, anyway. You’re not gonna want to exercise when you wake up, but do it anyway.”

Jack nodded. “…Thanks.”

“I’d say take better care of ‘yerself, but…” Thurrsto chittered again. “That’d be wasted effort, Yijao?”

That Gaoianism was beginning to slip into Folctha’s English vernacular. It meant something halfway between “right?” and “do we understand each other?” and people—especially those of a cosmopolitan mindset—were happily embracing it. Jack smiled, nodded, and let himself out.

He swung by the vending machines to grab the suggested snack and drink, snarfed them down as his belly suddenly remembered that it was empty, then (at last!) headed for the showers and clean clothes.

He was in bed ten minutes later, but sleep didn’t join him there at first. Instead he lay back and stared up at the ceiling. He’d yet to customize his bunk at all, so the room was at its most spartan basic—bunk, desk, sink, chair, wardrobe. Enough room to stretch, not enough room to exercise. It was a place for storing himself and his stuff when he wasn’t doing anything else.

His mind kept coming back to the kiss. It hadn’t quite been what he expected. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected but he hadn’t factored taste into his imaginings.

Too bad that was all that happened. He’d have liked to learn where else his imagination had fallen short of reality.

Oh well. He yawned, turned over, and fell asleep on the confident knowledge that he’d do better next time.


Date Point: 15y5m1d AV CIA Headquarters, Langley, Virginia, USA, Earth

Darcy

Darcy had to admit, life had improved for her. She was sleeping better, she was fitter, she was way less stressed, she had more free time. All things considered, her demotion had been a heavily disguised blessing.

If the old adage was true that everybody got promoted to their point of incompetence and then stuck there, then Darcy had been one of the lucky few who got to drop back down to her peak of competence…and she felt good for it! Maybe she was just being optimistic… but she’d rather be really, really good at a slightly lower-tier job than balanced on a knife at a higher level.

She was incredibly good at her job. Best in the department. That much was a point of pride.

Unfortunately, this morning she wasn’t getting to do her job. This morning, she was sat in a meeting with people so high up they’d been barely in sight even at her old position. Briefing her.

“It calls itself… well, as far as we can tell it doesn’t call itself anything. It’s just an entity, sapient but entirely unlike any kind of physical life form. But its origins are in Operation EMPTY BELL.”

Darcy nodded, reading over the report yet again as though it would explain anything. She remembered the device they’d found in Six’s Egyptian desk perfectly well. It was probably vaulted away in a research facility somewhere now.

The Cabal agent captured on Gao at the height of the invasion had been extremely forthcoming on many subjects. Its detailed account of a shadow war raging in dataspace between the Igraens and this entity made for stomach-knotting reading.

She hoped Ríos didn’t know what had happened to her digital copy. That poor young woman had suffered more than enough. But at the same time, Darcy was exceptionally glad that she’d made the call to let Ríos meet with Six. If he’d managed to somehow scan *Darcy*’s brain…

The strategic implications were terrifying. They’d dodged a hell of a bullet there.

“But it’s not actually a human mind?” she asked.

“No. Bits of one, violently torn apart and sewn back together wrong. The Igraen’s explanation was heavy on technical terminology that describes concepts that simply don’t exist in relation to a physical life form’s personality.”

“How so?”

“Because a digitized mind is… very different. They’re independent of the hardware they operate on. A human mind on the other hand is indistinguishable from its brain. Damage the brain, damage the mind. We can watch mental illnesses as chemical activity in the brain, serotonin levels, dopamine levels, and use chemistry to help correct them. But a digital sapient doesn’t have chemistry, or neurological activity. They achieve a similar result through completely different means.”

“But one can be translated into the other?” Darcy asked.

“Exactly. We think most of a digital sapient’s runtime is spent approximating the function of a physical brain.”

“Approximating,” Darcy said flatly.

“Yeah. And that’s the crux of the issue. This Entity isn’t human, but it’s approximately part-human and it presumably remembers being human.”

“That sounds like a recipe for going completely insane…” Darcy felt nauseated.

“AIs do. The Dominion have been trying to make them for generations, but even their best ones completely fall apart and try to self-destruct in short order. Which is unfortunate for us, because this one has been beyond invaluable. It feeds us vital intelligence, it neutralizes key Hierarchy operatives, it has badly weakened the Hierarchy as a whole and we’ve seen its hand at work in a dozen little coincidences that went our way.”

Darcy nodded. “And because it remembers me…”

“…It contacted you when things began to go wrong.”

Darcy considered the folder again. She knew that she really wasn’t responsible, but somehow she felt that she must be. This thing existed in part because of a call she’d made. Did she owe it anything? She really didn’t know.

But if it was as valuable as it seemed, and if she was the person it had reached out to for help, then…

“…What do I need to do?” she asked.


Date Point: 15y5m1d AV Hell, Hunter Space

Rachel “Ray” Wheeler

All of the ideas in the escape plan were desperate, and all of them had problems. Some of the problems were ethical, others were logistical, or mechanical, or relied on luck…

Some were just impossible.

“I’m telling you, I can’t do it!”

Jamie Choi was patrolling around the campfire, talking animatedly as he always did when he was explaining why a thing was impossible.

“It’s not as simple as just taking the field emitters off the hull and soldering on a battery pack! We’d have to program the field topography, the edge folding… EARS fields handle high-pressure plasma, not bullets or pulse fire, so I’d totally need to reprogram the dynamic physical properties which, even if I had the toolset, I don’t have the training to do…”

“D-don’t we have imp— imp—” Berry sighed, but everyone waited patiently for him to finish. “Impact deflection screens?”

“Sure. Five layers of them, each shaped to surround the whole ship. Again, I’d need to reprogram the topography to avoid intersection…Besides, it’s a speedbump design, they work in tandem to refract and deflect an incoming object rather than stop it outright. Each one individually has a low cutoff threshold.”

“Alright,” Spears decided. “So the portable shield barricade idea’s a no-go.”

“If I had the time and the tools it’d be a great idea,” Choi said loyally. “But even if I did it’d still be quicker and easier to recycle some hull plating and cargo straps into shields.”

“What, like those shields SWAT teams use?” Cook grinned. He was sitting on a rock slightly outside the circle and was using a pocket knife to scratch away at something cupped in his hand. “Badass.”

“We only have three rifles,” Ray mused.

“So the four with the shields protect the three with the rifles. Could work… If we can whip up some melee weapons?” Spears asked.

Choi nodded. “Easy. Clubs, spears…”

Cook’s grin broadened. “Swords?”

“Are you kid—?” Choi turned to face him. “No! I could maybe grind down some scrap steel to make you a sharp bit of metal with a handle, but an actual sword is days of work with a proper forge for a master smith. I have a blowtorch and an angle grinder, and I’ve never made a blade in my life.”

Cook grunted and returned to whatever it was he was carving. “Killjoy.”

“Spears,” Ray said. He looked her way.

“Yeah?”

“Not you.” She mimed stabbing something. “Spears. Like, a boar spear or something. Keep the Hunters at arm’s length where their fusion claws can’t cut through the shield.”

“They’ll cut through the spear instead,” Conley retorted.

“It’s a second or two of extra time. Enough to shoot the fuckers, or for somebody else to stab them.”

“Why bother with the shield then, if their claws would just slice through it?” Conley pressed.

“They’ll have guns, too.”

“We’re meant to be immune to pulse weaponry, aren’t we?”

“Resistant,” Cook corrected him. “A good pulse rifle hits as hard as George Foreman. Won’t splatter you, but it ain’t exactly a love tap.”

“And that’s assuming they only have pulse weapons,” Ray added.

She glanced sideways. There’d been a small, quiet pressure on her arm for some time—Holly Chase, holding on for reassurance. She’d been gripping tighter and tighter as the conversation progressed, and Ray was pretty sure there were permanent fingernail marks in her skin now.

Of all of them, Chase was by far the least suited for combat. Too small, too timid, too pacifist. Right now, she’d gone so pale that her freckles stood out like ink spots and she was staring right through the ground.

“Hey.” Ray got her attention by touching her hand. It took Chase a second to notice her circulation-stopping death grip and let go as if stung. Ray rubbed her back reassuringly to let her know they were okay.

“…Maybe three shields,” Spears said. His tone wasn’t unkind.

“We can’t afford dead weight in this fight,” Cook cautioned. “If somebody ain’t fighting, they’d better be doing something else just as important.”

“You let us worry about that,” Ray told him with a glare. He took one look at her, saw an angry mama bear, paused, then nodded and returned to the project in his hands. Ray really didn’t want to know what it was.

“So who gets the rifles?” Ray asked. “I mean, Spears obviously. And I’m an okay shot… Who gets number three?”

Berry raised his hand. “M-me.”

Conley gave him a surprised look. “Yeah? Didn’t figure you for a firearms enthusiast, Berry.”

A nervous smile flashed across Berry’s face. “I’ll intro— troduce to my uncle somet— ugh, sometime. He t-taught me to shoot.”

“Uh…” Chase cleared her throat and raised her hand. “Uh…when was the last time any of you actually fired a rifle?”

“At least ten years,” Cook muttered darkly.

Ray shared an awkward look with Spears. “It’s… been a while,” she confessed.

Spears nodded grimly. “I guess we’d better practice.”

“Can we afford the noise? Or the ammo?” Conley asked.

“Everything about this plan is a calculated risk,” Spears said. “But they can’t hear gunshots from all the way up in space. We’ll do some target shooting on a windy day when there’s no hunts around and… I dunno. How much ammo do we have again?”

Ray knew that one off the top of her head. “Three cans. Nine hundred rounds each.”

“…I think we can probably spare some,” Choi snarked, and chuckles swept around the campfire. They’d been doing that more, recently. Little laughs, and smiles, and jokes. Like they were waking up, remembering who they’d been before Hell. Ray had been right: giving them hope, or at least something to work toward, had begun to revive some of their old dynamic. They were all changed, Cook perhaps worst of all, but they were still there.

Spears nodded. “Alright. Three hundred rounds apiece sounds like good practice to me.”

“That’s a lotta ammo left over anyway,” Cook said. “If we’re takin’ it with us then somebody’s gotta hump it.”

“I guess that’s my job, then,” Chase told him, showing rather more fire than Ray was used to seeing in her. Clearly he’d nettled her.

Cook aimed a raised eyebrow her way. “…That’s a lotta weight, Chase.”

“And we have a sack truck. I’ll manage.”

“Over rough grou—?”

“I’ll. Manage.”

He stared at her a moment longer then beamed and returned to his project. “Attagirl.”

Spears cleared his throat. “Alright. We’ve taken enough of a gamble holding this meeting without a lookout, and it’s gone on long enough. Berry, Conley, you’re on first watch tonight. Unless anybody has something important to raise, you’d better get back out there.”

The two nodded and stood.

“I’ll get started on the shields and spears, I guess,” Choi said.

“Yeah. Good talk, everyone.”

Cook grunted, slithered off his rock, dropped whatever he’d been scratching at on the ground and went to go check on the Hot. That just left Ray, Spears and Chase.

“Cook’s not wrong,” Ray said quietly. “Even with the truck, over rough ground…”

“I won’t stay here, Ray.” Holly shook her head fiercely. “I won’t. Maybe I can’t fight but I will haul those cans.”

Ray gave a long, hard look at the scrawny, malnourished, petite geologist beside her. Two ammo cans had to be half of Chase’s bodyweight or more, but looking at the determined expression squeezed between her bangs and her freckles, for a moment Ray could honestly believe that willpower might just trump physics.

“…Have a word with Choi about the truck,” Spears suggested. “We can fight smart as well as hard.”

Chase sagged, coming back down from whatever fighting-bantam high she’d been on. “…I’ll do that,” she agreed.

“Okay.” Spears stood up. “I’m turning in. See you in the morning.”

Ray nodded and stood as well. “I should rest too. I have second watch.”

Holly nodded. “Yeah. G’night, Ray.”

Something crunched under Ray’s boot as she passed the rock where Cook had been sitting. She stopped and glanced down, and found a chunk of sun-bleached alien bone. She didn’t quite know why she stooped to pick it up, but when she turned it over in her fingers she found that angular letters had been scratched messily into its surface. Two words, so tightly packed on that they blended into one.

IMSORRY

She blinked at it, not quite knowing what to make of it, then dropped it back in the dirt where it had fallen, dusted her hands off and went to bed.

She dreamed of boiling alive.


Date Point 15y5m1d AV Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Lt. Col. Owen Powell

“Wuff!”

“Yeahyeah…’mup…”

He fell asleep again.

“Wurf!!”

“Uh? Sh’t. S’rry. ‘Mawake…”

More sleep.

“WURF!!!”

Powell went from asleep to awake and ready to defend himself from the hell-beast in his cave in less than a single pounding heartbeat. Bozo, panting, spun a happy circle and picked up his leash then parked his bum on the ground and thwacked his tail enthusiastically against the dresser while giving him a meaningful patient look.

Powell finally remembered how being human was supposed to go. “…Bloody fookin’ Christ.” He stretched then set about disentangling himself from his bedding. “Don’t you even want breakfast first?”

Bozo tilted his head and whined. Powell glanced at the wall clock and saw what the problem was. He’d slept in late. Acceptable, on a day off, but not from Bozo’s perspective apparently. It was the time of morning when his favorite bitch in town got walkies.

“Riiight. Your missus awaits…”

“WURF!!!”

Powell heaved himself out of bed and stretched. “I swear you’re some kind of Corti experiment or summat. No dog’s this smart naturally…”

Bozo grumbled in an annoyed manner and forcibly snuggled his muzzle against Powell’s leg.

“Arright, arright… Fookin’ ‘ell…”

He threw on sweats and a black tank top with the unit insignia printed over the left breast, trusted his home’s automation to lock up behind him, and jogged out down Demeter Way with Bozo happily charging ahead to investigate the perimeter as part of his solemn duty to Protect His Papa. It was another Folctha morning, pleasantly moist from the nightly rains and balancing on that sweet spot between brisk chill and pleasantly cool. Peaceful, if you ignored the pounding sounds of heavy metal and Heavy Metal emanating from the Dog House gym as the Beef Trio got their morning workouts in.

“I dunno,” he complained at the dog as Bozo paused to mark his territory, which was basically all of Folctha. “If ‘Horse caught me goin’ for a run cold like this, he’d have me squattin’ until I fell apart. You don’t know how lucky you are, mutt.”

“WURF!!!”

“Arright, we’ll see if we can beat the bloody Gaoians to the corndog stand this time…”

As a matter of fact, the Whitecrest component of the HEAT were nowhere to be seen for a change. The stand’s owner, Myrtle, had learned her lesson and kept stock aside specially for them, but this morning she was sitting on a plastic lawn chair next to her business, knitting.

“Well! At least one of you showed up!” she announced and dropped her project on the seat behind her as she stood. “Have your men forgotten how to eat, colonel?”

“I bloody hope not. I prefer my pigs firmly on the ground, thanks.”

She laughed, and took up spot behind her stand. “Well, at least Bozo can make up for them, can’t you boy?”

Powell rolled his eyes as Bozo rocked back on his hindpaws and begged with a stomach-thumping “WURF!!!” It looked beyond ridiculous.

“Ham,” he accused the dog fondly. “Who taught yer that one?”

Myrtle laughed again and indicated her wares as Bozo dropped back to all fours. “How many?”

“Two for me, three for the dog please.”

“He’s a bigger eater than you?” Myrtle asked.

Powell shook his head. “If I know Bozo he’ll carry one off and give it to somebody special.”

He was proved right. Bozo scarfed down two of the corndogs with much flashing of teeth and flapping of jowls, but the third was picked up delicately and carried proudly, with his tail up and his ears forward.

“Y’know…” Powell told him as they jogged, “When half a dozen Gaoians randomly forget about breakfast, I smell shenanigans… I better not find my door hinged at the top again.”

Bozo’s ears pricked, but he was the ideal conversation partner in many ways. Especially when his mouth was full.

“Right, that was Murray wasn’t it…”

Bozo *“wff”*’d past his corndog and led him toward Riverside Park.

True to form, it didn’t take long for him to sniff down his better half. Hannah was out running with her owner and and…Wait, that wasn’t Ríos’ adoptive father…

Derek Coombes gave Powell a nod as they slowed to a halt together. “Morning, boss.” Like all the very best operators, he could be both respectful and familiar with his CO in a way that wasn’t exactly by the numbers.

“Morning,” Powell agreed. “Miss Ríos…” He stepped aside as the two dogs promptly began their happy welcoming dance, one which always threatened to trip people up.

Ríos giggled at them and got out of their way. “No more puppies, you two!” she chided them. Bozo whined at her, which gave Hannah the opportunity she needed to grab him by the ear and the two went hounding off in a play fight.

“Seconded,” Powell agreed fervently. He’d come to something of a truce with Ríos over the years. Both the Arés men vouched for her, after all, and he trusted their judgement. He doubted if he was ever going to like her or trust her integrity—even ignoring her history, she was still a journalist—but she’d never tried to inappropriately interview him and he could definitely respect her actions in Egypt.

It didn’t hurt to be polite, anyway. “Not running with yer old man today, Miss Ríos?”

“He has some kinda business over in the Alien Quarter today. Besides,“ she smirked and rapped her knuckles on Coombes’ chest in a way that was a little beyond familiar. “Running with Dad was getting too easy. It’s nice to have a challenge sometimes.”

“Don’t you have that thing later, Coombes?” AEC wanted an assessment of how well the Ten’Gewek performed in wilderness survival situations other than their own home planet before committing to any kind of long-term relationship. General Kolbeinn was allegedly enthusiastic about the idea, but his job was to cover all the angles. With JETS team 1 down to just one member now—Daar having gone back to Gao, Walsh having gone back to the HEAT pipeline and Coombes having stepped back from field work to serve as NCOIC of Joint ExtraTerrestrial Scouts—Hoeff was being put through his paces as a trainer bringing teams 2 and 3 up to standard while candidates to fill up Team 1 were headhunted.

Coombes hadn’t missed the opportunity to train JETS Team 2 up at the same time. That entire side of the SOR was going to be out at the training range in the Peake Lowlands for a day or two, starting soon.

“Sure do, sir. And y’know, something about the thought of spending a few days stuck in a small space with Chimp made me wanna go for a run first,” Coombes said.

Powell snorted a small laugh, and fished the Pig out of his running bag. It was an incredibly robust blue toy made out of recycled rubber, and rather than squeaking it made a whoopie-cushion oinking sound when squeezed. There was nothing and nobody more important in Bozo’s life, and the second its farting grunt sounded he was sat quivering at attention in front of Powell’s feet, Hannah forgotten.

The Lads had trained him well, there.

“Arright, fair enough. Go. Have fun,” he said. “C’mon, Bozo.”

Running always helped him think, but truthfully there wasn’t much to think about. He trusted Coombes to know what he was doing, and that was that. Whatever was going on there… well, it wasn’t any of Powell’s business and hopefully never would be.

They looped back along the “dry” side of Riverside Park, with Bozo, as was his wont, charging well ahead and scouting the area for any Suspicious Characters, or perhaps Friends Who Scratch His Ears. He’d come back to Powell’s side every few minutes, wurf happily, then bound off to perform further reconnaissance.

Once upon a time, Powell might have tried to curb the dog’s patrols. Nowadays, he understood just how much spare energy Bozo had and how much it needed burning off. A half-marathon in the morning was just about enough to mellow the big bugger out a bit.

As always, Bozo’s furthest-ranging scout ahead came as they reached the final stretch on Demeter Way. Usually, Bozo would go haring off at breakneck speed and then wait for Powell on the doorstep.

This time, however, he came barreling back almost immediately and impatiently attempted to lead Powell along faster, far too excited for any normal day.

Naturally, Powell was immediately suspicious. He picked up the pace as well, followed the dog back down the road and came to a stop on the corner of the green space that was kind of the unofficial SOR shared lawn.

He paused, took a minute to consider the masterpiece in front of him, then sniffed, turned, and jogged across the turf to the Dog House’s back door.

He had the code to get down into the “special” play area in the basement, the one with the supergravity panels and weights that’d make a comic book character balk. It was a haven of terrifying masculinity where the Beef Trio pushed themselves far past limits that other performance athletes would never even approach, but he didn’t interrupt them. At their level, unscheduled stops could be bloody dangerous so instead he picked a floor mat and worked on his stretches and flexibility.

Warhorse, Baseball and Righteous emerged from the basement about half an hour later with their muscles boiling under a layer of sweat. The first thing they would generally do would be a jog in the cool morning rain if they could but on this occasion they noticed their CO quietly minding his business in the corner and paused.

Powell sprang lightly to his feet and gave them a friendly nod. “Mornin’, Lads.”

“What’s up, boss?” Firth asked. Again, he’d mastered that delicate balance between informality and respect.

“Nowt much, just wanted to show you a little masterpiece I’ve uncovered. Personally, I reckon it’s a work of bloody genius.”

The three of them glanced at each other then shrugged.

“…Lead on!”

Powell let himself out the back and extended a hand to indicate his house, clearly visible on the far side of the open green space behind the gym.

Every square foot of the roof was liberally inhabited by garden gnomes, garnished here and there with an occasional plastic flamingo.

“The strangest part is, I’m buggered if I can think of anywhere in this town that even sells garden gnomes,” he remarked.

Firth crossed his ridiculous arms and whistled low. “That weren’t there this mornin’ boss. We’d thought of invitin’ ‘ya for a spar but…”

“You were sleeping so nice,” added Burgess with an enthusiastic nod from Arés. “And you never take days off.”

“…How did you know I was sleeping?”

“I still have your door code, sir.” Firth shrugged hugely. “Also I’ve been practicin’ my sneak.”

Powell gave the giant brute a slow, expressionless stare. “…Right. Well, my rest certainly wasn’t disturbed, and I didn’t notice that lot when I left to take Bozo down the corndog stand on Peach Street…”

“She was open?” Firth raised his eyebrows. Powell could see the slow delight of an NCO figuring out who he got to Motivate at work behind his otherwise carefully neutral expression.

“Oddly enough, yes. Complained that her usual Gaoian customers were a no-show.”

Burgess and Arés made theatrical disapproving noises and shook their heads.

“How’s a nice abuelita supposed to make a living if her regulars abandon her?” Arés asked. “Seems downright criminal to me, sir.”

“Cold-hearted,” Burgess agreed.

Firth nodded solemnly. “A sin.”

“I was shocked myself,” Powell deadpanned. “I do hope our Whitecrests haven’t forgotten their responsibility to reflect well on the unit in their interactions with the public…”

“It’s a heavy lifting day for me,” Adam bounced on his toes and sent tremors through the ground while Powell was inspired to wonder if it ever wasn’t a heavy lifting day for him. “I could definitely use some extra help…”

“Mm.” Firth nodded at him, then returned his attention to Powell’s fanciful new roofing. “…You gonna keep the gnomes, sir?”

“Well, they brighten up the place…” Powell conceded, “…but they’re not really my style.”

“I’m sure somebody’ll know what to do with them.” Burgess said.

“Aye, I’m sure somebody will,” Powell muttered. Those were details he happily delegated to his NCOIC. “Just as long as it doesn’t impact mission readiness.”

“Yessir.”

“Well. Have fun, then.”

There was something deeply disquieting about several tons of Beef Trio chuckling darkly to themselves at the prospect of Motivation. No matter. He was ostensibly on leave after all, and he desperately needed to catch up on his reading.

And his sleep.

He woke up two hours later to the muffled sounds of gnomes being evicted from his roof, chuckled to himself, turned over, and went back to sleep with Bozo draped over his ankles.

It had been ages since he slept in past nine.


Date Point 15y5m2d AV Air Force One, En Route to Seattle, USA, Earth

President Arthur Sartori

“So you’ve had an idea?”

Sartori was lying on a couch tossing a baseball idly from hand to hand to help him think. He always had a lot of balls to juggle in the metaphorical sense, so tossing a real one around gave him something to focus on and grounded him.

Especially when it came to interstellar politics. Earth politics wasn’t simpler exactly, but at least his international opposite numbers were human. He kept worrying that alien psychology would trip him up, and the Hierarchy ultimatum was proving to be a little splinter in his sock that he couldn’t quite ignore. He stood by his decision, but he kept worrying that there was a more elegant way to handle it.

He’d quietly asked Margaret White to give the matter some closer thought with the aid of a few high-level thinkers from various Agencies, Committees and stuff.

Now she was on a video call looking glum.

“About the best we’ve come up is the possibility of putting the Hierarchy in a Catch-twenty-two,” she said. “You’ll probably have objections.”

“Lay it on me anyway.”

“So the idea is that if they want to play the ultimatum game… well, we can play it too by demanding a show of good faith.”

Sartori nodded. “Quid pro quo, huh? I can get behind that, but what kind of a good-faith gesture can we demand of them?”

“We know… or, well, we have very good reason to believe that the Hierarchy’s influence is at work behind the decline and approaching extinction of the OmoAru species,” Margaret reminded him.

“So… what? We demand that they reverse the process?” Sartori sat up and held the ball in both hands. “Is that even possible? My impression was the poor bastards are pretty far gone…”

“That’s just it. They almost certainly can’t heal the OmoAru at this point, or at least won’t. In which case we get to claim that they’ve given us no reason to trust them or show any quarter.”

“But if they can and do, then we end up with another humanitarian crisis on our hands,” Sartori predicted. “Not to mention a security hole in the form thousands of refugees we literally can’t de-implant.”

“And there are those objections I mentioned.” Margaret smiled primly.

Sartori grunted. “I haven’t even started. So let’s say we get the OmoAru released from their cybernetic shackles, the technology…dissolves or whatever and they’re free to be their own species again. That won’t bring their culture, history, scientific knowledge or expertise back. It’s an intriguing angle, but I don’t want to gamble with them calling our bluff. We can’t afford to babysit an entire species of recovering junkies.”

“To play devil’s advocate for a moment, that does mean letting the OmoAru go extinct.” Margaret pointed out. “Some will argue that we have a moral obligation to at least attempt to save them…”

“Yeah, they’ll argue that,” Sartori agreed. “But the OmoAru made their bed a long time ago.”

He sighed, stood up and prowled the office. The whole room was in the camera’s field of view, so Margaret had no problem watching him pace as he thought.

“You really don’t like the idea of total war, do you?” she asked.

“If I did, I wouldn’t be fit to be a small-town mayor,” Sartori opined. “The idea of wiping out even one species, let alone two, just sits wrong with me. Even if they’re monsters. Never mind how cold we have to be to let…God knows how many fall by the wayside as collateral…” He paused in the middle of the floor and fidgeted with his baseball some more.

“…I guess I should count myself lucky it won’t be my job to pull the trigger,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, we aren’t realistically going to wipe out the Hunters before I’m done with my second term. And the Igraens are…” he shrugged and didn’t finish the thought. “…That reminds me. How did that proposed state visit to Gao go down?”

“Daar was receptive to the idea. Extremely so, in fact,” Margaret’s signature crimson lipstick always looked so strange when she smiled. She didn’t do it often. “He’s a man of action. He practically offered to come back through the jump array that evening and save you the trip.”

Sartori snorted. “He doesn’t seem the type to turn down an adventure.”

Margaret made a soft, faintly amused noise of agreement. “Mm. You never did explain why you want to meet with him so urgently, Arthur.”

Sartori glanced at the monitor, then corrected his gaze to the camera. “Answer me this, Margaret. We’re pretty confident I’m going to have a second term, yes?”

“As confident as we can be. Nothing’s taken for granted of course, but…”

“How confident are we that the next guy’s going to follow the course I set? It doesn’t matter whether he’s a Republican or a Democrat or even by some miracle an independent. Can we be certain that the next administration is going to see the interstellar conflict through all the way to the end?”

Margaret thought about it. “I… wouldn’t care to comment. I don’t even know who the likely candidates are yet.”

“Exactly.” Sartori returned to his couch. “Now isn’t the time for uncertainty. We need the will to wage war and we need it to last longer than my presidency, however long that may be.”

Margaret frowned at him. “You’re worried your successor might pull out of a war for survival?”

“Tell me it’s impossible,” Sartori dared her. She didn’t reply.

He returned his baseball to its usual resting place on his desk and rounded the desk to sit. The office, tracking his movements, automatically put Margaret’s image on the desktop monitor rather than the wall.

“So what do you have in mind?” she asked.

“It starts,” Sartori said, “with puncturing Daar’s faith in humanity…”


Date Point: 15y5m2d AV Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Uncharted Space

Lewis Beverote

Sleep wasn’t usually a problem. It was hard to have trouble sleeping when he spent the whole day working his ass off on intellectual projects then got home to a thoroughly physical girlfriend who had ways both pleasant and productive to work off any excess energy he may have left over, and who preferred to be the big spoon.

Ever since the Coltainer had been released, though…

He snuggled gently into Lucy’s arms and tried, really tried. But sleep just wasn’t happening tonight. Something was bugging him, and he had no idea what.

Eventually he extracted himself from the bed, took a shower and got dressed. He ordered SAM to pass on an apology and his location to Lucy if she woke up and wondered where he’d gone, and went for a walk.

The station’s 24-hour work cycle bore no relation at all to Mrwrki’s actual day-night cycle. The station was now permanently part of the icy lunar landscape and lots of engineering work had gone into converting it from a space-based habitat to a surface-based habitat. The moon—Thrór, one of the innumerable satellites of the gas giant Durin—took three days to complete an orbit and was tidally locked to its parent.

Right now, it was dawn outside and would be for the next four hours or so. Noon—roughly sixteen hours away—would be punctuated by a spectacular solar eclipse and from there they’d fall back down into the long evening and more than a day of twilight lit by Durin’s reflected sunlight, ten times brighter than a full moon on Earth.

Lewis never got tired of it, nor did anybody else. There was a reason the station’s recreational areas all had commanding views to the outside. The icy terrain around them might be lifeless, but it was far from bleak.

Someday, when the existence of Mrwrki and the Erebor system were declassified, the holyfuckabytes of data they’d gathered about Durin’s atmosphere and moons would give the lucky planetologists who first saw them a series of shattering orgasms.

“Hey, Beverote. You’re up way past your bedtime.”

Lewis tore himself away from the view. One of the station’s programmers slash digital security slash everything software-related experts had his feet up on a nearby table and a tablet in his hand. Davis. Lewis knew the surname but for the life of him he couldn’t remember the dude’s first name.

“Like, that makes two of us dude.” He set his coffee down opposite Davis and sat. “You can’t sleep either?”

“Insomnia. Had it my whole life.” Davis shrugged and offered a self-deprecating smile. “Good thing I enjoy my work.”

“Gotta be honest dude, I don’t remember which team you’re on…” Lewis prompted.

“Project Motoko. The digital sapient program.”

“Right.” Motoko was an application of the old “know thine enemy” schtick, dedicated to picking apart the secrets that let things like the Igraens survive outside of an organic brain. They had a few basic ideas about how the creepy fuckers worked, but that was about it.

Most of their information came straight from the Gao, who’d managed to capture a Hierarchy agent in the opening days of the war. Apparently it was holed up in a research bunker somewhere undisclosed being carefully watched through every instrument Clan Longear and Clan Shortstride could devise between them.

“How’s that coming?” Lewis asked. Davis shrugged ruefully.

“With luck, hard work and some more intel from captured sources we might even see a breakthrough this century,” he joked. “I tell you this though, I ain’t gonna be the Wegner for it.”

“The…what?”

Davis waved a hand. “It’s from my NSA days. Some Navy dude got super salty one time and basically gave his colleagues carte blanche to kill him with some of the cyber shit they were working ‘cuz he figured that was the only way to get management to understand how dangerous some of the stuff they wanted was. They called it the Wegner Protocol in his honor.”

“Huh.” Lewis sipped his coffee. “So, like, if we do somehow get brain uploads going, you ain’t volunteering?”

“Shit no. I know too much about how it works, too many philosophical questions.”

“Probably smart, dude. But man, sometimes I wish we could’ve Bobbed the Coltainers…”

It was Davis’ turn to raise an eyebrow. “Bobbed?”

“Bob Johansson. Main character of a book series that came out in twenty-sixteen. Brain in a computer, running a Von-Neumann colony probe just like our shit.” Lewis chuckled. “I tell ya, if we could pull that stunt then half my job woulda gone out the window two years ago.”

“I read the summary. You’re expecting a ninety-five percent failure rate on software limitations alone?”

“Yeah. Kinda crappy, ain’t it? There’s probably a bajillion viable colony sites out there that’ll get overlooked by the Coltainers ‘cuz they ain’t inventive enough to see the possibilities if they just tweaked the plan…” Lewis grumbled and swirled his coffee. “But Oh-Tee-Oh-Aitch, if it had the power to adapt it’d be even scarier. I don’t really wanna trust the power of exponential replication to anything smarter than my toaster, y’know?”

“Not even if there was a real human mind in the driving seat?”

“Especially not then, my dude. If a computer goes wrong, it’s just because it’s powerfully dumb. People go wrong because power corrupts.”

“What about your mind?” Davis pressed. “Don’t you trust yourself?”

“Dude.”

“…I guess you have a point there.”

Lewis sighed and swirled his coffee some more. It was good stuff, but ideally he wanted to go back to bed soon. A load of caffeine would do nothing to help him sleep. “…I guess I’m just anxious,” he said. Davis gave him a look that asked for more, so he elaborated. “About the Coltainers. Now that they’re away, I keep worrying about what I coulda or shoulda done different or if there was a better way to do something I did do, or…”

“Your kid’s all grown up and off to college,” Davis said.

“…Guess that’s part’a it, yeah. Like, the Coltainer project took five years of my life, man. And now it’s… done. Guess I just don’t know what happens next.”

“You could always work on Project Motoko,” Davis suggested. His grin said he wasn’t entirely serious, but that he wasn’t entirely joking either. Lewis laughed, then thought about it.

“…I guess. I mean, It’s interestin’ stuff. Or I could focus on nanofac technology, or FTL propulsion or… dude, there ain’t nothin’ I can’t turn myself to. And that’s the problem. The thing that really grabbed me is done with. There’s some side projects in the works but really when you finish designing one V-N probe, you’ve designed them all. Like, literally.”

Davis had no compulsions about draining his own coffee. “You must’ve had ideas from other people.”

“Yeah. The ETs keep droppin’ hints about the Hunters like there’s anything I could do about that shit. I mean, I could. Weaponizing the probes would be goddamn trivial. Then we just have to sit tight for ten years and drop a megafuckzillion RFGs on them, an’ I don’t want to be the guy who releases that on the galaxy.”

“I get where you’re coming from… but if you don’t, somebody will,” Davis pointed out. Lewis blinked at him, and he shrugged. “What, you thought you’re the only guy with the keys to the garage? Dude, somebody was always gonna build a Von-Neumann. Somebody’s gonna weaponize it, eventually. The question is, do you trust any other fucker to do it?”

Lewis blinked at him again, then looked at his coffee. It was slightly too hot to slam down like it was a shot, but he did so anyway and stood up.

“…Good chat, dude.”

“Anytime. Hope that’s your last sleepless night.”

“Dude. You too.”

Davis shrugged, and waved his hand at the view. “‘Least it’s never dull out there.”

Lewis raised his watch to his mouth as he headed for his workshop. “SAM, update message for Lucy. I’ll be in my workshop.”

“Roger-dodger, dude!”

“…SAM, who the fuck taught you Roger-dodger?”

“Nobody here but us chickens.”

That meant SAM had got it from Lewis himself. He was going to have to refine its vocabulary at some point. “…Whatever, dude. Copy the Coltainer schematics into a new folder for me, and name that folder…”

He hesitated long enough that SAM got curious.

“What’s the name, dude?”

“Call it… Call it Project Parker.”

He dusted his hands as SAM acknowledged the order and confirmed the file copy. It was a three-minute jog to his workshop, and he felt awake in the best way.

It was good to have focus again.


Date Point: 15y5m2d AV Rooney’s Bar, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Senior Airman Rihanna Miller

“Christ, Miller. Where the hell do you put all that stuff?”

It was a girl’s night out. They’d even coaxed Martina Arés to waddle down the street with them, and promised to make up for the fact she couldn’t drink with a baby on board by drinking her share. Miller had no idea why she’d agreed to that particular bargain, but she seemed to be having fun.

Rooney’s, as the unofficial SOR hangout, was the obvious destination of choice. Probably some of the Lads and the other techs would show up later but for now they had the place more-or-less to themselves. It was still pretty early in the evening.

Miller put down her third empty beer. Folctha, it turned out, had amazing beer thanks to a combination of excellent mineral water and a huge agricultural sector. “This? Nah, this is just the warmup act.”

Arés gave her a dubious look over her Coke, then shrugged and took a sip.

“Warmup for what?” Deacon asked.

“More drinking!” Miller softened when she saw their expressions. “Relax, I know my limits.”

“Famous last words…” Deacon grinned and finished her own drink, which was more colorful and probably a lot stronger than beer.

“Weren’t you out last night as well?” Arés asked.

“Eh, swing and miss with Jack…He isn’t gay, or ace or whatever, is he?”

“Jack? Oh no. No. Nooo.” Arés shook her head. “No, definitely not.”

“Didn’t think s— wait.” She gave Arés a suspicious look, prompting her to take another straw-sip of Coke. “What’s ‘definitely not’ mean?”

Arés cleared her throat. “Let’s just say Adam had to warn him to stare someplace else.”

“I bet that went well…”

“He’s still alive isn’t he?”

Deacon laughed and finished her own drink. “Adam must like him a lot.”

“It’s kind of a little brother, big brother thing.”

“Very, very big brother.”

Arés rolled her eyes. “Yeah, well. They were in school together, Jack’s older sister was Adam’s best friend…”

“Yeah, what actually happened there?” Miller asked. “Everybody clams the fuck up whenever she’s mentioned. I know she died, but…”

“Not tonight. It’s a sad goddamned story.”

“See, that’s exactly what I mean,” Miller sighed.

“Kinda explains why Jack might turn you down, though,” Deacon mused.

“…How come?”

“Well, I mean…” Deacon waved a hand up and down her. “You’re a few years older than him, got some more life experience, you’re more confident, you’ve kinda taken him under your wing a bit…”

It took a few seconds for her meaning to percolate through the combined haze of being jilted and being buzzed.

“…Fuck. Really? Like…? Aww man, I don’t wanna be his surrogate big sister!”

“I think it’s too late for that. But to be fair,” Arés played with her empty bottle, “I think he’s got good taste in siblings.”

“…Thanks, I guess. But I need another beer now.”

“I don’t blame you,” Deacon stood up. “I’ll get ‘em. You too, Arés?”

“No thanks.”

“You sure?”

“You try drinking Coke with seven pounds of baby wriggling on top of your bladder, sometime.”

“Ew.” Deacon grimaced and headed for the bar.

“You have a talent for making pregnancy sound like a whole lotta not fun,” Miller commented. Arés shrugged.

“It ain’t,” she said. “But I definitely wouldn’t take it back, either.”

“Gettin’ that warm glow of motherhood yet?”

“Well…I will say this. Adam sticks to me like a woodtick these days. He’s practically smothering me in doting affection. Which is nice, but…”

“He doesn’t do anything halfway.”

“Nope!” Martina laughed in an exasperated sort of way.

“Looking forward to the birth?”

Martina pulled a complicated shrug. “He’s a big’n. Charlotte—that’s my midwife—says he’s above the ninetieth centile for weight. So that’s gonna be… fun…”

“You can’t have been surprised, though. I mean, look at the father.”

“Look at his grandfather though!” she retorted. “Gabe’s not a big guy. Though, uh… I guess my dad is. And Adam’s mom wasn’t exactly petite from what I hear. But I’m not big, and my mom’s even smaller, so…”

“…So basically, you have no idea what Diego will be.” Miller finished.

“Nope!”

“Well, at least you have a few weeks to go yet…Thanks, Deacon.” Miller accepted a new drink as Deacon rejoined them

“Trust me, that’s not comforting. I feel heavy enough as it is.” Arés smiled and looked down at her belly. “But I can’t wait to meet him.”

That got a synchronized “Aww!”

“What about you?” Marty asked Deacon. “Any action?”

“Ugh, don’t get me started,” Deacon snorted. “Every available guy in this town is either on the base or he’s some kinda soy-latte organic food hipster type. I’d sooner date a Gaoian.”

“Come on, that can’t be right,” Miller tried to buck her up. “There’s like fifty thousand guys in this colony and a lotta them are farmers. Can’t you find some ranch hand from out west?”

“Yeah, and then you find hay in weird places for like a week afterwards…” Deacon chuckled. “Actually, I’m being unfair. There’s this marine biologist over at New Penzance who’s pretty cute. Problem is, he’s oblivious.”

Miller nodded. She knew that story. “Lemme guess. British?”

“Yyyup. And a geek. It’s like a head-on collision of girl-stupid.”

“Maybe you should reconsider that rule you have about not dating guys from the unit…” Marty hinted.

Deacon shook her head vigorously. “Ohh no. Not happening.”

“Why not?” Miller asked.

“I like my job. I don’t wanna ruin it by having to see my ex every day.”

“You won’t have to if he’s not your ex,” Marty pointed out, but Deacon shrugged.

“Plan for the worst, hope for the best,” she said. “Though, maybe if Murray was younger…”

Miller’s eyebrow arched all of its own accord. “Wow. Murray? Really?”

“Careful,” Marty warned. “You never know when he’s around…”

The three of them carefully checked the area for Herculean Scottish ninjas.

“…Murray, though?” Miller insisted, once they were reasonably sure of his absence.

“Yeah. Why not?”

“He’s kinda scary.”

“Exactly. Any guy I dated would have to deal with Big Brother Firth. Murray could.”

“I…didn’t realize he was that protective of you.”

“Yeah, since basically the first day. Don’t ask me how or why. Besides,” Deacon sipped her drink before continuing, “You gonna tell me Moho wouldn’t do the same for you?”

Marty nodded, with a fond smile. “Yeah, the Lads kinda have two modes: Smash or protect.”

“I guess…” Miller thought about it, then drained half her beer while thinking about it some more.

“Coombes too, I guess…” Deacon said thoughtfully, then gestured to Marty. “Except he only has eyes for your sister-in-law.”

“Yeah, what’s with that?” Miller demanded. “Isn’t she, like, persona non grata?”

Marty shrugged. “She saved his life.”

“…You’re shitting me.”

“Nope. The whole subject is kinda thorny. Probably best to leave it be.”

Miller smirked. “That just makes me more curious. But okay.”

“Besides, she’s a good person,” Marty said, a touch defensively.

“She’s your husband’s ex and she cheated on him,” Deacon pointed out.

“Yeah, she fucked up big. And I still say she’s good. Besides, she’s family now.”

“…Right.”

“Deacon…” Marty warned.

“Right!” Deacon backed off. “Okay, okay…”

Miller cleared her throat. “Change of subject?”

Marty nodded. “Actually, I’m kinda getting to the point where I’m gonna need something to occupy my time. I can’t exercise right now, Adam won’t let me cook, I don’t really like movies… My mom wants me to take up crochet.”

“Hey, crochet’s fun!” Deacon objected.

“…You do crochet?” Miller asked. It as hard to believe, somehow. Deacon’s civilian style was a collision between skater punk and tomboy, and she had an impressively extensive set of E-tattoos covering pretty much her whole chest, her upper arms, her back and her stomach.

Deacon’s answer was to pluck at the off-the-shoulder sweater she was wearing and grin.

“Huh.”

“And hey! You could make baby stuff! Made from nice soft Naxas wool!” Deacon enthused.

Marty sighed. “Fine…Never let it be said I won’t try anything once.”

Deacon gave her a sidelong hug. “We can make ‘Horse a Christmas sweater!” she declared with, Miller thought, malicious glee.

“Yes, that’s exactly what I want. My man so overheated and musky the apartment’s air gets chewy.”

“It’s fine, you can turn the aircon on full and you’ll have like a billion handmade blankets and stuff to snuggle under,” Miller suggested.

This earned an encouraging grin from Deacon, and a nod. “A white Christmas, indoors!”

“And if he ends up smelling like a reindeer, that’s just more authentic!”

Marty was trying her hardest not to laugh. “That’s ridiculous. You’re both ridiculous.”

“Okay, but now picture little Diego dressed up as an elf,” Deacon suggested.

Marty snorted. “That’s child abuse!”

“Oh hush, he’ll never remember it,” Miller assured her. “Until years later, when he brings his first girl home and you whip out your fifty-pound baby album!”

“…Wait, like, an old-school physical album? Why?”

“More embarrassing. Just slam that bitch down on the counter and flip pages.”

“No! I’m not gonna be a hell-mom!” Marty objected. “I’ll be the kinda mom who breaks out the cookies and milk.”

“What if he’s a hell-boy?” Deacon asked. “Any baby you two have can’t be anything but a heartbreaker.”

Marty smiled. “All the more reason to be nice to any girl who can handle him—oof,” she hiccuped and patted her belly, “…That was a good one.”

“I guess we’re not doing much drinking tonight, huh?” Deacon asked.

“Hey, you two can have fun without me…” Marty said.

“Nuh-uh, bitch. I wanna teach you how to crochet now! Party at my place!”

“Heck of a party,” Miller snorted, but she finished her drink and stood up. “But shit, why not? I’m not in the mood for anything crazy tonight anyhow.”

Being perfectly honest, needlework sounded a lot like torture…but it was at least a lesser grade of torture than drinking alone after striking out. Besides, she was hungry and Deacon’s apartment was on Delaney Row, right next to the supermarket with its 287 deli. And hey, if the girls wanted to spend all night knitting sweaters and snarfing jalapeño poppers, who was she to say no?

There were worse ways to spend a night.


Date Point: 15y5m3d AV High Mountain Fortress, Planet Gao

President Arthur Sartori

Presidential meetings always involved being briefed, which in turn always fell short of reality, especially for visits that had been rushed through ASAP like this one…but no briefing had ever fallen quite so short as the briefing on Daar, and what was worse was that Sartori had been absolutely certain that some of it must be exaggeration.

It wasn’t.

For one, Sartori had never known an official visit to be arranged within only a handful of hours, but apparently the Great Father believed in striking while the iron was not only hot, but practically molten. The kind of exchange that normally took weeks or months to arrange had been agreed to, arranged and enacted on an emergency basis, with apologies to his prior engagements.

In truth, that suited Sartori just fine… but the second way in which Daar overrode his expectations was that Sartori had never been bodily picked up and bearhugged by a head of state before.

“My people are alive because o’ ‘yers! Thank you!”

Sartori’s Secret Service attachment was understandably taken aback, but he managed to wiggle a hand free from Daar’s crush and wave them down. Daar’s bodyguards for their part seemed mildly amused and entirely unsurprised.

Sartori managed to retain a modicum of dignity and grunted out a reply with what little air he could muster. “We stick with our allies,” he managed.

Mercifully, he was returned to solid ground with his ribs at least still intact. His dignity was a slightly different matter, but he resisted the urge to brush fur off his suit.

“And ‘yer true friends t’have, Mister President. It’s a real pleasure to meet’cha at last.” The Great Father sank to all fours and flowed towards a huge set of doors and opened them, beckoning the President and his entourage to enter. “We’ve got a feast goin’ for everyone! Double rations ‘fer ‘yer guards…”

There was a waggle in his ears Sartori could read even across species. The Great Father was a booming force of nature who liked to play up his natural goofball boisterousness, but Sartori was no idiot—he could see what Daar was up to, and even approved.

Two could play at that game. Indeed, he’d been planning to from the moment he’d first read up on Daar’s dossier.

“My thanks!” He boomed and clapped Daar firmly on the shoulder… or at least, as high up and close to the shoulder as he could reach. In addition to being America’s first Italian president, he was also its shortest. “Before we eat though, I would like to give you something. A small token of our esteem.”

Daar’s right ear swivelled in an intriguing way. “Oh?”

“Two things, actually. The latter is a gift from the People of the United States of America. This one, however, is from me to you.”

“Ooh!” Daar flowed back over and poked his muzzle towards the package Sartori’s aide was pulling out of leather portfolio. “I love presents! What is it?”

“It’s a Karaoke microphone. You can download the app to any compatible phone, tablet… I’m sure your people can provide.” He met Daar’s eye and added, “I’ve heard your singing voice is legendary…”

They understood each other perfectly, and he noted with some satisfaction that Daar’s guards had actually flattened their ears for a moment in dismay and genuine fear.

Daar could not have been more delighted, and if there was a malicious edge to his deep, happy chitter then Sartori decided not to notice. Somebody somewhere was going to be cursing both their names in due course.

With their mischief managed and the waters well-tested, the two of them reached an unspoken agreement to move back onto a more normal trajectory for a state visit and let the analysts puzzle over this peculiar deviation from the norm. There was the food, of course, the exchanging of gifts from People to People, a few statements for the cameras… all necessary.

The real work began a few hours later in Daar’s private studies, away from prying eyes.

“The obstacle I’m working on is that our people really have got behind this whole ‘Never Again’ call,” Sartori explained. He still had his thinking baseball, and was rolling it over and over in his fingers as he digested the rich food with his jacket unbuttoned and his tie removed.

“I can unnerstand that, Mister President.” Daar went over to his incongruous record player and loaded a Muddy Waters LP of all things onto it. “Balls, it’s something I admire ‘bout ‘yer people.”

“Thanks, but it’s not exactly out of a good place. You know our history.”

“Yeah, an’ the last Great Father used to skin rebels alive an’ burned cities to the ground.”

“You’ve arguably done worse, Great Father.” That could be taken very badly, Sartori knew, but he suspected Daar would understand his meaning.

“I’ve done much worse. So if I say it’s admirable that you folks don’t wanna go there again… well, I mean it. Me, I got a diff’rent problem.”

Sartori listened politely. Daar flicked an ear, dropped to all fours and began a slow orbit of the room. It was a nervous habit they shared.

“Gao’s hurtin’,” he said, pausing to inspect what looked like a half-finished flower arrangement. “We were damn near destroyed. My people were bein’ groomed as motherfuckin’ Janissaries for a race o’ living malware. It’s an open question if the Gao will survive the die-off we’ve got comin’ in twenny years, an’ what’s left of us are cryin’ out fer justice.”

Sartori nodded. Hearing his opposite number curse like a trooper was another first, but in a way it made him respect Daar more. “That’s a heck of a tiger to have by the tail.”

“Fuck yeah it is. An’ as bad as it is ‘fer the males it’s worse for the Females, ‘cuz everythin’ we fought for over the last thousand years just got reset. They’re free from the Males, sure. But they ain’t free from duty.”

“And that duty is to breed the species back from extinction.”

“Yup.”

Sartori nodded and played with his baseball some more. “I’m worried that ‘Never Again’ might clash with what your Males need. I take it you were briefed on what happened to one of our citizens on Origin?”

“I was made aware of your reporting.” That was a careful choice of words right there—a very precise statement of truth. Exactly why Daar chose to suggest he had prominent intelligence sources close to Sartori…something else for the analysts to ponder.

Of course, Sartori had prominent intelligence sources close to Daar too: Friends spied on friends. It just wasn’t conventionally the done thing to acknowledge it.

“The Hierarchy want to provoke dissent in the ranks. They know that once the idea gains any real traction on social media that we shouldn’t exterminate any species, no matter what they are or what they do… We already have enough trouble with groups like the Alien Protection Army, or anti-establishment and anarchist movements that would love to paint the US Government as bent on genocide.”

Daar’s pacing round the room brought him back to the flower arrangement. This time he stood up, stepped behind the table and pulled the vase toward him. “You think it’ll work?”

“The abductee at the heart of it didn’t need any persuading to stay quiet about what happened to her.” Sartori chuckled as a thought occurred to him. “I tell you, I wouldn’t want to get on her bad side.”

Daar chittered and carefully selected a stem to insert into his work-in-progress, but refrained from comment so Sartori continued his thinking aloud.

“…Honestly, I don’t know. We’ve seen huge numbers of good people run with some weird ideas against all the evidence in the past, just because somebody spun a persuasive narrative.”

“Mhmm,” Daar grumbled. “Thing I’ve noticed, you Humans are awfully passionate ‘bout things when y’ain’t sure if it’s right or wrong.”

“That’s what I’m worried about…”

“Why? You gotta do what ‘ya need ‘fer your people. I gotta do the same. And I think killin’ every last one o’ these Hunter fucks is a good place to start.”

“I agree. How long is it going to take?”

“Years. I think about as long as the Grand Army will last, anyway.”

“Meanwhile, I might not be President after next year. And if I am, I definitely won’t be four years after that.”

“Lucky you.”

Sartori put his baseball down on the table in front of him and straightened up. “That’s democracy.”

“I meant it, Mister President. You are lucky. I ain’t so blessed as bein’ term-limited.”

Sartori conceded the point with a half-nod. “It does, however, mean that I have to shepherd our will to fight and pass it on to the next guy, assuming he has the backbone for the fight himself. You have a surplus of fighting spirit. I have to carefully husband ours after… God, decades of wartime mismanagement by my predecessors. Going in where they should have stayed out, withdrawing too early and squandering years of hard sacrifice, staying out where we should have gone in… My countrymen don’t like to see their sons and brothers wasted. So I need to be sure, when I commit to a fight, that we’ll have the spirit to see it through to the end.”

Daar paused in his flower arranging. “How…? Arthur, they’re Hunters. What more do you need?”

“That’s enough to start the fight,” Sartori agreed.

“And? They’re Keeda-damned monsters. I ain’t got any problem whatsoever killin’ off what’re pretty much literal nightmares made real. If it means securin’ the Gao an’ endin’ a fuckin’ livestock trade in fellow sapients, then ‘fer the life o’me can’t find anything wrong.”

“And what about the Igraens?”

“They’re digital parasites who’ve engineered the enslavement an’ extinction of literally quadrillions o’ sophonts o’er the last millions o’ years. I ain’t ever read any horror story that comes close to that bad, not even a Human sci-fi.”

“I promise, you’re preaching to the choir,” Sartori assured him. “But I won’t be around longer than five years at most. I’m warning you now so that we can have a plan in place to keep the momentum going no matter who replaces me, no matter how the narrative goes on Earth. Because if ever there was a fight we absolutely can’t afford to get sick of and back out from, it’s this one.”

“I’m gonna be sendin’ males to their doom by the millions, Mister President.” Daar gave him a very intense look. “I meant it when I thanked you. We’re alive ‘cuz of ‘yer people. But being honest, ‘yer givin’ me some concern.”

“Good.” Sartori nodded sharply. “Now… I have faith. I think we’re in it for the long haul, but I also know human nature and I know we’re up against an enemy who aren’t afraid to fight dirty and who’ve been fighting dirty for a long time. I want to rely on more than faith.”

“So…what do you plan to do?”

Sartori took a deep breath, and remembered years of skiing advice—committing to the turn might be scary, but it would be less painful than crashing into a tree. “I’m going to commit. I’m going to make it politically impossible to back out of this war. I’m going to prove to the American people that the Hunters are exactly the monsters we both know they are. And that, I’m afraid, begins with you. Personally.”

Daar regarded him carefully and might have sniffed the air almost too subtly to detect. He had an unnerving ability to stare right into people, Sartori was discovering.

“…Okay. What you want me t’do?”

With an internal sigh of relief that he was very, very careful not to allow onto the surface, Sartori pocketed his baseball and explained The Plan.


Date Point: 15y5m4d AV Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Allison Buehler

Being home alone was a genuinely novel experience. It had been years since Allison had last had a house all to herself, for a unique definition of “house” that included a spaceship.

The unexpected part was that it actually came as something of a relief. There was a sense of a forgotten pressure becoming conspicuous by its absence, as though she could feel Xiù and Julian nearby and was suddenly acutely aware that the nearer of them was a couple hundred miles away.

Julian was supervising Vemik as they got down to the business of introducing the Ten’gewek to how Humans did wilderness survival. It was an SOR operation, orchestrated by the JETS program as part of the plan to give the People something useful to contribute to humanity and the Gao, and it was probably going to be a heck of a wake-up call. Yan and Vemik were used to eating huge, protein-rich meals hunted from among the many large and sturdy animals of Akyawentuo. Native Cimbrean life and the invading Earthlings were much smaller and, in the Terran species’ cases, much cannier about not getting themselves eaten.

Xiù was on Tiritya Island again, doing her social acrobat thing. Allison had no idea how she did it, but no sooner had Xiu quit space exploration than she was in demand as a confidant to the Mother-Supreme, an advisor to the diplomatic corps, an insight into the Ten’gewek and more besides. She took to celebrity like she was born to it.

Both of them made Allison feel a little inadequate, at times.

But then again…

She stretched her back to clear out some of the ache and surveyed her handiwork. It had taken a little negotiation, but she’d finally persuaded Julian to take the basement for his man-cave and let her have the garage. She’d spent the morning fixing tool racks to the walls, securing her workbenches to the floor, securing other stuff to the workbenches… The shop air was working, the lighting was how she wanted it, and she’d just finished wiring up the sound system.

She opened the SMART//HAUS app on her phone and browsed the local digital radio stations. SKID Radio’s name made her laugh so she tuned to it and set about unpacking all the small tools onto their racks and into their drawers.

“-ject to availability, terms and conditions apply.”

Of course she’d caught it during a commercial break.

She waited out an advert for the new Vauxhall whatever at she-wasn’t-paying-attention percent API finance and who-cared warranty, ignored some kind of insurance comparison service, nodded and made a mental note to check out a season pass for the Lakebeds national park as a maybe-gift for Julian, and half-paid attention to the news.

“—From ESNN’s newsroom for SKID radio this lunchtime, I’m Dale Parker. Today’s headlines: New Whig Party leader Colin Chapman says that nonhumans serving on the Independent Electoral Oversight Committee should be given special concessions to help them cope with the stress but some former Committee members object, calling the proposal “unfair and unconstitutional”; Hephaestus announce plans to expand Armstrong Station and begin asteroid mining in the Cimbrean system; On Earth, five people are killed and dozens are hospitalized as Storm Alfred batters northern Europe; and in interstellar news US President Arthur Sartori begins the second day of his state visit to Gao by laying a wreath at the ruins of the Wi Kao commune.”

The political bullshit was… well, it was political bullshit. Allison had heard a thousand news reports like it, the usual corkscrew thinking where folks tried to argue that the rules shouldn’t apply the same to everyone and make it sound good. She tuned it out and spent a minute or two with pencil and paper figuring out the best way to store all her welding gear—glasses, bandana, jacket, apron, gloves and helmet—in one neat package.

She settled on something out of the Misfit design book, a little swing locker she could fix to the ceiling beams, and listened with rather more interest to the bit about asteroid mining as she gathered the bits and pieces she’d need.

“—absolutely excellent safety record. Mining has always been a dangerous profession, and when you throw in vacuum, zero-gravity and radiation it only gets more difficult. The fact that we’ve had zero fatalities and only one major incident in all these years is a testament to the hard work and caution of some very dedicated people.”

Allison had to admit, that put Hephaestus a hell of a step ahead of MBG. Most of the missing Exploration Vehicles were still unaccounted-for and probably would remain that way. She didn’t know whether to feel worse about the ones who’d met an unknown fate, or the poor bastards of EV-03 who’d blundered into Hunter space never to be heard from again.

Her phone rang, automatically shutting off the news report.

She glanced at the name on the screen, laughed quietly, and answered.

“Speak of the Devil. Hey Clara!”

“Hey!” Clara Brown always sounded sunny on the phone. “Talking about me behind my back?”

“Nah, come on, you know me better than that…” Allison leaned against a bench and smiled. “What’s up?”

“Oh, y’know, nothing super important. Just that all the HR stuff is dealt with and I’m pleased to officially invite you to join my crack outfit of starship designers!”

Allison laughed. “Well, it took them long enough! When do I start?”

“We’re jumping EV-13 over from Omaha on Monday. I’ve put you on the interior crew spaces team. Y’know, seeing as you actually know what living on one of our ships is like.”

“That makes sense. What’s Thirteen like?”

“She’s a Misfit-class, mark two. Hope that’s not weird for you?”

“It’d be weirder if I was refitting Misfit herself. I mean, I’m okay with her going on and having more adventures but…” Allison shrugged.

Fortunately, Clara seemed to be able to sense shrugs over the phone. “It’d be like decorating your old house for the new owners. I hear ya. Anyway you’ll like your team, though, uh, don’t be surprised if they kinda fangasm all over you.”

Allison pulled a face. “Really?”

“Hun, they get to work with the Allison Buehler. Of course they’re geeking out. Get used to it.”

“You don’t geek out over us…” Allison pointed out.

“That’s because I know you.” Allison could hear Clara’s troll-grin. “But seriously, it’s fine, they’re professionals! Worst-case scenario, they’ll want a selfie. You’re a big girl, you can handle that.”

“Yeah, yeah…”

“So…speak of the Devil, huh?”

“Huh? Oh.” Allison mentally rewound. “Uh, there was this thing on the news about Hephaestus asteroid mining and it got me thinking about our own safety record with the missing ships… Uh, but that’s… I know the problem wasn’t with the ships,” she added.

Clara sighed. “Thanks, I guess? But believe me, I’ve lost a lot of sleep wondering if it was, over the years.”

“We made it. If it was an engineering problem, I’d know. You make good ships, Clara.”

Clara’s second sigh was a little less tense. “…Thanks,” she said, and sounded like she meant it this time. “So, uh, how are your two settling in?”

“Barely. They’re both away on business right now. I’m alone in the house for like the first time in… I dunno. Years.”

“That’s gotta be weird.”

“I’m actually kinda enjoying it!” Deciding that she may as well take a break and grab a lunch, Allison stood up and headed for the kitchen. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love them both like crazy but…”

“But it’s nice to get some space for a change,” Clara finished.

“Yeah. Think I’ll send out for pizza, though. There’s a reason they do the cooking.”

Clara laughed. “Oh, I wish Dane would let me cook. But no, it’s all gotta be on the meal plan and measured out and portioned and— Sometimes I just… I dream of cheese, you know? I don’t care if it’ll make my acne worse, I might honestly sell a kidney for the chance to pig out on chips and dip…”

“Clara… Have you tried actually asking him for that?” Allison inquired. She opened the fridge and surveyed its innards, reflecting that Julian’s diet looked much the same as Clara had just described nowadays. The whole top shelf was color-coded tupperware.

“…You think he’d say yes?”

“Come on, if he was that anal would you have married him in the first place? Julian gets to cheat three meals a week, y’know…” Those were the days when Xiù cooked.

There was a prolonged, hungry silence from Clara’s end of the call during which time Allison picked out the makings of a bacon, egg and avocado sandwich and shut the fridge door with her butt.

“…Hey, uh. When are your two back?”

“Julian’s gone until… I dunno. He’s doing something with the SOR. Might be a few days. Xiù should be back tonight. You know she talked Yulna out of gifting her a shuttle?”

“She did?”

“Yeah. Told her off! She said it’d be an irresponsible waste of resources the Clan could use and would only upset the Males and if she really wanted a shuttle she could buy her own thank you very much…” Allison smirked at the memory. At first she’d been shocked at how forthrightly Xiù spoke to Yulna, but it had quickly become obvious that the Mother-Supreme truly appreciated being given a dose of tough truth now and then.

Clara giggled into her phone. “Wow. I wish I could talk like that to Levaughn or Kevin sometimes… anyway, you wanna come up to Chiune? Or maybe we come down to your place? I feel like an evening of junk food and movies would be about perfect right now.”

Allison grinned. “Sure. What’s your favorite Disney movie?”

“Uh… ‘Beauty and the Beast’ I guess…” Considering Clara’s status as a classic geeky brunette, that made an endless amount of sense. “But don’t you guys ever watch anything other than Disney?”

“Of course we do!”

“Like?”

“Star Wars, Marvel movies, Alien, Avatar… y’know, the scifi classics… Uh..” She paused and thought of some more contemporary titles. “…The Long Road Home, Commonwealth, Shadowrun…”

“Allison, those are all owned by Disney.”

“You’re shitting me.”

“Nuh-uh. The House of Mouse owns all.”

Allison cast a net through her memory for some of the other things they liked. “The Last Airbender? That’s Nickelodeon.”

“Disney bought out Viacom like seven or eight years ago.”

“…Okay, what about Wuxia movies? There’s no way Disney owns…” Allison paused, “…many of those…”

“…Wu what, now?”

“Kung fu. Xiù loves those even more than Disney.”

“We’ll watch one of those, then.”

“Hey, it’s your shameful pig-out-on-junk-food party. I got no problem watching whatever you want.” Speaking of which, Allison put her on speaker so she could finally start making her own lunch. “You’d better come over to our place though, we still don’t have a car yet.”

“Sounds great! Why don’t you have a car?”

“Haven’t bought one yet, Julian likes to run everywhere, roboTaxi is cheap and all the cars I’d wanna buy have to be imported from Earth. Do you have any idea how expensive that is?”

“…Yeah, I guess you’d take up a whole Array, huh?”

“Not to mention shipping the car to the Array, Earthside. So yeah. No car yet.”

“I guess that explains why the rental company does so well…” Clara trailed off and there was a muffled hint of conversation with somebody as though she was covering her phone with her hand. “Oh, okay. Hey, I’d better take care of some stuff. I’ll see you tonight.”

“See ya!”

Feeling slightly tickled by the irony of using her first day of solitude in years to arrange a movie night with friends, Allison finished making her sandwich and leaned against the kitchen counter to enjoy it. The place was beginning to feel like home now that they’d applied some personal touches. The cold white decor had been touched up with some artwork and accent walls, she’d got the customisable color lighting system in place and found some understated hues that warmed the ambience while softening the shadows…

The doorbell pulled her out of her thoughts. Frowning, she set the sandwich aside and dusted crumbs off her palms as she headed to the intercom. There’d been a whole security lecture from Mister Williams about how they were celebrities now, and how a domestic terrorist group had tried to bomb them, and even if the APA never took another shot at them there was always the spectre of kidnapping and ransom or… whatever. The point was, even if they were expecting somebody—which she wasn’t—they weren’t to open the door without checking the camera first.

Or checking her daily carry. Getting the special license for that had been a genuine bitch but at least CCS had finally agreed that she had a “legitimate need.” Goddamned Limey colonists.

All of that was common-sense advice even though WIlliams had been serious beyond his usual characteristic excess in giving it, so she tapped the screen by the door and… stared.

The three figures waiting nervously on the porch didn’t seem to realize they were being surveilled. That gave her a minute to think, decide what she was going to do.

She wrenched some false calm and the coldest expression she could muster into place, opened the door, leaned against the frame and folded her arms.

“…Hi, Mom.”


Date Point: 15y5m4d AV Clan One-Fang experimental starship Stalking Blizzard, Near Kwmwbwrw Great Houses

Shipfather Gilim

“Shipfather! It’s happening.”

Gilim set aside his log-taking and pulled down the tactical display around him. In older models of ship he’d have sprung forward into the middle of the combat deck, but One-Fang was always innovating, always improving, always learning. The doctrine on the new ships coming out of the Dark Eye yards was to take the data to the officer and minimize risks taken by the crew. The Great Father had been right—Gilim was safer in his command chair than leaping around the deck, so even though it was difficult to control the urge to do, the thing that mattered first and foremost was the Mission. So he remained strapped in and the information came to him.

Lightyears and lightyears of information. He was tracking FTL signatures and wormholes across incomprehensible distances, but the most important track came from the Humans.

They knew how to detect Hunter comms.

Apparently the technology was quite old. Cimbrean had been equipped with a basic version from its very earliest days, but no Gaoian would have sat still on just the basic version, and the Humans had the same sensible instinct. They’d refined it immensely, and handed it along to the Clans in due course.

“Three?” he checked.

“Three,” Brother Taga confirmed. “One Broodship, two Swarmships. Previously undocumented Brood.”

“Tag them for strategic analysis, watch closely.”

“Yes, Father.”

“Helm, low-profile pursuit. Comms…contact the Great Father.”

“Yes, Father.”

Daar had organized this operation personally, as a matter of urgency. Based on what, Gilim didn’t know and presumably didn’t need to know. He certainly wasn’t about to object—after years as a merchant captain, he’d had more than his share of close shaves with the Hunters, or heard of too many fellow freighters being hit. Any opportunity to give those ball-less shits a well-earned clawing was entirely alright by him.

They were experimenting with pulsed wormhole comms, too. The Farthrow facility had taught Clan Longear a lot about wormholes, and studying biodrones, Hierarchy infrastructure and interrogating a captured Agent had yielded some other clues. They were still a long way from achieving point wormholes with zero radius, zero volume and zero surface area, but real-time FTL comms over indefinite distance was now being rolled out. So long as the sender and the receiver were both carrying what the Longears called a “microhole” router, they were no longer shackled by the limited range of distorted-space wake comms.

The only downside really was that the microhole routers drank power like a large town, and there were still some issues with bandwidth so the Great Father’s image was low-resolution and the audio was low-fidelity, but it was more than good enough.

“Report.”

“Three ships, My Father. One Broodship, two Swarmships. Their current course takes them near the Kwmbwrw colony of Glwngwli. There’s a Great House response fleet moving to intercept, but there are unprotected mining facilities in the nearby systems. The Hunters will have plenty of time to raid one and escape.”

The Stalking Blizzard was too far away to help. Gilim would have liked his chances against the three Hunters if they were closer—with the element of surprise and the initiative on their side, his ship would tear through them like claws through wet paper—but they were hanging too far back so as to be absolutely sure of their invisibility.

That was an important part of the plan. They needed to remain undetected because the Stalking Blizzard had a very unusual cargo on-board, and they needed to be kept safe. After all, broadcast engineers weren’t known for their combat prowess.

Daar’s ship, however, was not so handicapped.

Its name was the Destroying Fury and it was a monster. Everything unique about Gaoian ship design had been sharpened, honed, tempered and packed into a flying wrecking ball that echoed the Great Father in size and charisma. Nobody quite understood the art on the nose—a stylized Gao on a gleeful rampage with a ‘turkey’ of all the Keeda-fucking things hanging from his jaws—but the Great Father had commissioned it specially and nobody was going to argue.

“Get in position,” the Great Father ordered. “You know the plan.”

“Yes, My Father.”

Gilim watched as the Hunters swung away from the Kwmbwrw interceptors and vanished into an unimportant red dwarf system near the colony. It made him itch a little, but the ideal outcome for the plan actually depended on the Hunters completing their raid and getting away with their meat lockers full of live Kwmbwrw miners. Hunters preferred their meat “on the hoof” if they could get it, and that was just one more reason Gilim was in full agreement with the Great Father. Every Hunter everywhere needed to die.

The second step was the rescue. The Gaoians would play the role of a deep-space patrol that had noticed the raid in progress and, complying with their obligation to multilateral interspecies defense that the Dominion had so shamefully ignored during the attack on Gao and the colonies, would leap to the rescue.

They would save those Kwmbwrw, whether their fleet appreciated it or not. And they would teach the Hunters a painful lesson.

There was another Deathworlder species on the prowl, and they would have their revenge.

Waiting for the raid to conclude took a tense hour, during which time the Kwmbwrw fleet covered barely half the distance to catch their foe. Gilim strongly suspected that they were going slow. They knew that even at best speed they’d never get there in time, so they were taking their sweet time to be certain that the Hunters would be long gone when they finally arrived.

Pathetic. Gilim had no idea how they could show so little loyalty to the innocents of their own species. The Kwmbwrw were natural carnivores; had they lost all their instincts?

The moment when the Hunters shot out of their target system at a respectable two hundred kilolights came as a moment of feral relief. He bared his fangs. “Message the Great Father. Pounce.”

Two hundred kilolights was respectable. The Kwmbwrw certainly didn’t have anything that could keep up.

The slowest ship in the new Gaoian fleet could do significantly more than that. Stalking Blizzard was the fastest, and Daar’s flagship was only marginally slower. The Hunters pulled an extra fifty kilolights out when they realized they were being pounced on from two angles, but the Destroying Fury had some tricks on board that made a mere two hundred and fifty thousand times the speed of light look utterly trivial.

It fired a megalight drone. In seconds the remotely-operated vehicle flashed across parsecs, overhauled the Hunters and dropped a gravity spike that brought the fleeing trio to a brutal halt.

Seconds behind it, the two Gaoian ships effected a more dignified landing. Gilim stripped a whole ten percent off his own capacitor reserves to launch a hugely overpowered electronic warfare assault, but there would be no need to expend any more. Already the Hunters were drifting, tumbling, blind.

The Destroying Fury was not nearly so subtle. It crashed into their midst, caught the three ships in a knot of high-intensity forcefields and crushed them. Weapon racks crumpled like empty drink cans, sensor blisters flattened, hull plating buckled and split. The ships’ precious pressurized guts squirted out into vacuum in brilliant white plumes.

The two escorts, neither of which were large enough to be carrying any hostages, were compacted down into tiny, almost flawless spheres but the Broodship with its precious cargo was spared for the moment. With the prey thus crippled and held, Daar did something no sane being other than a Human had ever done to a Hunter ship—he boarded it.

Two minutes later, with a terse report of “Target secure,” it was over. Gilim noted to his satisfaction that the Kwmbwrw were now hauling ass as fast as their ships could go.

One of the Whitecrest officers on the bridge sent a message to the broadcasters. “Did you get what you need?”

“We need to record inside the broodship. The Great Father was very specific about that. Helmet-cam footage won’t be enough.”

The Whitecrest gave Gilim a questioning look.

“We have…two hours, before the Kwmbwrw arrive,” Gilim decided. “They might have questions if they find a film crew aboard that ship when they arrive, but I defer to the Great Father on the question of whether we care.”

The Whitecrest duck-nodded and set about arranging for a shuttle to take the broadcasters and their equipment over. Gilim let out a long breath and relaxed into his command chair. His body was fizzing with delight over what they’d just done, and the desire to rip, smash and claw at the Hunters some more.

His happy high fizzled out painfully a few minutes later when the first footage came back from the meat lockers.


Date Point: 15y5m4d AV Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Nofl

It was always a delight when one of Nofl’s old patients visited, and Chief Arés had been a particularly gratifying success. Repairing an old neural injury like that—and Human nerves were so fascinatingly delicate in a high-strung, extreme performance way—without any scarring? It was some of Nofl’s finest work, at least when it came to Humans, and it had made him phenomenally wealthy in very short order.

His lab nowadays was… one of the students had called it a “Mecca” for neuroscientists, and it had taken some polite inquiries before Nofl had learned that the word was actually the proper name of a city of tremendous spiritual importance to a subset of Humanity.

He liked the sound of that.

Right now, though, there were more important things on Nofl’s mind than his own ego, a hitherto almost unheard-of eventuality.

There were things that the Humans needed to know, and Arés was his best point of contact. That opportunity came with his final check-up.

And of course, Arés really wasn’t interested in his own health so much. He nodded and made distracted noises as Nofl recounted all the fascinating ways in which his treatment had seamlessly spliced new fascicles, perineurium and endoneurium into the damaged segment cultured from Arés’ own tissue… but in reality he seemed bored. He looked around a lot, examined some of the other projects on the walls.

“…Why do you have a dog up on that display?” he asked, then leaned forward to peer at it. He insisted on not wearing his vision correction, the prideful idiot. “Wait. Is that Bozo?”

Nofl glanced at it. “Hm? Oh. Ah, yes. Getting him to stand still for the scanner was a bit of a challenge. I had to resort to raw turkey.” Just recounting that made him wipe his fingers primly on his apron.

“Why do you have a scan of Bozo?”

Nofl gave him his best innocent blink. “Why not?” he asked. “Anyway, seeing as you obviously find this all so incredibly dull despite my sparkling personality…”

Arés laughed. “Sorry. It’s just that all the technical stuff goes over my head.”

“Rest assured, I probably suffer from the same affliction when it comes to the intricacies of your work,” Nofl said. He hopped down off his stool and skipped over to his work terminal. It was Human-made, but he found he liked the chunky, mechanical simplicity of its styling. The electronics within weren’t at all inferior, either.

“And you’re certain there shouldn’t be any long-term effects?”

“No. It’s all your own tissue, dear. You know this!”

“I know, I know. It’s just…is my son healthy?” Arés asked.

Nofl flapped a hand distractedly. “He is categorically the healthiest human alive. Beyond that, I can’t say. Apparently I have an obligation to medical confidentiality, and my lawyer is very specific about that sort of thing…Anyway. A little gift for you.”

Arés immediately got wary. “…Nofl?”

“Not a bribe! Tchuh!” Nofl employed his best approximation of a Human tut. “No no no, this is something you might actually find interesting.”

“You thought I’d find that epineuro…thing interesting,” Arés pointed out, but he accepted the tablet that Nofl handed him.

“…Project ALTERNATIVE EXPERIMENT?”

“It’s a…. What’s that fascinating word? Dorky. It’s a dorky name, isn’t it?” Nofl commented. “I keep telling them they should call it something exciting and macho, but I think Lor is ignoring that.”

Arés aimed a sardonic eyebrow at him. “…You don’t say?”

“Yes, yes, I know what my species is like. Macho isn’t really our style, darling. Anyway, read!”

“Who’s Lor?”

“Read!” Nofl pressed him, and resorted to the kind of bribery that Arés did accept. “I’ll make coffee.”

Arés was engrossed in his reading when the drink arrived a minute or two later. “…You make surprisingly good coffee,” he said while finally digging in. “Isn’t caffeine an almost instantly fatal poison for a Corti?”

“Yes, but coffee is fiendishly difficult to do properly, darling! A boy needs a hobby, and what better hobby than chemistry?”

“Really?”

“Oh yes! The acid balance, the phenols, the acetaldehyde, trigonelline, furaneol… I could write a song! Something modelled after Gilbert and Sullivan perhaps…”

Arés shook his head but he was trying not to grin. “You always seem to save your extra scandalous days for when I visit.”

Nofl gave him his Innocent Blink again. “Read up!”

Arés did so. In fact, he read the report twice while he drank the coffee.

“So?” Nofl asked him when he finally put the tablet down and finished the cup. “What do you think?”

Arés dragged a thumb through his stubble as he thought. “It’s good. Fruity, with a hint of caramel. It’s definitely decaf though, I can tell.”

“I meant the report, you troglodyte! Don’t you sass me!”

“I can sass with the best of them, Nofl.” Arés grinned. “But it really does lose something without the caffeine…”

Nofl sighed. “Fine, fine, I’ll try that supercritical CO2 process I’ve heard about. Now if you’re kindly done trying to scandalize me…”

Arés chuckled and considered the report. “Very interesting indeed. I can’t imagine a Human government doing anything like it. It’s very…”

“Logical? Sensible? Expedient?” Nofl suggested.

“Utterly amoral.”

“Darling, this is our survival we’re talking about.”

“I didn’t say immoral, I said *a*moral. They aren’t the same meaning.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Nofl huffed. He gathered up the empty coffee cup and returned it to the cluttered counter where the cleaning service could deal with it for him later. “My point stands. Even if my people hadn’t spent a hundred generations methodically breeding ourselves toward that point of view, now is not the time for sentiment. Not after what happened to the Gao, and especially the Guvnurag.”

“No, it isn’t. But my question to you is this: how far are you willing to go?”

“Me personally? Or my people?”

“Yes.”

“Very Zen, dear.” Nofl thought about it. “Personally…So long as there are Corti around afterwards, who remember how to read Banners and relish the rush and push of the great ladder of opportunity…”

“Well, if you’re talking about proper survival, you need to be able to ditch advanced technology. That means bearing offspring. The first commandment of any living thing is to be fruitful and multiply.”

“From Zen to Biblical! You’re in a spiritual mood today, Chief.”

“Nah. I’m just gonna be a grandpa soon. Like, any day now.”

“Mm. Sadly, your daughter-in-law was not willing to submit to a scan. Not even for raw turkey.”

“Ha!” Arés shook his head. “Try jalapeño cheese poppers next time. That’s what she’s been going crazy for during the pregnancy. I mean, she normally likes them well enough but right now she’s an addict.”

“Ah yes, the famous craving food. Curious phenomenon.”

“For my ex-wife, when she was carrying Adam, it was dill pickles. Which he will eat by the jarful if you let him.”

“More coffee?”

“…You know what, sure.” Arés read the report a third time. Nofl couldn’t blame him at all—despite his best efforts at translating it, the Directorate preferred an extremely upper-caste and formal form of Cortan that was simply impossible to dumb down or simplify. The report made for exceptionally dry reading, despite the subject matter.

“…As for a return to, ah… organic reproduction,” Nofl, as a scientist, found the process fascinating rather than repulsive, but he still retained some old habits of discretion, “that probably won’t fall within the purview of this project, at least not at first.”

“You couldn’t… engineer yourself backwards?” Arés asked.

“Darling, take an assembly line that turns out thousands of modern vehicles and then ask it to build a wooden cart.”

“That’s not really an apt analogy, Nofl.”

“Is it not? Progress is iterative, both ways. The infrastructure upon which an entire civilization rests doesn’t just downgrade overnight, and certainly not when the infrastructure in question is genetic.” Nofl summoned a set of notes he’d been compiling on that subject. “We are capable of extremely efficient genetic engineering, it’s true, but that doesn’t mean we can just, ah, control-Z centuries of development.”

“That still leaves you a species dependent on a high-technology civilization to exist.”

“Yes. Hence why we’re doing this. That criticism goes for your kind as well. Your son for example requires a vast supply of daily calories simply to maintain his metabolism! If Warhorse were subjected to a prolonged survival situation he would quickly starve to death. Or look at Folctha itself! How quickly would this town collapse if we somehow became cut off from Earth?”

“…True. That’s one of the things that worries me about Adam. But he’s not the norm, he’s exceptional. Every single member of your species is incapable of reproduction, Nofl.”

“Yes, dear. Which is why you are holding a document informing us of the first step in our plan to fix that problem.” He gave Arés the most penetrating glare he could manage. “My people are many things, and I have argued for a long time that one of those things is foolish. But one thing we absolutely are not is stupid. When we think about something, we think about it.”

Arés nodded, and Nofl handed him his coffee.

“…I’m glad you’re doing something,” he said as he took it.

“Oh, Chief. No sentimental words? No warm fuzzies? No ‘the galaxy would be poorer without your people’ or anything like that?”

Arés snorted. “Don’t push your luck.”

“Yes, yes…” Nofl returned to his files. “It would be, though. And I don’t just mean financially, though my goodness can you imagine if the Origin Bank collapsed?! The whole Dominion economy would go with it!” He thought about that for a second. “…I really should remind Lor to consider that.”

“Yes, this Lor,” Arés waved the report. “He’s… the Dean of a college?”

“Yes. It’s not quite the same thing. The Colleges certainly aren’t quite what a Human would think of when they hear the word.”

“They’re not centers of learning?”

“Oh, they are! They’re also… political parties, think-tanks, advisory groups, regulatory councils… They are centers of study, and of the application of the fruits of their study, if you follow me.”

“Isn’t that inefficient?”

“As opposed to the splendidly streamlined process of Democracy?” Nofl waved a hand at the wall, indicating the city and colony around them. “It’s no worse, at least.”

“Folctha isn’t a democracy, we’re a constitutional republican monarchy.”

“Ah yes. The roots of tradition, extending all the way back to some muddy Human in metal armor who conquered a rainy little island in the freezing north of one of the colder continents and then taxed the crap out of his new subjects.”

“Hey, don’t look at me! I’m an American, we ditched all that nonsense hundreds of years ago.”

“Oh, but I approve!” Nofl exclaimed. “It’s a system grounded in deep history, with deep roots, and that means stability. Not like the lone teetering, fragile pillar of your vaunted Constitution.”

Arés scowled. “Hey come *on*—!”

Nofl barrelled on through his objection. “You don’t think things like the Castes, the Colleges and the Banners arose out of pure practicality, do you? But in a way they did! Tradition tells people who they are and where they came from. The wider the roots and the deeper they go, the stronger the edifice. The Banners once rallied armies, you know.”

“…I gotta say, I’m having an awful hard time imagining a Corti warrior-king.”

“On horseback, covered in mud, blood and steel? Yes, quite. But there are other forms of warfare, dear.” Nofl gave him a smile. “Shall we return to the subject at hand?”

Arés gave him a slow stare, then shrugged and waggled the report at him. “…So what do you intend for us to do with this information?”

“We were hoping you would share some insights. Offer some advice, help us perhaps find an unclaimed low-Class planet that’s not on the Dominion charts… Really, it’s not about what we intend, it’s about what we hope you will do.”

“I am…very much the wrong person to ask about this. Shouldn’t you talk to an Ambassador? Or the Foreign Secretary or something?”

Nofl shrugged his skinny shoulders. “To them, I’m a Corti. To you, I’m Nofl.”

“I guess, but—”

“To me, you are my favorite patient…to them you are the chief of colonial security,” Nofl added.

Arés hesitated, looked down at the tablet in his hand, looked back at Nofl, then seemed to… relax, somehow. At least, he let out a long breath like he was relaxing. Even after years of living among Humans, there were some times when Nofl couldn’t read their body language at all. “…I’ll take it to the Foreign Secretary,” he said.

“Thank you, dear. How was the coffee?”

“…I’ll be honest, it’s the best decaf I’ve ever had,” Arés admitted. He stood up and, like always, unconsciously touched his hand to his formerly-bad hip as though he still couldn’t quite believe it worked properly again. “So this is our last checkup?”

“I’m afraid so, dear. Though if picking up that baby gives you lumbar back pain, you know where to find me…”

Arés snorted. “I’ve been getting physio from Adam to prevent that. Honestly, you both behave like I’m seventy…”

“…When you’re actually in the best shape of your life,” Nofl chorused with him. “Yes, yes. Well, don’t be a stranger regardless. I find our little chats stimulating!”

“Yeah.” Arés waggled the tablet. “I’ll return this, shall I?”

“There’ll be coffee waiting!” Nofl promised. He waited until Arés had gone then rubbed his hands happily together and opened the next object on his to-do list.

“Hmm… hmm hmm… …♪take of these elements all that is fusible, melt them all down in a pipkin or crucible, set them to simmer and take off the scum, and a cup of coffee is the residuum♫…Yes, that works…”

Now. On to the conundrum of that dog…


Date Point: 15y5m4d AV Peake Lowlands, Northwest of Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Yan Given-Man

‘Cimbrean’ was a place-under-another-sky very different to Yan’s home. The tastes were all different. Not unknowable different, just…like Yan had ventured very far from his hunting grounds. Which was true, now that he thought about it. There were lots of plants and flowers on the air, and lots of small prey moving about, but there were hardly any large beasts to be tasted.

And there were almost no trees, which felt wrong somewhere deep in Yan’s mighty chest. Trees were a sign the land was strong. This land…was not strong. No trees, no Ten’Gewek, no Brown Ones to keep the grasslands healthy, may their name be known only to the gods.

The land was weak. It was so weak it couldn’t attract strong prey and the ground hardly pulled at them at all. Yan had found himself able to jump high enough to peer over small hills.

That didn’t mean it was easy, though. The sun was a different color, and colder too. The gods summoned forth rains every day so predictably that Yan could plan his day around them, much like how the tribes watched the moons to count the seasons. Yan hated the cold rain. He couldn’t escape from it and the chill went right to his bones, which meant both he and Vemik found themselves always wanting to move about so they could keep warm.

He hated the tiny prey, too; there was a lot of them and they made for almost laughably easy meals, but they were bland and uninteresting to eat, their skins fell apart, their bones were so weak they were almost chewy, and not in a hand of lives could either Yan or Vemik string together enough of their tiny hides to make a nice warm pelt.

At least their bellies were nice and full.

Vemik had tried shooting one with his bow once. It had ‘exploded’ as Jooyun would say. Some of the prey was gods-damned hard to catch and very tasty, though; those were animals which had come from ‘Earth,’ Jooyun’s place-under-another-sky. They were a nice challenge to hunt! Anything to break up the tedium of their ‘mission.’

The sooner they made it to the lone tree on the mountain on the far horizon, the sooner Yan could taste this ‘ham’ roast he had been promised.

The problem was that they had to get there unnoticed in order to win their prize. Unnoticed! In a grassland so open and clean that just standing up straight would have raised Yan’s crest above the brush and bushes. They were being chased by ‘drones’ so they had to remain out of sight from above. But even worse, they were also being tracked by Gaoians. That ‘nose’ of theirs could taste the air so well, Daar had been able to tell what Yan had eaten two days before!

That meant they had to pay attention to the wind all the time, rain or not, day or night. They were also slathered head to tail-tip in mud to keep their bright crests from being seen by the Humans. That wasn’t a problem against the Gaoians, which was something they learned from Daar: another confusing thing that rubbed together the sky-thoughts of whether Daar was a beast or a man. More importantly, Yan also knew mud could hide a man’s taste, so he hoped that would help them against that sky-magical ‘nose’ of theirs.

Maybe it could also help against the ‘drones.’ The Skithral-things could see their crests, Jooyun had said. They could see better than any man, too. They could even see if a thing was warm!

Maybe that meant it was good Yan felt so cold. He looked back at Vemik, who was smearing the last of the mud under his eyes. He was shivering and grumbling quietly to himself…

But Vemik was a man of the People. Nothing could hide the shine in his eyes or the joy in his breath. They were hunting, and they were being hunted, and the prize would be the honor and strength of the People against Sky-Tribes that may as well be gods.

…And ham.

“Ready,” Vemik declared.

“Good. We shouldn’t waste the day.”

Vemik nodded, picked up his spear and stepped aside. “I’m behind you, Yan.”

They resumed their trek. They had a long way to go if they were to get there first.


Date Point 15y5m4d AV Peake Lowlands, Northwest of Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Master Sergeant Derek “Boss” Coombes

“Okay, I knew Yan and Vemik were good, but Etsicitty? How’s a guy that big just vanish?”

Hoeff unscrewed his spit bottle to deposit a load of filthy brown juice before answering. In the tight confines of their van, he was being extra careful about his personal habits. “Nightmare. Shit, maybe we should do some training over there sometime.”

“We probably will, once our cavemonkeys have their head around the task.” Coombes returned to the drone footage. They had four Flycatchers up to watch the training area, but now that the two Ten’gewek had found some cold mud to cover their infrared signature they weren’t tracking shit. Not bad for a couple of guys who were still new to the idea of metal.

Etsicitty was a different matter. He’d covered his body heat first and that was about the last they’d seen of him. Coombes had combed over every inch of the ground around his starting position and there wasn’t a thing out of place. Yan and Vemik left hardly any trail themselves, but Playboy left none that Coombes could detect.

The three of them together made up Blue Team, and they were proving to be difficult quarry.

Then there was Red Team. Wilde and his buddies were one of the two pursuit units, the other being a half-dozen Gaoians from the Grand Army who’d been picked out for special training under the supervision of the HEAT’s own Faarek and Shim. The JETS members were easily the most visible things in the area, which wasn’t entirely their fault. They were fully loaded, each carrying a forty-kilo pack to go with their weapon, armor and all the other shit.

They weren’t out there to be stealthy, they were out there for conditioning. Stealth would come later. A JETS team had to be able to hump their gear over miles of terrain and do it quietly, and Coombes was satisfied that the human contingent of Red Team were doing alright on that score. There was room for improvement, but nothing was actually unsatisfactory.

All told, it was a hell of a training scenario. Three species with some very different natural aptitudes and skillsets, all with different victory conditions and tactics. Coombes genuinely had no idea what he expected would happen.

Then again, he had no idea what exactly was going on here and now. Clearly he was going to be relying on Etsicitty to be his eyes and ears because the drones weren’t worth shit.

He popped the seal on his thermal flask of coffee and poured some out.

Something told him he was in for a long wait.


Date Point: 15y5m4d AV Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Xiù Chang

There were unfamiliar suitcases just inside the front door and takeaway debris all over the kitchen counters when Xiù got home, neither of which were remotely as prominent as the air of crackling hostility that made her skin itch the second she entered. Two almost identical young blond-haired boys were sitting at the table in the kitchen looking pale, silent and tense despite being surrounded by burgers and snacks: one of them hastily flailed at his brother to get his attention when he looked up and saw Xiù enter.

The centerpiece, however, was definitely the standoff over the breakfast bar. Allison looked like she was one wrong word away from an aneurysm, and the target of her hostility was…

Well, she was a glimpse into Allison’s future. The same bone structure, the same eyes. Her hair was unquestionably dyed to judge by the silver roots but she’d done a decent job of fighting back against the effects of age on her skin.

Xiù hung up her coat and hesitated. “Um… hello?”

Allison gave her a complicated look that said ‘I’m beyond glad to see you but I’m busy being really fucking angry at my mother right now.’ Out loud, and with forced brittle lightness, she said “Hey babe. Look who showed up!”

Mrs. Buehler’s handshake was polite, but about as firm as a soufflé. “It’s, uh… nice to meet you, Miss Chang.”

“My parents are getting divorced!” Allison explained, brightly. She was pissed, way more so than Xiù had seen her in a long long time. “And Mother here—” Mrs. Buehler winced “—decided that was the perfect excuse to catch up. Oh, and she’s brought my little brothers with her which means the whole custody thing’s gonna land on our doorstep soon too!”

“Allison, please, we’re not—” Mrs Buehler paused and changed tack from argumentative to pleading. “He kicked me out! I had nowhere else to go and you’re the only family we have!”

Allison rounded on her. “No! I’m the only family they have, which is why I even let you in.” Her finger jabbed toward the boys, then lanced at her mother’s face. “You don’t get to call me family!”

Ohhh boy.

Rather than allow the argument to continue, Xiù decided to gently interject. “Um… look, Mrs… um, I’m sorry, I don’t actually remember your first name…”

“Amanda,” Allison said before Amanda had the chance.

“Amanda,” Xiù repeated. “Can I borrow her for a second? Sorry, we’ll be right back…”

She steered Allison out of the room before either of them could protest and into the garage. The door closed behind them and a shaved second later Allison grabbed her and hugged like she was a life preserver.

She was shaking.

“…Bǎobèi? Are you okay?”

Allison shook her head, not letting go. “No. No I’m really not. I want her gone.”

“And… the boys?”

Allison sighed and peeled herself away slightly. “Yeah, that’s the tricky part. They never did anything wrong. God, Babe, I don’t know. I just… I wasn’t prepared for this.”

“What happened exactly?”

“She had her temple recommend taken away—”

“Her what?”

“I’ll explain later. Anyway, my father got wicked mad, there was an epic fight which ended up with her out in the street…and everything’s in his name.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. She spent all of her money to get here. She doesn’t have a job. Hell, she says the only reason she had any money is because some of her neighbors helped her out. And she used it to come here!”

“Well… you are her daughter…” Xiù pointed out.

Allison heaved an enormous sigh and leaned against a workbench. “Babe, I love how you always look for the best in people? But that woman out there made me get rid of her own grandson to protect her reputation. She’s a gold-digger and a snake and she’s only playing the family card because she thinks she can get something out of it.”

“…Okay. Well… Why don’t you get to know your little brothers, and I’ll talk with Amanda?” Xiù suggested.

“…That… sounds like a good idea. I don’t think I can…” Allison trailed off, then rallied. “Just, don’t give her an inch. She’ll take a mile.”

Xiù kissed her. “Let me worry about her.”

“…Right.”

They hugged briefly for a little extra strength, then Xiù led the way back into the kitchen. Amanda had sat down and was fussing over the boys, who had the lost, scared looks of kids navigating a social minefield they didn’t have the map for. Allison looked at them for a second then sighed and softened.

“…Come on, guys. You wanna see the house?”

They looked at their mother, who hesitated and then waved a hand. “Go on.”

That left Xiù and Amanda alone. Xiù gave her a hospitable smile. “Can I get you anything? Coffee?”

Amanda gave her a cold look. “…No, thank you.”

“Tea?”

“No. Thank you.”

Wow. Amanda was about as entertainable as a brick wall. “Okay…You don’t mind if I have one, do you?”

Amanda sighed. “…It’s your house.”

Grateful for a minute to think as she brewed, Xiù stood up and headed for the drinks cupboard.

“Can I at least get you a glass of water?” she offered.

“Yes please.”

Finally, a breakthrough. Amanda fidgeted awkwardly with her rings while the drinks were being made, and accepted her water without a thank you when it was given.

“I suppose you just got an earful about what I’m like…”

“I did,” Xiù agreed.

“…She really hates me, doesn’t she?”

Xiù inhaled her coffee’s scent for a second then set the cup down. “…Maybe. But she’s not a hateful person. The Allison I know is big-hearted, caring and full of love.”

“So you’re saying you think she must have a reason…”

Well, Amanda was definitely living up to everything negative Allison had ever said about her. Xiù gave the older woman a careful look and then decided to go with Allison-like forthrightness.

“You have to expect I’ll take her side,” she pointed out. “I have every reason to trust her, and I know her very, very well. So yes, absolutely. If she hates you, you can take it from me that you must absolutely have earned it.”

Amanda blinked, which was an opening that Xiù was more than happy to use. “But I’m not the inquisition, and Allison isn’t a villain. She’s already given you a chance, even if only because of the boys. So tell me what you want. Why come here?”

“…I…I really didn’t have anywhere else to go,” Amanda said. “I don’t have many friends, my parents passed away years ago, I don’t have… Allison is the only family I have… I have no money, no job… I’m homeless!”

“And the boys? You brought your sons with you? Out on the streets with nowhere to go?”

“I couldn’t leave them with Jacob!”

“Why not?”

Amanda looked appalled. “He can’t look after them! He’s— boys need their mother!”

“They need their father, too,” Xiù retorted. “But more importantly, they need stability. They need a roof over their heads too, they need their school friends…” She glanced down the hall toward the living room. Allison was bonding with her little brothers by showing off some of the gadgetry she’d filled the house with to their apparent enthrallment. She actually had a smile on her face.

“It’s not right,” Amanda asserted with the desperate conviction of somebody who didn’t have an argument but would never admit to it.

“For who? For them? I happen to know an amazing man who was raised by his father!” Xiù was getting angry, but she really didn’t care. “But of course, a homeless woman with kids has more to bargain with than just a homeless woman by herself… Oh, that’s another question. Why come here? Why not a homeless shelter or something? You could have fed and looked after the boys for a couple of months on what it must have cost you to travel to Folctha.”

“I—”

“Whatever you’re about to say, look me in the eye to say it,” Xiù told her.

Amanda didn’t at first. She lapsed into silence for a few seconds, then tucked some stray hair behind her ear, took a deep breath and finally looked up.

“…Well, we’re here now,” she said.

“Yes. Congratulations, you’ve forced our hand.” Xiù stood up. “I think I can speak for Allison and Julian, we’re not going to kick your children out into the cold. But if you’ll excuse me, I need to call the police and tell them to get in touch with the Salt Lake City PD.”

She turned to go retrieve her phone from her coat pocket.

“She was always… passionate,” Amanda said quietly. “And independent. Strong. I never understood how she could just… just not care what others thought. If people talked behind her back she just ignored them… And she’s so clever…”

Nonplussed, Xiù just stared at her and wondered where the hell that non-sequitur had come from. After a second, Amanda wiped away a tear and sighed. “…I always envied her for that. For her talents.”

Xiù shook her head. “Allison earned everything she has” she said, and retrieved her phone. “Now. If you’ll excuse me…”

She retreated into the living room where Ramsey and Tristan were coming out of their shells a bit while selecting a movie to watch. Allison was watching them with a complicated look on her face, which turned to a slight smile when Xiù entered.

“Hey. So. What do you think?”

“I think…” Xiù glanced at the twins and decided to be at least a little discreet. Fortunately, Allison understood enough Mandarin for what she wanted to say. “Tā shì huàidàn …But she’s here now, and so are the boys. We can’t just abandon them…”

“No.” Allison sighed. “That’s why she brought them. She knew I’d just slam the door in her face if it was just her…”

“Well, she was right. Look, I’d better call CCS and let them know about this. I bet their dad’s going crazy right now.”

A medley of mixed emotions wrote themselves across Allison’s face. “I guess. Not sure how I feel about him showing up on our door though…”

“Mmm, I’m thinking maybe you do know how you feel about that, dummy.”

That got a small laugh. “Don’t you ‘dummy’ me, you butt… You’d better call Clara too. She and Dane were gonna come over tonight…”

“No, they can still come! Why cancel?”

Allison glanced through to the kitchen. “…Y’know what? I guess if they still want to then I’d love to see them. But call them anyway.”

“Fair enough…Wǒ ài nǐ.”

“Wo ye ai ni.” Allison smiled more fully this time. “I’ll call Julian and… I guess I’ll keep these two entertained…” She nodded at her brothers.

“Are they staying here, or a hotel?”

Allison shrugged. “…I dunno. I don’t exactly wanna give Mom any money, but I don’t really want her in the house either…Better make it a hotel. If the men come back tonight as well it could get really weird in here.”

Bǎobèi, it’s weird enough already.”

“Exactly. And you know, this day started out almost normal?”

Xiù giggled, kissed her, then let herself out through the French doors into the yard, where she finally got her phone out to make the promised phone calls.

Somehow, she doubted things were going to get less interesting…


Date Point: 15y5m4d AV Hunter livestock barge, Unknown location

Gorg Odvrak-Bull

Gorg had failed in every possible way.

A Bull, first and foremost, was there to protect his herd from other herds. Whether those herds were fellow Vgork, alien nations like the Dominion species, or interstellar monsters like the Hunters didn’t matter a bit—the Bull stood at the front and served with his life if need be.

That was the ancient contract: He who accepts the responsibilities and the risks, gets the rewards. Any Vgork male could take the easy way out and live for himself, but he’d never have a herd, or he’d find that whatever lackluster herd he did attract would soon drift away to find somebody more capable, devoted and selfless.

Gorg had always prided himself on living up to the ideal. He really ought to be dead.

But the Hunters hadn’t let him have even that when they hit his herd’s water tanker, the Floral Musk. They’d subdued him, bound him, made him watch as they feasted on a few of the children. It was like they knew how Vgork thought and had done everything in their power to make him suffer.

What kind of species was driven by sadism like that?

That had been… weeks ago? Maybe? He’d lost track of time. There had just been cramped spaces, fear, shame, occasionally falling asleep out of sheer exhaustion. Once, the doors on their claustrophobic pen had been opened and they’d been goaded out into a larger pen, already half-full of other captives. Vzk’tk and Rrrtktktkp’ch, Kwmbwrw, Celzi… There had been a Rauwryhr family, a Locayl mining crew, a cadre of broken Chehnash security specialists and even a lone, withdrawn Ruibal.

That pen had been filled and days of flight had followed. Then they’d been ushered from it into an even bigger pen full of even more captives, some from species that Gorg had never seen before or even heard of…And from there into the echoing belly of a truly cavernous ship devoted to one purpose: the mass transport of enormous numbers of meat slaves.

The Hunters never entered the pen. Even they knew that an angry mob of their captives could smash them individually. But they patrolled the outside with fusion scythes and pulse rifles and other, stranger weapons that Gorg’s oldest son Yurk thought looked Human.

And always, the threat was there of just being spaced, should the cargo rise up and fight back.

They had no idea where they were going. They had no knowledge of how long the journey would take. They had no clue what would happen when they arrived, and they had no way of saving themselves. They had no hope at all.

Gorg had failed utterly.

He only hoped that when it came time to face his death, he could fight hard enough to make it quick and deny the enemy their cruelties. And maybe, just maybe, earn the right to call himself a Bull again.

Until then, there was only the waiting.

He turned his face to the wall and slept without resting.


Date Point 15y5m4d AV Peake Lowlands, Northwest of Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Master Sergeant Derek “Boss” Coombes

“Whose phone is that?” Coombes looked around the van at the unexpected ringtone.

“Etsicitty’s. Must be important.”

“Answer it, then.”

Hoeff grumbled and picked up the phone, which he answered on speaker. “Playboy’s secretary, how may I direct your call?”

“It’s Allison. And you can start by not being an ass.” Fortunately, after a few months of hanging out with her in the jungle Coombes and Hoeff knew Allison well enough to spot that she was joking… but that she still had bad news.

“Sorry ma’am, Julian’s out on the range. How important is this?”

“Family drama. When’s he likely to be done?”

Hoeff checked on his Blue Force Tracker display. Everyone was wearing transponders for safety’s sake, and being as Hoeff was the designated lead for white cell he was allowed to see where everyone was at all times.

“Well…maybe a few hours? Julian’s mostly here as a teacher and our cavemonkeys are learning pretty fast.”

“I’m glad, but… honestly, a fucking tidal wave of bullshit just landed on us.”

“Look, be completely honest with me, Al. Does this involve life, limb, eyesight, or anything on that order of serious?”

She sighed in the half-hearted way of somebody resigning themselves to tolerating a necessary inconvenience. “Not really, just teeth-grinding frustration. I’ll let you get back to it. You’ll let him know I called?”

“Will do. You’re gonna hafta wait, sorry, but I’ll cut out some of the extra motivational delights we had planned, okay?”

“You’re an undercover angel, Chimp.”

“Handsome, too.”

“Not next to Coombes you ain’t. Anyway. Thanks. See you later.” She hung up.

Hoeff had his crude grin on his face for a moment, then sobered up quickly. “Right. I’m gonna call this evolution short, then. Once blue team reaches their primary objective, the Rangemaster will terminate and arrange transportation. Any objections, Boss?”

“Nope. What exactly are our gorillabros up to?”

Hoeff looked down at his display…and that grin of his returned. “They’re awfully close to that dairy farm…”

“Oh, hell. How much do cattle cost?”

Hoeff shrugged. “On this planet? I’unno, but the two just moved too fast for their tracking pendants to follow, so I’m betting we’re about to find out…”

“…Greeeaat.”


Date Point 15y5m4d AV Peake Lowlands, Northwest of Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Vemik Sky-Thinker

Meat.

It had been almost two whole days since Vemik had a proper meal. The little not-bibtaw things were everywhere and roots were easy to dig, but somehow, none of that really satisfied all that much. He dreamed of burgers.

*Cheese*burgers. Words ending with “-er” in English were words that meant tools most times, so a burger was a tool for burging, which meant that a man could burg. Was that right? It seemed right. Vemik really wanted to burg.

There were no burgers over there beyond those stone walls… but there was meat. Lots of it.

Jooyun was trailing along to teach them how to survive on this strange planet and he mostly stayed back, well away so he didn’t give away where they were sneaking. There had been a few times the Gaoians had almost found them, and once they had got so close Vemik could have thrown his spear right through the nearest one.

But they were friends. People shouldn’t spear their friends, at least not too hard. And the Gaoians had ‘rifles’ too, supposedly with ‘dummy boolets’ in them, which weren’t supposed to kill? But Jooyun had said getting shot by them would really hurt, and they weren’t wearing the weird face-glass thing anyway to keep their eyes safe, so maybe it was better not to risk it.

A cheeseburger would be nice right now. Three of them!

“Do we chance it?”

Yan made a pained, hungry sound. He was a lot bigger and needed to eat much more, so he was probably suffering even more than Vemik. He’d probably burg five or six times when they got home. After he had devoured this ‘ham’ thing he kept obsessing over.

“…A man doesn’t eat, that man gets weak,” he said eventually. “A weak man can’t fight. We may have to play-fight the Gaoians for the flag and they have rifles.’’

“We’ll get… two.” Vemik decided. “The smaller ones. They’re young, maybe?”

Yan nodded. “Kill quick, and quiet. Also, we need to go around this strange thin metal…thing. Without breaking it.”

“It’s called a fence.”

“How does something so thin keep beasts inside?”

“This one bites with sky-magic.” Vemik pointed out a sign. “That shape like lightning? It means ‘ee-lec-triss-ee-tee.’ Don’t touch. It really hurts.”

“How do you know?”

Vemik gave him an innocent look. “I touched it while you were shitting behind the tree yesterday. It bit and knocked me flat on my back! Jooyun laughed at me and helped me up, then he taught me what their warning signs mean. Red and white signs mean very bad things. And yellow and black signs mean bad things too.”

“Meat, Vemik. Focus.”

Yes. Meat.

“Well, touch the fence for yourself if you don’t believe me. I don’t want to touch it again.”

“I’m happy to learn from your mistakes,” Yan said with a smirk, and beckoned him to follow. “Come on, I’m hungry. We’ll just jump over it, it’s only one man tall.”

In the weak ’gravity’, that was nothing. They bounced clean over the wire without really having to try, and charged across the open ground to the stone walls as quickly as they could go.

The walls weren’t really stone, Vemik realized. They were grey like a stone, but smooth and made out of identical square concrete blocks. It looked like a sensible way to make something solid quickly. There was thorny wire along the top, but again the walls were far too low to keep a man of the People out. Especially when Yan held out his hands to give Vemik a boost.

Thus launched, Vemik shot upwards like a thrown spear, twisted tail-over-top and landed gracefully on the far side in a stinky mix of mud, dried grass, and shit.

A very big one of these strange prey turned its attention to him and scraped its cleft hoof on the ground. Well, so much for getting the little ones.

Vemik didn’t bother with his spear, he was too close in to get any power in a thrust. Instead he sprang forward, grabbed the animal by its horns and twisted sharply. It made a surprised bellowing noise, staggered, and fell on its side thrashing so angrily that he needed both his hands and one of his feet on its windpipe to hold it down. He took advantage of his position and tore his foot’s grip deep into the prey’s throat, burrowing down through the hard meat and bleeding it as much as he could.

After a few breaths he found something hard in its neck, gripped it with his foot, and squeezed as hard as he could. Another breath and he felt it crack and break apart, which instantly made the animal stop flailing and instead kick as hard as it could. Even pinned and broken it was a strong prey which could gore Vemik at any moment. He took no chances and grabbed his knife with his other foot, then cut the big blood lines running in the prey’s neck so it would die faster. Awkward, since he had to balance on his tail, but he managed.

The beast seemed to know it was doomed but it that only made it fight harder. Vemik was pleased, this was a strong prey! He got his legs and tail around its neck and squeezed down with all his strength to control it, dug his other foot in like the first, and wrenched its head up so hard that its horns snapped off in his grip, anything to keep it quiet and kill it faster.

It spilled its bright red blood all over Vemik and tried to cough around his grip on its throat, and fought his killer for a long while with every breath of its being. It was a gods-praised struggle and Vemik didn’t want it to suffer too much, so he grit his teeth and bore down so hard, his entire body trembled with effort. He kept it up until a few breaths later there was another muffled crack, his legs slammed together, and the prey stopped moving. Satisfied that it was defeated, he unwrapped himself from the pin, sat down next to it in its final moments, and rested a hand on its mighty head. Nobody should die alone, after all. The prey lowed a pathetic, mournful warble as the last of its lifeblood drained out of its flattened neck.

Vemik stood up, panted for a bit, and inspected a small scratch on his arm from where the point of its horn had gouged at him. A good kill, and a worthy prey! He anointed himself with its blood and let the gods know to treat this one kindly.

It was big though. Vemik picked it up and thought for a moment. He had carried bigger Werne on long hunting trips and on this weak ‘planet’ doing that would be even easier, but he wasn’t quite sure if he could jump over the wall with his prize while avoiding the thorny wire at the top. Toss it? Probably, but it might get stuck in the wire just the same, though. Yan could definitely clear the wire with room to spare. Vemik was about to call for him when he leaped clear over the wall, thumped down beside him and took a keen look around. The rest of the prey were crowding away from them and making a terrible racket. They needed to get moving.

“Strong kill!” the Given-Man said. “I thought we wanted small ones?”

“It attacked me.”

“Good enough for me. We will Give what we can’t eat to the gods.”

“We should go before—” Vemik began.

Several confused minutes followed, but they started with shouting. Swearing, mostly. There were Humans and Gaoians, but not the ones taking part in the training. These ones probably kept the animals and weren’t very happy about what had just happened to their bull.

It wasn’t the first time Yan and Vemik had raided another tribe’s hunting-grounds of course. Yan grabbed the bull and tossed it over the wall, both of them sprang after it, and they fled for the safety of the bush with their prey, trilling gloriously at the thrill of being caught and still getting away with the prize.

How did the sky-tribes resolve a play-fight like that? The Ten’Gewek would have the Given-Men wrestle, and the winning tribe would fuck the other tribe’s maidens senseless while the defeated men hunted for a feast…and when they got back the real fun began. Would that work here?

…Probably not. Human women were attractive enough in their weird skinny way, but Gaoians? Yurrgh.

The proper way to respect such a magnificent bull would be to smoke all its meat and waste absolutely no part of it, but they didn’t have that kind of time sadly. They would have to snatch the best parts, cook them quickly, and divide the animal apart so it could be Given back to the gods quickly and cleanly.

It was excellent meat, though. Rich, full-flavored and strong, especially the heart. Strange texture, but Vemik liked it. It reminded him of burgers!

Yan liked it too, judging from how he sighed happily and slapped his belly. “We should move, I think maybe all the noise will be noticed by our hunters.”

Vemik nodded. Between them, reducing the carcass to proper fragments didn’t take long, and with one last prayer for their meal’s soul they were gone.

It had been a good hunt.


Date Point: 15y5m4d AV Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Uncharted Space

Lucy Campbell

“Lewis?”

“Back here!”

Lucy slid the door shut behind her and ducked under a volumetric projection. She didn’t need to, the thing was made out of lasers, dust and forcefields and she could have walked right through it, but it looked solid. It was hard to escape the feeling that she was looking at several tonnes of metal hanging impossibly in the air.

This one wasn’t a coltainer, she could see that immediately. It was… sleeker. Probably smaller. If the projection was scaled one-to-one then this was the size and shape of a blue whale, where the Coltainer had wound up much bigger than that.

Lewis was sculpting a 3d model of something on his workstation in the corner, He gave her a tired but happy grin. “Hey, Loo.”

“Hey.” She draped herself over his shoulders. “Thanks for leaving a message. Are you okay?”

“I’m probably gonna crash like Bitcoin did when I go to bed,” Lewis said. “But yeah. Feels good. I figured out what my next project is.”

Lucy looked at it. “Another probe? What’s this one for?”

“Military use.”

“Really?” She sat down on the spare chair he kept for her. “I thought you didn’t like the idea of military V-N probes?”

“I don’t. But it… kinda got pointed out to me that somebody else’ll just build them anyway. So it may as well be me. At least that way…”

“Right.” Lucy considered the probe in the middle of the room. From this side, it was exploded with one-way screens picking open the components. Mostly it was orderly, rational stuff. The product of years of work on the Coltainers by a team of dozens, copy-pasted in from the finalized version. The nanofactories, the resource acquisition drones, the power core and FTL drive, the small nuke for self-destruct purposes were all the same… where it differed, it was pure Lewis.

He was obviously going for a scout first and a weapon second. The sensor package was sophisticated, hardened, redundant and had a big chunk of the probe’s energy budget behind it. He’d sketched in weapons here and there without bothering to decide what form the weapons should take and his total ignorance in some fields was showing, but as always he’d produced a solid starting point.

Mostly. She smiled at the basic structural plan when she saw he’d made the same mistakes he always did. “You just sketched in steel struts again.”

“I was kinda throwin’ together the early Alpha.”

“Sure, but why not start as we mean to go on? Here, if I replace it with a foam lattice construction using that zero-G spider-spin technique we developed… here…” She stood up and selected the probe’s structural components by touching them. “And not steel. Here, the Brits figured out this great alloy from reverse-engineering the tech they stripped out of Caledonia…”

The design software was goddamn miraculous sometimes: In seconds she’d modified every major structural component and drastically reduced the probe’s mass while increasing its ability to bear stress loads and endure extremes of heat.

“With a few more changes, we could give the whole force-carrying structure some redundancy, so if it gets damaged…” she indicated, dropping in the proposed changes with a few gestures. “See?”

Lewis looked at it, then grinned at her. “This is why I love you.”

He didn’t say that very often. It was nice to hear and Lucy grinned back. “So…what’s that you’re making?”

He showed her. She proposed modifications, he queried material, she double-checked his math… Half a day slipped away in creative bliss.

At the end of it, Lewis sat back and arched his back to work some of the stiffness out, then dropped his arm round her waist and snuggled into her. “…We work great together.”

“Mhmm.” Lucy nodded. “Wanna marry me?”

“Yup.”

She laughed softly and hugged him. “Cool.”

“…Was that an actual proposal? Because I, uh… I did design some rings a while back…”

“You did?”

Lewis’ eartips had gone pink, but he swiped through his files and called one up from the folder marked personal projects.

An enormous ring replaced the probe. Lucy turned to look at it.

Christ. Rose gold with an inlay of palladium wire, twisted back on itself into a Möbius strip. A princess-cut moissanite stone (and here Lewis had noted: “get from asteroid, not lab-made”) adorned the twist’s apex.

She almost did a double-take when she realized that the palladium wire inlay was actually an ECG profile, looping forever over and around. It was the engagement ring she’d never known she dreamed of.

“…Holy shit.”

“You like it?”

“You know rose gold is my favorite, right?”

A small ‘gotcha’ smile spread across Lewis’ face. “You maybe mentioned that, yeah.”

“I mean… isn’t that gonna cost a lot?”

“Nah, not really.” His gotcha smile got bigger. “The hard part was finding the right asteroid. SAM? Call up Earmark Rock Lucy-One.”

A potato-shaped lump of dirty rock replaced the ring. Lucy gave him a raised eyebrow. “…Lew?”

“It’s got gold, zinc, copper, palladium and moissanite.” He grinned. “Whaddya say? Wanna use some of our private runtime on the ‘fac? I guarantee you, nobody else will ever have a ring like it.”

Lucy laughed a little. “Wow. When you do a romantic gesture…”

“Dude. Go big or go home, right?” Lewis grinned sheepishly.

She kissed him. “Let’s do it.”

“You heard the lady, SAM. Bring that rock in.”

“Roger-dodger, dude.”

And just like that, the romantic moment popped. No big sentimental gesture could survive ‘roger-dodger.’ They looked at each other, snorted, and got back to work.

But neither of them stopped smiling.


Date Point 15y5m4d AV Peake Lowlands, Northwest of Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Sergeant Ian Wilde

“Weren’t there supposed to be Gaoians and cavemonkeys up here?”

“There are!” A bloody gigantic gorilla-looking thing crawled up out of a hole they’d dug near the tree, and hastily concealed with grass. It was surprisingly well-done too.

Wilde gave the creature in front of him an appraising look up and down. This had to be Yan, from what he’d heard, but right now he looked more like the Swamp-Thing. He was covered top to toe in mud, which had picked up loose grass and extra dirt for good measure. There was a hint of red poking through what looked like a mohawk of all the things, and all that mud only emphasized the big bastard’s eyes and teeth. He was snarling in a weirdly friendly way, but…

A voice spoke from the other side of the track. “That explains why we couldn’t smell much of ‘em. All we ever got was a general hint. Did you two roll in the grass like three times?”

“Yes!”

The Whitecrests didn’t do anything so obvious as emerge from a covered hole. It was more like one of those weird optical illusions where a candlestick turned into a couple of faces and suddenly there was a whole pack of them just standing there, which was a fuck of a way to demonstrate those suits of theirs.

“Impressive.” Wilde got the sense that was a hell of a compliment coming from a Whitecrest.

Vemik emerged a few feet to Yan’s left and shook himself off some, which sent earth and plant matter showering all over the place. “Where is Julian?” he asked.

“Right here.”

He was literally just leaning against a tree. None of them had noticed him.

“—How–?”

The big bastard just grinned.

“So… who won?” Garcia asked.

“Game wasn’t about which fellas were gonna win,” Julian said. He was also heavily mud-laden. “This was just to get everyone’s head around what we’re going to be teaching each other. There’s a lot to learn, too. And some very angry farmers to appease.”

Yan and the “smaller” Ten’Gewek next to him both cringed at that.

“Ah!” Julian grinned and crossed his arms. “I take it you two ate well, at least?”

“Tasty!” Vemik burbled happily.

“Good, because that meal is going to cost AEC about sixteen thousand pounds.”

That number made everyone cringe again, especially Vemik. Yan didn’t seem to understand but he noted the general mood and grew concerned.

“Is… a lot?” he asked.

“A burger with all the fixings costs about ten pounds, Yan. Do the math.”

Yan paused, counted off on his fingers and a few of his toes, twitched his tail a few times, then wilted. “…Is a lot.”

“Yuh-huh. You guys killed their breeding stud. Don’t worry though, I’m sure we can make amends.”

Yan and Vemik nodded seriously. “We will Give for this Taking.”

“Right. We’ll deal with that later. I guess we do a hot wash?” Wilde nodded, and stepped back to give him the floor. “Right. First thing would be for Whitecrest. Excellent job going undetected. You might pay attention to…hell. Standby.”

There was the growling sound from down the hill, and an ATV came bouncing up the trail carrying the Rangemaster. That was totally unscheduled and could only mean Shenanigans of the worst kind.

Sure enough a quite unhappy warrant officer along with a tinier, angrier man rolled off as soon as the ATV puttered to a stop. They both descended on the group like a billowing cloud of doom.

Julian seemed unfazed. “Hey Hoeff, what’s up?” he asked, stepping forward to speak for the group.

The little man didn’t seem much concerned. He indicated the two cavemonkeys, then Julian himself. “Shit came up, and I don’t just mean the farmyard drive-thru. I need to pull you three off the range. And hose you down. With soap.”

It was almost amazing how dejected the two aliens suddenly looked. “Do we really need to?” Vemik did a remarkable show of puppy-dog eyes.

Hoeff was unyielding. “Yes. But if it’s any consolation, you still get your ham.”

Yan nodded solemnly, and resigned himself to his trials with a stoic grunt.

“What happened?” Julian asked.

“Dunno exactly. Al called and said a, quote, ‘tidal wave of bullshit’ landed on them. She sounded pissed.”

“Greeeaat.” Julian sighed to himself, then beckoned the Ten’Gewek over. “Fun’s over. Uh…I don’t know if this little ATV will be enough for these two.”

“We borrowed this one from HEAT, don’t worry. This is the version they use in rhino and elephant conservation back on Earth. Also, it’s easier to hose down.”

“You seem a little too happy about that.”

“Oh, I’m gonna have a fuckload of fun spraying you fuckers clean.” Hoeff’s grin was pure sadism.

“Hey, I can take my own goddamn shower!” Julian objected.

Hoeff shrugged. “Sure. Find one.”

“…Fuck. It’s cold water too, ain’t it?”

Hoeff’s grin got wider. “The motherfucking coldest bro. You’re gonna love it. Wake ya right up!”

“Fucking SEALs, man,” Garcia commented. “What’s on for the rest of us?”

Hoeff chuckled. “Oh the fun don’t stop! We’re gonna keep running the scenario, ‘cept this time it’ll be Gaoians versus JETS.” He turned and pointed to a hilltop that was almost invisible among the haze on the horizon. “Dinner’s at nineteen-hundred on top’a that hill. Be there and eat well. Arrive late, and you’re doin’ the dishes. Don’t go up the wrong hill. And don’t let the cadre catch you, neither.”

“Got it, Chief.”

Wilde stepped aside as the mud-brothers climbed onto their getaway vehicle, hoisted his bag and turned downhill. The Gaoians melted back into the shadows as though they’d never been and the ATV skidded away down the track again as abruptly as it came. The Warrant Officer driving it hadn’t spoken a word the whole time, but if anything he looked even less pleased now than he had on arrival, which wasn’t really surprising considering he now had three humanoid middens along for the ride.

For Wilde’s part, there was dinner waiting on top of that distant peak, and no mere intervening terrain was going to stop him.

“Well. Come on, lads. Last one in buys the first round,” he said.

They set off back down the hill.


Date Point: 15y5m4d AV HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Senior Airman Rihanna Miller

“Hey, Jack.”

Tisdale looked up and gave her a small smile. He was half-way through changing into his work clothes in the technicians’ locker room, and they had the place pretty much to themselves. They’d agreed to meet late to go over the suit checklist together: Deacon still wanted them to have it memorized by the start of Crush Week, which was getting perilously close.

“Hey.”

“How bad was the hangover in the end?”

He shrugged. “Wasn’t so bad, really. Thurrsto got me all hydrated, gave me painkillers, I ate a Snickers, slept it off. How was Girls’ Night?”

She rolled her eyes, pulled a crocheted bright blue beanie from her pocket and threw it in his lap. “Turns out Deacon and Arés are kinda boring. We had like two drinks then went back to Deacon’s place, watched girly shit on TV and knitted.”

He inspected the hat. “That… doesn’t sound like your style.”

“Yeah, no shit,” she snorted, and headed for her locker. “But actually, I kinda enjoyed it. It’s weird, crochet actually works a lot like threading the links on the MASS’ scale layer. And hey, my favorite boy gets a free hat out of it.”

She heard Jack’s awkwardness, and turned just enough to give him a reassuring smile. “Sorry if I was kind of a jerk on Friday night.”

“Were you?” he sounded honestly confused.

“Well, y’know. I’m not used to boys turning me down.”

He sighed. “Look, it’s not that… I mean, I’m not…”

“Chill.” She turned fully around to look at him, then sat down beside him and gave him a hug. “If you don’t think of me that way, that’s fine. I promise.”

He returned the hug, a touch awkwardly but it was definitely heartfelt. “Thanks.”

“I do have a question, though.”

“Uh, sure. Ask.”

“I’d like to hear about your sister. And not from other people, I wanna hear it in your own words.”

Jack sighed. “It’s… hard to talk about.”

“I know. But… I want to understand where you’re coming from, Jack.”

He turned the beanie over in his hands a couple of times, staring far through and past it in a way that said he wasn’t looking at it at all, it was just something to keep his hands busy. She was about to give him a pat on the shoulder and reassure him that it could wait for another day when he finally stirred himself, took a deep breath and started talking.

“…I was really… I guess I was angry at her for a long time.” He let out a sad little half-laugh. “How fucked up is that? She was… she was murdered and I was angry at her for it.” His eyes were already getting the distant, bright look of a guy who was gonna cry in the near future. “It’s only been… I only started to work it all out in the last couple of years…”

Miller put an arm around his shoulders. “Still raw, huh?”

He shrugged, and confirmed her prediction by wiping the corner of his eye. “I think it always will be.”

“Tell me about her.”

He paused for a few seconds, thought, then nodded and launched into the saddest goddamn story she’d ever heard..

It began with the words, “She was a lot like you…”


Date Point 15y5m4d AV Peake Lowlands, Northwest of Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Julian Etsicitty

Of all the things Julian had experienced over the winding weirdness that was his adult life, he was beginning to think that the next few minutes were going to qualify among the most traumatic and memory-inducing of them all. Given some of the secret details of his Rite of Manhood with the Ten’Gewek, the bits that neither Professor Hurt nor his women were allowed to witness…that was definitely saying something.

Yan and Vemik didn’t have the faintest clue what to do with soap, and so Julian was going to have to demonstrate like a parent did with their kids. Hopefully, “monkey-see” would be good enough. He shuddered briefly at the thought and snapped back to the present.

[“Hold out your hands, please.”]

They did, warily, and Julian squirted a healthy dollop into their palms. Yan poked at it dubiously with a furrowed brow. “What is this…soap? Made from what?”

Hoeff had more or less pressure-washed all the mud off the cavebros and they were standing in the middle of the parking lot, shivering next to the electric heaters that he had thoughtfully brought out. But the two idiots were so goddamned smelly there was no way on God’s green…Cimbrean…that Julian would allow them into his home.

Time to man up and scrub down.

“Traditionally it’s made from animal fat, and—”

“Really?” Yan dipped his tongue in it experimentally then gagged and spat.

“…But that doesn’t mean it’s food, Yan.”

Yan spat again. “Taste horrible!” he declared. “How you get bad air-taste off with bad soap-taste?”

“You’ll see. Now…I guess, watch me, okay?”

Demonstrating how soap worked. Somehow, that was the least dignified moment in his entire life, which had once included being strapped down naked and afraid to a metal examination table for three straight days.

He sighed, lathered up, scrubbed himself, then Hoeff applied the hose with extra sadistic glee.

Vemik got the idea pretty quickly, and of course started experimenting with it which inevitably led to the discovery of bubbles. If it distracted him enough to get through the ordeal, then who was Julian to complain?

Yan merely looked wet, miserable and grumpy. He gave his limbs a few desultory swipes in a vague imitation of what Julian had done, but mostly just stood there dripping.

Not good enough.

“You rolled in shit, Yan. I’m not going to pretend like I can tell you what to do, but I will absolutely not welcome you into my home if you don’t get clean.”

“…Fine.” This time he was a bit more diligent with his crest. Good thing they had a decent multi-purpose soap on hand. Explaining the difference between soap, shampoo, and conditioner would have been a trip into one of the lower circles of Hell. The really cold one.

Hoeff showed off his unexpectedly thoughtful side again when the towels turned out to be warm. Or maybe that was just because he’d left them next to the heaters. With him it was often hard to tell.

Yan tasted the air once they were dry. “…Flowers? And nuts?”

Hoeff shrugged. “It’s just that Doctor Bronner’s stuff. I dunno, I grabbed it off the shelf.”

“They don’t know who Doctor Bronner is, Chimp,” Julian pointed out.

“…Right, yeah. He’s a complete fucking madman, but he makes great soap.”

Yan grunted. “As you say.”

That was his way of politely saying ‘whatever, bro’ and they knew it, so Julian decided to let the subject drop.

Vemik shook himself out, scrubbed as much water out of his crest as he could manage, shook again then turned his head sideways and thumped water out of his ear. “I don’t like showers.” He reached for his loincloth which Hoeff had hosed while nobody was looking.

“That wasn’t a shower, that was a hosing-down,” Julian corrected him. He grabbed his clean clothes from off the table and jumped into them. “For a shower, we’d have hot water. Much better.”

Hoeff chuckled. “Bah! You soft city boys and your luxuries.”

“…Excuse me?” Julian quirked an eyebrow and half-grinned.

“Oh look at the time, we gotta get going!” Hoeff’s troll-grin was its usual evil best. “Get your freshly-hosed and pampered asses in the van, y’all.”

“You’re gonna pay for that later tonight, Hoeff.”

The van rocked as Yan heaved his way up into it with Hoeff holding the door for him. “Before or after your manicure?”

“After. A man’s gotta enjoy time with his two smokin’ hot girlfriends, after all.”

“…You win this round, Etsicitty.”

The drive back to their home was a short one. Julian spent the time furiously texting Xiù to learn what was going on.

By the time they arrived, he was no longer in a good mood.


Date Point: 15y5m4d AV Hell, Hunter Space

Rachel “Ray” Wheeler

Ray had to give him credit: When Jamie Choi made a spear, he made a hell of a spear.

He’d scavenged some parts from Dauntless to make them, in the form of repurposed and straightened Titanium alloy ribs, dug out from the rigid parts of the ship’s force-carrying structure between the pressure hull and its outer skin. Each was lightweight, stiff and strong, and Jamie had added a kind of cross-shaped reinforcement behind the tip to stop an impaled Hunter from forcing its way down the shaft.

The last step had been to make them sharp enough that Ray could have shaved her legs for the first time in years.

In short, anything getting stabbed by one of those spears was going to stay stabbed, in a big way. If their enemy had been human, Ray might even have felt a frisson of sympathy.

Using those ribs had been a smart choice too—Normally they held up the exterior armor plating, which was rated against micrometeor impacts. Without anything to hold them up, they’d come away easily to form the asked-for shields.

It was a weird collision of space-age and Roman. The shields were oblong, slightly curved and surprisingly lightweight for their size. The straps had been cannibalized from the cargo bay, a few sharp edges had been made safe with seat upholstery and Choi had even worked in a jury-rigged cattle prod.

Having built the spears and shields, Jamie was now spending his afternoons shoulder-to-shoulder with Conley and Cook, drilling with the new weapons. It was a sight that would have brought a nostalgic tear to Ray’s eye if she wasn’t pretty much solid jade by now. Still, it was good to see some of the old camaraderie and teamwork revived.

This was what she’d known would happen.

The surprise was Chase. Holly Chase, who’d always eaten the bare minimum necessary to keep herself alive and no more than that. Holly Chase their tiny, quiet, mousy little mascot had turned into a goddamn lioness. She was forcing down as much Hot as her stomach could hold, hauling her sack truck with its heavy ammo cans over rough ground until she could haul no more, then resting just long enough to let her keep hauling.

Cook had advised her (or rather snapped at her) to lay off for forty-eight hours, and she’d glared at him but listened, and she was pretty obviously suffering now. Ray didn’t want to think how many of her muscles were pulled and what kind of aching agony she had endured, but she was reaching the end of her forty-eight hour break and looked eager to get back to her training.

She was bearing it in silence as Ray, Spears and Berry did a thorough check of their weaponry. The guns were now clean, oiled and ready, and the tedious job of loading ammo into the magazines was underway.

Even Berry was reaping the benefits. His nervous stammer had always been less prominent when he was slightly distracted, such as when he was working with his hands. Tonight, it was about as good as Ray had ever heard it.

“Be honest, guys. How well d-d’you think this plan is gonna work?”

Ray opened her mouth to answer, but was beaten to the punch by Chase.

“Berry… I honestly don’t care at this point,” she said. “One way or the other, I can’t stay here any longer.”

“Fuck the other way, though,” Spears said firmly. “I don’t intend to go at this half-assed.”

“Just so long as it’s not another five years of planning and scouting and making sure everything is perfect,” Ray advised.

“It won’t be. We have motivation and initiative on our side right now. We won’t waste that, I promise.”

“So… b-back to my question, then…” Berry set down a full magazine and picked up one of the empties.

Ray thought about it. “For the fight on the ground to capture that ship… I think we have a solid idea what we’re doing. We storm the ramp while the Hunters are feasting, seize the ship… if we can just lock them out and take off, great, if we have to kill them all first then I think we have everything we need to do that…”

“Ideally, we should just steal the ship and go,” Spears said. “The less fighting we do, the less risk we take. And I don’t care what Cook says.”

“Cook’s on board,” Ray assured him. “We aren’t gonna have a problem with him.”

Berry lowered his magazine and watched the three legionaries training at the other side of their camp. “…You sure? He looks ready t-… to murder everything.”

“You would be too, if you’d had to do his job this whole time,” Ray muttered. “Trust me. He won’t fuck things up. I don’t think anyone will.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“Come on, Berry, we were a team once. We can be a team again for this,” Spears encouraged him.

“And afterwards?” Chase asked.

“I think we’re all gonna go deal with this shit in our own way,” Spears said. “Me, I’m gonna retire to someplace with beaches and clear water and go snorkeling every day.”

“Sounds idyllic…” Ray sighed. “I dunno. It’ll probably involve… I dunno. Somewhere I’m surrounded by people and life and noise and… and a good shower. Or a bath big enough for three.”

“Snowboarding,” Chase said. Suddenly she was a long way away. “I’m gonna go snowboarding. I wanna feel snow on my face again.”

They all looked at Berry, who froze up, tried to say something, gave up and simply shrugged with an apologetic smile.

“Don’t really know, huh?” Spears asked. He smiled when Berry nodded. “Can’t say I blame… you hear that?”

They all went quiet, including the three spearmen. There was definitely the sound of engines on the wind.

They killed the lights immediately. There was no fire to put out—Cook made the Hot in a large metal basin he’d hammered out of deck plating and immersed in a boiling spring—and sprang to their positions.

“Herds?” Spears whispered.

Conley was at his side in moments. “They’re avoiding the area. Four or five hunts in the last month.”

“Shit… Okay, with me.”

They grabbed their weapons, Chase grabbed her truck, and the seven of them slipped away from their camp, out into the maze of canyons that hopefully disguised their presence.

“We’ve been here years, they wouldn’t have found us now of all times, right?” Choi asked. “That’s just…”

“Don’t say it,” Ray advised. Their luck was already apocalyptically bad as evidenced by the mere fact of where they were. She didn’t need an extra jinx on top of that.

They scurried in pairs up the steep steps they’d hand-carved into the sandstone and up to the watch hide. The last up was Cook, helping Chase with the ammo.

One of the big ships was out over the grasslands, patrolling low while greenish-white fans of light strobed across the terrain from its belly. From where Ray was sitting, it looked like a sickly, lazy, dome-backed evil beetle of some kind.

“Spears, if one of those scans comes our way…” Conley hissed.

Spears’ reply was whispered through gritted teeth. “Shut. Up.”

They shrank down instinctively as one of the wandering lights strayed close to their hiding spot. “Close” was relative—it probably passed hundreds of yards away—but the ship was truly immense, as big as an oil tanker or larger. Its sheer mass meant that whatever scientific secrets kept it aloft were shaking the world, deep in Ray’s guts. Something that big just shouldn’t float, so whatever it did seemed immediately on top of them.

There was nothing to do except hold their breath and pray.

There was a resonant change in the air, not a noise but a force felt in the bones, and the ship settled onto a relatively flat patch of land with a devastating seismic THUMP. The sense of immense forces being casually tied in knots around them faded, and a kind of shocked silence replaced it as if the whole planet couldn’t quite believe what it had just witnessed.

Very, very slowly, Ray crept to the front of the hide and used her rifle’s scope to get a better view of the action.

Massive doors were opening along the ship’s flanks, accompanied by the unfurling of ramps as wide as highways….Down which came people.

Not humans, but still definitely people. Ray could hear the panicked shouting, see clothes and capes and satchels and jewelry. There were Domain critters, Vgork, Kwmbwrw, a dozen more she didn’t recognize.

There were some conspicuous absences, though. No Guvnurag, and no Gao that she could see. Very few Corti, no Qinis.

The Hunters seemed to be enjoying themselves, tormenting their new releases. Pulse cannon fire hammered down from all over the ship, carefully aimed to deliberately miss the stampede but hit just close enough to shower them in mud and gravel. Each shot made the panicking mass squeal and try to get away, only to be driven back in the opposite direction by another detonation.

There were an awful lot of them. A football stadiums’ worth at least, maybe two. And Ray could only see the near side of the ship.

“Shit, if any of them head into the canyons…” Conley muttered.

“They’ll find Dauntless,” Choi agreed.

“Shhh!” Chase reminded them. Perhaps unnecessarily considering the immense noise outside, but why take risks?

Ray watched the flood of fleeing aliens turn into a mere river, then a stream, a trickle, a few stragglers whom the Hunters amused themselves by needlessly obliterating. Several hundred definitely had been heading toward the canyons when they left her field of view, but right now that wasn’t important.

The Hunter ship closed its doors. That same basso profundo feeling in the nerves and sinews returned, cranked up until Ray’s teeth were humming with it no matter how hard she clenched them, and it swaggered back into the air. It accelerated in a way that sneered at concepts like gravity, air resistance and mass, and vanished into the night sky almost too quick for her to follow.

In its wake, it left only the panicked, desperate, hopeless moaning of thousands of new damned souls taking their first steps in Hell.

Ray backed away from the front of the hide and turned away.

“Well… Shit,” she said.

Chase had gone pale. “Does this change the plan?” she asked.

“No fuckin’ way, we’re still getting off’a here,” Cook said.

“The hell it doesn’t!” Conley retorted. “I could maybe rationalize throwing one of the old herds under the bus, they aren’t really people any longer. But those out there are—”

“—Are just fresh meat to the Hunters,” Ray interrupted him levelly. “But Conley, what do you think we’re gonna do? Those people out there are unarmed, panicking and desperate. What can we do for them? Lead an insurgency?”

Cook scoffed. “Le French Resistance!”

“That’s La Résistance Française,” Choi corrected him nervously. He shrugged sheepishly when everybody gave him the same ‘is-that-really-important-right-now?’ stare. “…Sorry.”

Spears nodded. “Ray’s right. Those poor bastards have no hope at all.”

“They have one hope,” Ray disagreed. “If we get off this shitheap, maybe we can get some kind of help.”

“Right, like the Dominion or humanity or anyone stand a hope in hell of riding in like the fucking cavalry and saving those people,” Cook said. “Hell of a long shot, Ray.”

“A long shot’s better than no hope.”

Cook shrugged. “Hey. So long as we’re still getting outta here, I’m on board with whatever.”

“There’s still a big difference between sacrificing a few… I dunno. A few animals who could be people versus sacrificing actual people…” Conley said.

Unusually, Berry spoke up. “Needs must.” He shrugged when they all glanced at him. “Omelettes, eggs,” he added.

Ray nodded at him to acknowledge his point. “They’re all dead anyway, Conley. Maybe if we sacrifice a few now, that’ll change. Or maybe, God help me, I’m still willing to do it. If it means anybody gets out of this mess…”

Conley gave her an uncomfortable look. “Ray…”

She shrugged. “Maybe that’s fucking cowardly, I don’t know. And I don’t care. The plan’s unchanged. Right, Spears?”

Spears nodded. “Right.”

They sat and said nothing for a minute. The screaming, braying, hooting and hollering outside had faded to terrified silence.

Chase finally broke the silence. “We should… get back to Dauntless,” she suggested. “Before any of them find it.”

“Good call,” Spears agreed. “Berry, help her get the truck back down.”

Berry nodded.

“And what if some of the newbies have found our camp?” Conley asked.

Cook was already heading back down. “Then I guess we eat well tonight.”

“Cook-!” Chase looked like she was about to throw up.

“Ignore him,” Ray advised.

“But-”

“We all cope with this in our own way, Holly.”

Chase watched him go, then heaved her truck over for Berry to help her. “Are we coping?” she asked.

Ray shrugged.

“We’re still here,” she said, and that at last ended the conversation.

They descended the steps in silence.



++End Chapter 43++



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This chapter was brought to you with the help of:


The SOR Those special individuals whose contributions to this story go above and beyond mere money

Ctwelve,

BitterBusiness,

Sally and Stephen Johnson

Ellen Houston


Twenty-nine Humans

TTTA

SirNeonPancake

Aaron Mescher

Andrew Huang

Anthony Landry

Anthony Youhas

Arsene

Brandon

Capitalskr

Chris Dye

Daniel Morris

Daniel Shiderly

ELLIOTT S RIDDLE

Greg Tebbutt

Gygax Fan

Joseph Szuma

Karthik Mohanarangan

Kolbeinn T.

mudkip201

Nathaniel Phillips

Nicolas Gruenbeck

Rob Rollins

Rodolfo Hernandez

Savvz

Shane Wegner

Theningaraf

Tsanth

Volka Creed

Zachary Galicki


Forty-nine Deathworlders:

galrock0 Austin Deschner Brian Berland Adam Beeman Adam Shields Andrew Ford Aryeh Winter atp Bartosz Borkowski Ben Moskovitz Ben Thrussell C’tri Goudie Cadwah Chris Bausch Chris Candreva Coret Trobane damnusername Daniel R. Dar Darryl Knight Devin Rousso Doules1071HFY Eric Johansson HWPD Ignate Flare Jim Hamrick Jon Krit Barb Laga Mahesa lovot Matt Demm Matthew Cook Mel B. Myke Harryson Nicholas Enyeart Nick Annunziata NightKhaos Oliver Mernagh Parker Brown Patrick Huizinga Peter Bellaby Peter Poole Richard A Anstett Ryan Cadiz Sintanan Stephane Girardin Sun Rendered theWorst Woodsie13

As well as 60 Friendly ETs and 284 Dizi Rats. Special shout-out to my 400th patron, CrowWolf, who joins the squishy purple army!


Thank you for reading!

The Deathworlders will continue in Chapter 44: “Samsara”