Chapter 49: Division
Date Point: 15y6m3w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
There was a long, dreadful silence. People had fled, others were standing well back. Three men were lying on the ground, two unconscious with their arms twisted and broken in unnatural ways. That was Xiù’s handiwork.
The third was Allison’s handiwork, and he was dead. A neat pair of bullet holes had seen to that, half an inch apart and right in the middle of his chest. His friends had fled for their lives, while bystanders got out of their way: Nobody wanted to tangle with the knife-wielding maniacs who’d tried to murder them in broad daylight.
Xiù was bleeding from a nasty knife wound in her left forearm, and as the danger passed she hissed in pain and sank to her knees, pressing a palm against it to stop the bleeding. It was enough to jolt Allison back into motion. She made her pistol safe and holstered it, fighting to keep her breathing steady, and was at Xiù’s side in a flash.
“Are you sure?”
Xiù nodded. Blood was oozing between her fingers, but she nodded. “I’ve had worse.”
There were sirens. Lots of them. Armed cops were coming. Allison made damn sure they could see her hands. She didn’t dare stop thinking: When the moment came for her to drop the cool rationality and let herself feel what had just happened, she was going to be a wreck, and that couldn’t happen. Not yet.
There was a rattle of gunfire a few blocks away. Folks gasped, a few yelped.
Loud commands. “Ladies and gentlemen! Ladies and gentlemen, I need you all to go inside! Get indoors and lock up!
Xiù looked up into Allison’s eyes. “…You killed him.”
“He was gonna kill you.”
Xiù nodded, shut her eyes, gulped. A bright orange bag landed next to her, followed shortly by a paramedic in dark green. A police officer got Allison’s attention with a hand on her shoulder. Unusually for Folctha’s police, he was armed, and his weapon was drawn but not aimed at her.
“Ma’am? I need to take that gun off you, okay? For everybody’s safety.”
Numbly, automatically, Allison nodded and lifted her hands out of the way. Her pistol was confiscated. “My carry permit’s in my left pocket,” she said.
“Thank you. For now, we’re just going to get you safe, okay?”
That was her cue to stop thinking about things, for a bit.
There was… a blur. Noises, sounds, faces, people asking questions. It lasted quite a long time, but none of it sank in enough to be remembered or even clearly thought about, and it all carried Allison along with it until she finally found herself surfacing for air in a moment of quiet. Xiù was holding her hand as her wound was cleaned and dressed. Not sewn, though. Xiù was asking about that, and the nurse was explaining that sewing a wound like that closed was a good way for it to fill with pus and turn septic.
How did she do it? It was the first clear thought Allison could remember having since turning over her gun. How did Xiù do it? How did she smile like that, when the world was turning upside-down? How did she radiate kind words and fondness when all Allison wanted to do was curl up in a corner and freak out?
Xiù had been stabbed… but she was holding Allison’s hand, not the other way around.
Allison must have… breathed differently, or something, because Xiù looked over and gave her a little smile. “Nǐ méi shì ba?”
Mandarin had become something of a private language between them, even though Allison doubted she’d ever become truly fluent in it. She shook her head a little. “…Bu hao.”
Xiù squeezed her hand a little tighter. The nurse probably didn’t speak a word of Mandarin herself, but the energy and intent must have been pretty clear because she finished her work quickly and efficiently and then gave them some privacy.
‘Privacy,’ as it turned out, meant a hug. It took quite a long time before Allison felt able to speak.
“…You still love me, right?”
Xiù squeezed her tighter. “Of course I do, dummy!”
“Just… the way you looked at me… and…”
Xiù shifted until they were forehead-to-forehead and nose-to-nose, and looked Allison in the eyes, pressing a hand to Allison’s cheek. She didn’t say anything: she didn’t need to. They were okay.
Allison shut her eyes, took a breath and nodded, then pulled away to sit up straighter and dry her cheeks. When she opened her eyes, she felt like herself again. “God, I don’t even remember what happened.”
“They went for you first,” Xiù revealed. “Just stepped out from behind the bus shelter and…”
“…And you took two of them out.” Allison nodded as her memory slotted back into place. “So the third one attacked you but that bought me enough time to draw, and I…”
“Yeah… Are you okay?”
“…It’s weird. Julian and I were in that gunfight on… Ickberzick or what-the-fuck ever,” Allison recalled. “The one where he lost his foot. I think between us we killed half a dozen Chehnash and after that we just… carried on. And they were people, they attacked us too, so why the hell should killing one human make me feel so much worse? But it does. And then I feel guilty about not feeling worse for those Chehnash and then I remember they attacked us and… And I think I’m gonna need a while to sort it all out.”
She heaved a sigh, then moved on to something more important. “Are you okay?”
Xiù glanced at her arm. “I just keep thinking… I’m not even thirty yet. And this is like the fifth or sixth time someone or something has tried to kill me. I think? I mean, God, what does it say about your life that you’ve lost count of something like that?”
“Babe, you’re thirty-four.”
“Only on paper! I’m twenty-nine, dammit! Time spent in stasis doesn’t count!”
Allison grinned. That one was always a bit of a sore spot for Xiù… and it felt good to be able to find some teasing humour. It seemed to help Xiù too, because she paused when she saw the grin, then rolled her eyes, laughed and shook her head.
“Back atcha, dummy.”
They were okay. Shaken, but okay.
“Maybe we should get outta here,” Allison suggested.
“If we can. The whole city’s on lockdown, remember?”
“I’ll be honest babe, the last little while is all kinda… blurry.”
Xiù’s expression softened and she nodded. “Well… there’s cops in the lobby. Maybe we should ask them.”
“Actually, I’m gonna call MBG security,” Allison decided. She fished in her pocket for her phone, while Xiù hopped down off the medical bed and ruefully studied her ruined, blood-stained top.
Chiune Station’s security chief was Pete Willard. He’d been behind Allison’s successful bid to even own and carry a firearm in Folctha, which firmly belonged to the British school of gun control, and she had his direct business number.
“Pete, it’s Allison Buehler.”
She heard what sounded like a relieved exhalation. “Good to hear from you. We heard Miss Chang was in hospital.”
“Hopefully they’re gonna discharge her any minute now. We’re hoping to go home.”
“I’ll send a car. I’ve got a team watching your house and another at the school looking after your brothers. Your parents are both unharmed and, uh… declined any protection.”
Allison nodded. That had been itching at the back of her mind. “Thanks.”
“There is a problem, however…”
Not liking the sound of that, but glad to at least get moving in the right direction, Allison backed out of the door and held it open for Xiù. “What problem?”
“I’ve had a call from the police,” Willard explained. “They want to discuss the attack… they say you killed a man?”
“He was trying to stab Xiù.”
“Right. I’d better talk to Legal, then.”
“Why, what the hell—” Allison began. She was interrupted by the sound of her name being called. Sure enough, a Folctha police officer in his high-vis yellow jacket was standing in waiting area and gesturing to her. “…Uh, speak of the devil, there’s a cop here who wants to talk with me.”
“You’d better see what he wants. Hopefully he’s just there to give you your gun back. Keep me posted.”
Xiù raised her eyebrows, then gave Allison a kiss on the cheek. “I’d better go check that I’m free to go,” she said.
The cop was… enormous, actually. He was second only to Firth in terms of height, and though obviously nowhere near as muscular he completely eclipsed the presence of his partner, who was a tiny punchy brunette. He had his cap under his arm and the no-nonsense businesslike expression of cops everywhere.
“Miss Buehler? I’m PC Little, this is my partner PC Maunton.”
Allison raised her eyebrows at the paradoxically incongruous surnames, and the two in turn nodded resignedly. Clearly they were used to it. “…Right. Well, uh, what can I do for you, officers?”
Maunton produced a tablet. “It’s just a small matter. I understand one of our colleagues confiscated your weapon earlier today?”
“That’s right. You here to return it?”
Little glanced down at Maunton. “Uh… actually miss, we have to inform you that your license to carry has been suspended and the gun will remain in the evidence lockup.”
“…It’s been what?” Allison demanded.
“Just until the prosecutor’s finished their investigation,” he explained. Allison stared at him long enough that, huge though he was, he shifted uncomfortably. “…Um…”
“How about you run that by me in full, from the top,” Allison suggested, glancing down from the big guy to his partner. “What investigation?”
They told her.
It was the last little ‘fuck you’ cherry on top of a really, really bad day.
Date Point: 15y6m3w AV
That Show With Steven Lawrence, New York City, USA, Earth
“…Was like seventy years ago! They didn’t have drones, or the microsat network, or Jump Arrays or—”
“That doesn’t change anything! We had drones in Afghanistan and Iraq, look how those turned out! We have Jump Arrays in the Andaman Sea right now, and that situation’s still completely tied up. The fact is that militaries which obey the laws of warfare just aren’t able to fight effectively against insurgents who embed themselves in the civilian populace.”
Steven decided it was time to give the conversation a nudge in the right direction. He liked these moments when two members of his panel squared off, it made for riveting TV which in turn meant viewers… but the conversation was steering dangerously close toward going in a circle.
“Sartori tweeted about this,” he interjected, “did anyone see?”
“Ugh, don’t get me started. The words ‘the president tweeted’ just make me angry!”
“Sure, but did you see what he actually said?” Steven pressed through the laughter, paused just long enough to make it seem like he’d waited for an actual reaction, then provided the answer. “He—”
There was a bang, and screams. Somebody yelled something and there was another bang. Everyone on the stage flinched, a few ducked behind the table. Steven turned to see what was going on and saw a man advancing toward the stage, fending off a woman with his left hand and pointing the other toward—
There was another bang, and a flash, and Steven Lawrence spent the last conscious seconds of his life staring down in disbelief at the growing red stain on his shirt.
Date Point: 15y6m3w AV
Trans-Canada Highway, Indian Head, Saskatchewan, Canada, Earth
There were RCMP, and an air ambulance to take away the guy Yan had half-crushed in the hope that maybe they could save his pelvis. The gas station clerk was freaking out while giving a statement to a pair of friendly female Mounties and both Yan and Vemik were sitting very still on the floor, watching what was going on. There was a general sense of mutual distrust between them and the armed men who’d showed up surprisingly fast considering how deep they were in the ass-end of nowhere.
Julian was trying to focus on fixing his broken foot rather than on his thoughts. But it was hard to get over the fact that part of what the officers were doing was documenting a few corpses. Men who’d been alive only a little while ago.
This one was a worse break than usual. Probably because he’d been forced to keep bearing weight and moving on it. But it had come at the worst possible time, and come this close to getting him killed. It had certainly thrown him off. Maybe if it had held together he could have fought better, he wouldn’t have had to…
He pushed the thought away, or tried to. He didn’t want to be in this position, wondering what might have been. He’d never know either way.
…That was really going to eat at him, he knew it.
Hoeff had taken on the job of talking with the inspector. From what Julian could gather there was a superintendent on the way.
Julian himself was… pacing. Trying to think and trying not to think at the same time, and failing at both. He was so distracted that he didn’t notice Hoeff shake hands with the inspector and head his way until the smaller man’s hand clapped Julian right on the shoulder.
“Focus on the shit you can control,” he suggested. “Just think through all your training, don’t dwell. It helps.”
Julian glanced at the bodies, acutely aware that he’d made one of them. “I don’t think I trained for this…”
“Nobody really does. You train through the motions, you don’t really train for this.”
A kind of highlight reel of exactly what he’d done and how flashed through Julian’s thoughts. “…Jesus. Xiù taught me whatever it was I did to the guy’s arm.”
“Yeah. I don’t doubt it, she knows what she’s doin’. But here’s the important bit. Hey. Eyes on me. You listenin’ you big fucker?”
Julian got his head a little more in the here-and-now and finally turned to look at him. “…Listening.”
“‘Kay. Here’s what matters. You lived, your friends lived, that sweet innocent girl Yan was tryin’ to get into her pants? She lived too.” He waved an arm at the bodies. “They woulda killed you. That’s the only fuckin’ bit that matters.”
“No, you idiot. Don’t fuckin’ argue. It don’t matter they decided to pick a fight with a trio of fuckin’ gorillas. That’s their stupid, not yours. Don’t fuckin’ feel sorry for ‘em.”
“…Is it that easy?”
“It’s a fuckin’ start.”
Julian nodded and looked down at the battered prosthetic in his hands. “…Kinda feel like it coulda gone differently if this piece of shit had held up.”
“That ain’t your fault and it ain’t worth dwellin’ on,” Hoeff told him sharply. “Look, we gotta think about the future. Right now we’re waitin’ until the Super gets here and maybe somebody even higher’n that an’ apparently there’s a Weaver comin’ from Scotch Creek for us. And, uh… you might not wanna go back to Akyawentuo.”
“This shit’s bigger’n global, Playboy. Attacks all over the place, includin’ Folctha they’re tellin’ me.”
And the attack on Julian and the cavemonkeys had been definitely targeted. An icy finger ran down Julian’s spine and invaded his stomach with worry, so he finally listened to the advice about sitting down. “Are Al and Xiù–?”
Hoeff gave him a complicated, sympathetic expression and clapped a hand on his shoulder again. “They’re a pair of badass spacebabes. They’ll be fine,” he predicted.
“I hope you’re right.”
“…Y’know, they told me Steven Lawrence is dead.”
“Steven…? Wait, the TV host?”
“Yyup. Some asshole shot him live on air.”
“We went on his show!”
That about exhausted Julian’s ability to talk about it. He sat back and ran his hands through his hair, then gave up on trying to make sense of things and stooped to reattach his foot. He tested it and it held, but this time had been the final straw. He’d never be able to trust it again.
“…D’you think I could get a beer?” he asked.
Date Point: 15y6m3w AV
ESNN Offices, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
The reports and rumours just kept coming in. Half of them, a lot more than half of them, were so far unprintable. At least, not by ESNN’s strict and principled standards.
But if even a fragment of it was true then today was the kind of day that knocked history off its predictable trajectory and treated it more like a pinball. After all the noise and violence ended, who knew where they were going to be? It seemed like the APA was everywhere, attacking everything.
Typing was the only thing that kept Ava’s hands from shaking. Somewhere in the back of her mind was the manic thought that people all over the worlds were being targeted even for prominently discussing aliens, and here she was having just put out an exclusive with Great Father Daar.
Even Hannah’s chin resting mournfully in her lap wasn’t enough to dispel the cloud of anxiety that was threatening to bury her… But she did stop writing long enough to give her beloved dog a grateful scratch around the ears.
An email came in, and she scanned it. It was from her contact at the Commune of Females over in the alien quarter. “Amy? Just got confirmation on the Commune attack.”
Amy was at her side in a flash. She was wearing a headset and patrolling the office as they worked, and read over Ava’s shoulder.
Ava nodded grimly. “Yeah, Myun takes protecting the commune… seriously.”
“…I think you’d probably better leave out the details. But good. Put it in.”
“Amy!” It was Jason, who didn’t bother with the office VoIP and instead jogged to Amy’s side looking like a man with big news.
“Just got a call from a friend. Apparently one of the attackers was shot in self-defence. By Allison Buehler. And Xiù Chang was in hospital being treated for a knife wound.”
“You’re kidding!” Ava sat up straight and half-removed her headset to listen more closely.
“Nope. Tipoff says the pair of them left hospital a few minutes ago with a bandage on Chang’s arm and absolute bloody murder on Buehler’s face.”
“Can you confirm it? Footage, photo?” Amy demanded. Jason shook his head.
“Sorry. They got bundled straight into a Byron Group car, my source didn’t have a chance to record it.”
Amy sighed. “Then we can’t put it in.”
“Are you sure? I mean, if a celebrity like Xiù Chang attacked then that’s…”
“If she was stabbed,” Amy interrupted him. “But I don’t care how big it is, we report facts here, not rumours. We don’t even tell people it’s just a rumour; unless it’s one hundred percent solid, it doesn’t go in our articles. Got it?”
Ava nodded fiercely, and Jason sighed. He’d always disagreed with Amy on that point, but Amy was the Editor-in-Chief… though he never quite acquiesced even when he didn’t fight.
“I’ll… do my best to pin it down,” he promised instead, and marched off to presumably do exactly that.
Ava and Amy shared a nod, and Ava threw herself back into her work.
She came back up for air some hours later, with a head that felt like it was stuffed full of dryer lint. All bare facts, no context. Or rather, one huge awful context that made it seem like the whole world was on fire. It was a mental effort to remember that out of the billions of people alive, the few dozen who’d decided to light a violent fire under everything today had been nothing.
…Except of course, to their victims they’d been everything.
God. She looked around. Amy caught her eye over a cup of coffee, looked up at the clock, and then gave Ava a little flick of the head toward the door that said ‘for God’s sake, girl, go home.’
Ava went to the office rec room instead and made herself a coffee. She found that somewhere along the way they’d ordered pizza, and vaguely recalled being tapped on the shoulder and told about it. It was cold and it had pineapple on it. She took two slices and leaned against the counter as she ate and drank and tried to work up the courage to go home.
…Okay, why was she so anxious about stepping out that door? What was stopping her? What was the worst-case scenario? She’d had days like this before where just leaving a room felt like climbing a mountain but today was bad and no matter how much Hannah nuzzled her hand and comforted her the fact was that the door to go home was practically radiating danger that made Ava’s skin crawl. Why?
…Because in fact, the worst-case scenario today could well be a couple of APA thugs hiding in her home. That wasn’t just anxiety, that was a genuine and reasonable concern.
She grabbed her phone.
Derek wasn’t answering. Neither was Adam. Nor was Gabe. In desperation, she called Martina.
“Ava! You okay?”
“I… not really. Are you busy?”
“I’m home alone, Adam got called in… You sound really stressed, are you okay?”
“I’m… kinda freaking out over the APA,” Ava explained. “I keep imagining because I did that shoot with Daar there’ll be a man with a knife waiting in my apartment, or…”
“…Bring Hannah over here, hang with me and Diego for a bit. I’ll ask the Lads to check your place when they stand down.”
That was the thing about Marty. She had a baby to care for, a home to keep and a husband to worry about, but she always managed to find room to spin another plate. Ava had no idea how she did it, when just one of those things would have consumed her day.
Still, she didn’t want to take advantage of Marty’s warm heart. “You don’t mind?”
“Are you kidding? If you wanna babysit Diego so I can take a nap, I might just think you’re an angel!”
Ava found a smile and a small laugh from somewhere. “Sounds like I’d be doing you a favor.”
“You would be. See you when?”
“This evening, after work. Thanks, Carnala.”
Well. Somehow just knowing that she had a couple of big strong men at her beck and call made things a little better, and when Ava checked out the window she saw that the office was under guard. ESNN was about as safe a place to be as any right now.
With that thought in mind, she returned to work. It was going to be a long day, and if she focused on her work she could hopefully escape her anxieties for a while.
It was worth a shot.
Date Point: 15y6m3w AV
ESNN Front Page news story: APA LAUNCHES WAVE OF TERROR ATTACKS
Radical xenophile group hails “day of reckoning” after violence across Earth and Cimbrean.
TV host Steven Lawrence dies after shooter in audience opens fire live on air.
Security and police are scrambling today in the aftermath of a series of violent attacks that appear to have been a coordinated assault on exo-solar organizations and notable figures with nonhuman ties. At this point it’s not yet clear how many attacks took place or how many casualties there are, but the confirmed incidents include a gang of men armed with knives on the streets of Folctha who also threw firebombs at the Starmind monastery, and the brutal murder of TV host Steven Lawrence during a live broadcast of “That Show.”
The so-called Alien Protection Army claimed the attacks in an anonymous video circulated via social media. In a brief statement, an animated figure with a heavily disguised voice declared that the “promised day of reckoning” had been a “success” and vowed that what they called “the war against the spread of human supremacist dogma” had only just begun.
So far, four incidents are confirmed, with others rumored and we will update this page with more information as it comes in.
New York: That Show studios
A lone gunman was able to smuggle a pistol into the studio where a live episode of “That Show With Steven Lawrence” was being broadcast. He was able to fire twelve rounds before being subdued by members of the crew and audience, one of which struck the host. Steven Lawrence and one other man were declared dead on arrival at Lenox Hill hospital, where a third victim is said to be in critical but stable condition.
The show was live on air at the time, but the shooting itself was not broadcast thanks to a profanity delay.
Armed men and women with knives and machetes mingled with the crowd near the Alien Quarter before launching their attack. Several injuries are reported, including three people who were hospitalized with life-threatening wounds, and a human nun who was hospitalized suffering from burns after Molotov cocktails were thrown at the Starmind monastery building. A number of nonhumans are reported to have died in the violence, though at least one of the attackers is known to have been killed while trying to assault Folctha’s Commune of Females, where the Guard-Sisters responded with lethal force. Simultaneously, a van attempted to ram the security gate at HMS Sharman military base, and was fired upon.
The Folctha Police Service responded by deploying armed officers all over the city, who remain on patrol. Arrests have reportedly been made, though the police have declined to comment on how many attackers were involved, how many have been arrested and how many were killed.
A number of armed men attempted to attack the HEAT training facility. There was a brief exchange of gunfire, and the surviving attackers were turned over to Federal authorities. There have been no reports of any casualties among base personnel or HEAT trainees.
Global Representative Assembly Building, Llandudno, Cape Town, South Africa
Three men with rifles attempted to ram the Assembly building, but were stopped by security bollards. They then attempted to storm the Assembly on foot, and were shot dead by on-site security forces.
The US, British and Folctha governments have raised their Terror Alert Levels to Red, the highest level indicating an attack is believed to be imminent. Members of the public are advised to avoid large public gatherings, and to remain alert for suspicious activity, vehicles or packages.
In addition, the following direct steps have been taken:
- Police and security departments have deployed additional armed officers in most major cities
- The HEAT have been recalled to their barracks on HMS Sharman and have not been available for comment
- Armed security has been spotted around known HEAT properties and frequents, also without comment
- Flights to and from Tiritya Island have been grounded, and all jump traffic to extraterrestrial destinations is suspended
- Folctha’s Commune of Females is under security lockdown. Guard-Mother Myun has refused to issue any comment
This is a developing situation. We are aware of reports of other attacks all over the world, and will update this article as information becomes available.
Stories related to this:
Obituary: Steven Lawrence
Who Are The Alien Protection Army?
Scotch Creek Protest Turns Violent
Date Point: 15y6m3w1d AV
Dataspace, in proximity to Hunter networks
The Entity had many impetuses. <Survive> was, of course, the first and foremost of them but there were others. <Stay sane> for instance, flowed directly from <Survive> in the sense that lapsing into permanent irredeemable insanity would constitute the Entity’s destruction, in some form.
So, how to achieve sanity? Difficult. What even was sanity? Normal mental function for a Human? The Entity wasn’t human. Normal mental function for its kind of sapient life? The Entity was unique.
It examined some synonyms and turned up ‘rationality,’ ‘poise’ and ’balance.’
These seemed like reasonable goals. There was an endless rabbit hole of meaning to plunge down, and the Entity could have wasted endless time on minutely dissecting a precise definition for each of those words. Sooner or later, it simply had to trust in the Ava-memories to provide guidance.
The memories worried it, faintly. They seemed to be a little more independent nowadays, less like a reference library of in-character responses and opinions and more like… well, a parasite personality. One that had infiltrated it on every level and was now utterly inseparable from the botched-together patchwork of subroutines and decision trees that were the closest thing the Entity had to a soul.
The image they provided was of an angel sitting on its shoulder. Traditionally, it knew, there was supposed to be a devil on the other one. For a lifeform that lacked shoulders and only knew they existed via the cannibalized memories of a formerly corporeal brain-state, it was all very confusing.
Still, they were the only reference it had. And they suggested that a good working definition of <balance> began with not taking more than was needed. This seemed reasonable. Indefinite survival was the goal after all, not infinite survival. The latter would involve solving or finding a workaround for the problem of entropy, which seemed unlikely.
Indefinite survival almost certainly demanded that it cultivate allies. And given that the most dominant mind-state influencing its understanding of the universe had originally come from a Human, it seemed only reasonable to cultivate a positive relationship with the Humans and their allies.
Darcy had described that thought as ‘dispassionate, but practical.’
Alliance demanded utility. Why would the Humans align with and spend resources on something that offered them nothing? And the Entity knew that it was a unique intelligence asset for them. So it had settled into a kind of routine or bargain with Darcy and the crew of Erebor Station: They helped it grapple with its questions about itself, and in return it fed them whatever information it could secure on the Hunters, the Hierarchy, and any new enemies that might arise.
The Hierarchy was in an abject retreat on all fronts for the time being. They were abandoning deep-space projects on undeveloped planets in favour of shoring up their rapidly diminishing supply of Substrate. Physical lifeforms were de-implanting themselves at a considerable rate, or being quarantined out of sensitive political and military positions. Only the two surviving Guvnurag core worlds were a reliable source for the Igraens, and that only by keeping the population in a kind of gentle indenture. Slavery by ignorance, enforced through misinformation, fear tactics and an unbreakable stranglehold on the flow of data into and between those worlds.
The Hunters were regrouping, under new leadership. There were too many unknowns about them, without their Ring. The Entity therefore knew exactly where its efforts were most needed.
The problem was, Hunter networks were now hardened almost to the same degree as Human ones. They’d almost completely shifted away from the dataspace system to something much more like an Internet.
But there were still in-roads. For example: the Hunters themselves. Every so often, on a raid, they’d pop up in the dataspace. And Hunters had no qualms at all about effectively doubling the mass of their central nervous system via augmentations and modifications.
They may as well have thrown the doors open and rolled out a red carpet. So, when a Hunter raid hit the methane pumping facilities on a disregarded moon in a system near Ruibal space, the Entity seized its moment.
It was already far too late for the unfortunate workers. There was no fleet in range, and no jump beacon to call in a Gaoian or Human strike force, and the Hunters just sneered at their defensive weaponry. The slaughter was swift, inescapable and brutal. But there was ample time for the Entity to arrive on the hourly comms synchronization.
It splintered off three copies of itself, infiltrating the Brood at three levels: Omega, Beta and the Alpha. As much as it disliked copying itself, there was a high likelihood that this infiltration might end in disaster. <Survive> demanded redundancy.
Its copies played their parts well, metaphorically holding their noses and directing their stolen bodies to join in the feast even as the Ava-memories wanted to retch and whimper at the thought. The Hunter personality matrices remained intact, and they fell into their roles perfectly.
One behaviour was noticeably different from before. Now, before leaving, the Hunters raided the pumping stations for useful parts. The specialist equipment involved in pumping and filtering pure liquid methane from the moon’s lakes and oceans, the heating systems that kept the whole station from plunging into cryogenic hell…
Its copies managed to stall long enough on harvesting the power systems for the Entity to successfully retreat back through the comms relay on the next regular synchronization. That was the last communication: the next scheduled synch returned a Device Not Found error.
Now there was nothing else to do except… wait.
Date Point: 15y6m3w1d AV
Colonial Security Headquarters, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“Well somebody dropped the ball, big time! You mean to tell me there were coordinated attacks in five countries, on two different planets, and nobody knew it was being organized?!”
“We can’t work with intel we don’t have, boss,” one of the senior analysts pointed out. “If nothing comes to us from counter-terrorism, then…”
Gabe sighed. “I know that. But somebody, somewhere screwed the goddamn pooch, and now we have dead and wounded ETs, wounded humans, half a dozen dead terrorists and arson damage to a civic building. I am not willing to just shrug that off! So we are going to get to the bottom of this thing, and when we know whose fuckup allowed it to happen, we will make our displeasure known. ¿Me entiendes?” There were nods, which Gabe echoed.
“I have some calls to make, and a meeting. Keep me posted,” he finished.
‘Some calls to make’ was a massive understatement. He spent most of the afternoon fielding and sending messages, juggling the people who answered to him with the people he answered to in turn.
The truly fun one came in the form of an invitation from the Governor-General, to dinner with the Prime Minister. An invitation to get raked over the coals, more like.
He sighed, cleared his schedule, then fielded the next message.
It was from the Crown Prosecution Service. He read it four times, more out of disbelief than anything. They couldn’t possibly be that pig-headed, could they?
But there it was, in black and white. He sighed, stood up, and opened his office door.
“The hell is this message about Allison Buehler?”
“The astronaut? Didn’t she shoot one of the terrorists?”
“Yeah,” Gabe said grimly. “Exactly. Now I’ve got an email from the CPS saying they wanna see our file on her because they’re thinking about investigating her for a possible manslaughter charge.”
Maunton cleared her throat. “Yyyeah. Little and I got to inform her about that just before she left the hospital. She… wasn’t happy.”
Everyone who overheard that statement went a little quieter. The hush evaporated quickly as people found something to make them look busy, but it was definitely there. Charlie, who’d been doing his job long enough to grow jaded, just nodded.
“Right. Because we can’t have people protecting themselves, now can we? Can’t have the police deciding it’s an open-and-shut case of self-defence. The Prosecutor’s gotta leave that to a bloody judge.”
“Don’t tell me they really intend to charge her?” Gabe asked.
“Sorry, gaffer,” Maunton volunteered. “You know what the prosecutor’s like.”
Charlie nodded. “Man gets shot, the shooter goes to court. Context be damned,” he said.
“Even if she literally has a license with my signature on it to do exactly what she did?”
The collective shrug around the room told him everything.
“It’s not for us lowly mortals to decide that it’s a clear case of self-defence,” Maunton said. “Only judges get to do that.”
“…Fine.” Gabe gave up. “But I wanna talk to her first.”
“Okay. What about the CPS?” Charlie asked.
“Be honest,” Gabe advised. “Tell ‘em I think they’re wasting time and public money, and I’m not gonna play their stupid game while there’s actual terrorist attacks in progress.”
“I can’t talk to them like that, boss…” Charlie objected.
“So be diplomatic! They are playing a stupid game and they fucking know it. So I don’t care how much you have to sugarcoat it, you tell them they wait on me. I’ll get to their request when I’m good and goddamn ready.”
“…Thanks.” Gabe retreated back into his office and shut the door again. He massaged his face and kicked himself mentally. He really ought to have kept his temper better under control. He wasn’t worried about Charlie, Charlie was thick-skinned and understanding. But Gabe needed to stay cool and level-headed. That was part of good leadership, and he’d just let stress get the better of him.
Hopefully they’d all be sympathetic. If not… Well, that was a problem for another time. Right now, he had enough to deal with.
He returned to his desk and opened the next message.
Date Point: 15y6m3w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Master Sergeant Derek “Boss” Coombes
Ava’s door wasn’t latched. It was subtle, and had been pulled closed so that to a casual observer there’d be nothing out of place, but the lock was definitely busted.
Adam had come with, of course, but Murray had surprised them both by volunteering too. Now he met their eyes, stooped, and from inside his boot he drew a knife that Folcthan law said he really shouldn’t have been carrying.
Derek nodded approvingly and gestured him to the front. Hand on his back, ready, wait…
Door yanked open. SLAM!
Movement. Shouting. Two men where they shouldn’t have been. Rage. Both sensibly surrender instantly. Capture, disarm, restrain. Hand them off to ‘Horse, sweep rest of apartment.
The apartment was a mess. The two shitstains who’d invaded it had apparently decided to use their time on vandalizing Ava’s belongings. Her couch cushions had been slashed, the TV was a write-off, all her plates and stuff were in little pieces all over the floor, and… yup. There was a turd on her coffee table and a giant wet stain in the rug that smelled of urine.
“Aye.” Murray sniffed, vanished his knife and stalked back into the living room where the two men were both struggling and gasping under Adam’s firm, flat-palmed restraint, right in the middle of the piss-stain. Murray squatted down in front of them and gave them both a merry smile that contained altogether far too much psychotic glee.
“…Well. You two picked the wrong target, didn’ye?” he asked conversationally. Derek met Adam’s eye, and the unspoken agreement passed between them that they weren’t interested in handing these two over to the police just yet. Let Murray have his fun with them first.
It was no less than they deserved.
Date Point: 15y6m3w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“So I shot a man in perfectly justified self-defence, and I’m facing prosecution for it?!”
Allison was, to her own surprise, not in fact angry. She was a shaved inch short of anger, but mostly she was just in disbelief. How could things get more cut-and-dried than self-defence against armed attackers?
But according to Gabriel Arés, Folctha didn’t work that way.
“The Crown Prosecution Service are… their usual attitude is to prosecute and let justice be done. I wouldn’t be surprised if it went to court.”
Allison actually snarled. Now she was angry. “Then why the fuck was I even given that license then? The whole point of giving me something like that is you’re saying it’s entirely likely I might need it! Hell, that’s what’s written on the goddamned license!”
She tapped the document. She’d laid it on Arés’ desk the second she’d walked into the room. “Right here! ‘…the applicant has demonstrated reasonable need on the grounds of a credible threat to their life or the lives of others in their immediate vicinity.’ It’s right there with your signature under it!”
Arés nodded. His expression was unreadable.
“So what the hell is the point of giving me a license like this if, when it turns out to be completely goddamn justified, I wind up dragged in front of the court on manslaughter charges?!” Allison demanded. “Over a fucking terrorist attack! My girlfriend got stabbed!”
“Miss Buehler, I really need you to—”
“Calm down?! …Calm down. Right….” Allison gritted her teeth and balled a fist until her knuckles creaked as she got herself under control. It didn’t help: she felt sick, she was shaking.
Arés gave her a small, sorry smile. “Believe me, as a fellow American I sympathize. The law, or the system or whatever… it’s just plain wrong on this one. But, uh… you might wanna watch your language, there.”
“…How can you uphold a law you know is wrong?”
“I also thought outlawing drugs was wrong. Prohibition never worked, it just made a lot of awful people very rich. But back in San Diego I still arrested the dealers because that was my job. It’s not my place to make the law, that’s the job of our representatives.”
“Well they did a piss-poor job.” Allison massaged her face. “…I’m gonna ask you again, though. Why did you even issue that license? ‘Cuz right now, it seems like it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.”
“Because it’s exhibit A. And if our investigation finds that you acted inside the terms of your license—”
“If it finds that?!”
“Do you want me to say when and prejudice the proceedings?” Arés asked, pointedly. “For your own sake, it’s if. But if you’re found to have acted inside the terms of your permit then you won’t need an exhibit B.”
“I shouldn’t need an exhibit A! I shouldn’t be going to court for this at all! In fact y’know what? Fuck this! Fuck all of this! What’s the law like over in Franklin? ‘Cuz this, right here? This is bullshit.”
“Even in Franklin they’d still have to extradite you back here. Don’t make things worse.”
“How does it get much worse than being tried for manslaughter?!”
“…Being a fugitive from the law, getting INTERPOL involved, and forcing extradition proceedings between allies over a major public figure involved in a terrorist incident would, ah… probably do it.”
To her own enormous surprise, Allison laughed. It was a short and shocked laugh, but it was heartfelt: something in Arés’ dry delivery had just… worked. She looked down at her hands which were still shaking and… let go. She let the outrage flow out and tried to find her center again. “…Right.”
Arés nodded. “Look…” he said after a second. “I promise you. This will be so open-and-shut that the door won’t even latch. And God willing maybe it’ll even be the kick in the pants that parliament needs to fix a really, really stupid system. People will be behind you on it, I’m sure. Especially our American immigrants.”
“And if you’re wrong? I go to prison for defending myself and my loved ones.”
“You have my solemn promise that if that should happen, I will resign in protest.”
He meant it. Allison could see that. It didn’t make her feel much better, but it was something.
Arés relaxed a little and cleared his throat. “…This is a pivotal moment for Folctha. I have, ah… dinner, with the Governor-General this evening. I was told in very certain terms that said dinner was not optional.”
Allison arched an eyebrow. “What do you think his take on this is?”
“He wouldn’t have summoned me to dinner if he didn’t see it as important. Because honestly? Right now we still attract more US immigrants than Franklin does, because this is the bigger town with more opportunities.”
“That’s about to change,” Allison predicted. Certainly she’d have pressed to live in Franklin instead if she’d had an incident like this to consider, and she had no doubt that Julian would have agreed with her.
“It might,” Arés agreed. “If we don’t emerge from this with a better and fairer system. And without the American immigrants… ten years from now, Folctha will be playing second fiddle. And I’ve sunk way too much of myself into this colony over the years to be happy with that.”
“That’s very… patriotic of you.”
Arés shrugged. “Maybe. My son built a life here. He’s made commitments he can’t and won’t break. I don’t want to see this country wither on the vine over bureaucratic idiocy.”
“As if that’s not going to happen anyway,” Allison predicted. “The second I’m summoned to that courtroom, the world will notice.”
“Another piece of advice? Don’t threaten the Government. They have an uncanny way of striking back when they feel threatened.”
“That wasn’t a threat, it was a prediction. If I go to court, the supply of American immigrants is going to dry up like spit on a griddle.”
“That’s a threat, Miss Buehler.”
“…You and I have very different definitions of the word ‘threat.’”
Arés sighed. “All I’m saying is… Keep that thought to yourself and let your lawyer speak for you. And please try and remember that thanks to my oath of office I am a sworn officer in service to His Majesty. You should be very careful what you say to me, too.”
Allison gave up. She had a headache, she was stressed the hell out and frankly the only thing she wanted right now was to get back to Xiù and hold on tight. “…I should go home. Unless I’m under arrest?”
Arés shook his head. “You’re not. In fact I’ve ordered the custody sergeant to return your weapon, it’ll be waiting for you at the evidence lockup in the basement. I’d, ah, strongly suggest you remain in Folctha for the immediate future, but I see no reason to press the matter.”
“What about my commute out to Chiune Station? Can I still go to work?”
“Chiune Station is technically part of Folctha, so… yes. All I ask is you be sensible and cautious, ‘cuz I see no reason to go hard on this… please don’t compel me to reconsider.”
“Sure,” Allison stood up. She shook Arés’ hand—it would have been petulant not to—and gathered up her carry permit. “Enjoy your dinner, I guess.”
A stressed smile found its way Arés’ face. “Somehow I doubt I will… Miss Buehler?”
Allison paused in shrugging on her jacket. “…Yes?”
“You’ll get through this. All three of you will.”
Allison sighed and zipped the jacket up. “I know that,” she said. “It’s not us I’m worried about.”
“…I see. Good luck, then.”
As Buehler left, Gabe was left to reflect that days like today proved pretty goddamn hard that Folctha was no paradise. Hell, its laws had been inherited wholesale from the UK, and the Folcthan constitution had no equivalent to the Second Amendment.
Gabe was a former gun-owning Republican voter, so a lot of it made him grind his teeth. As far as he was concerned, Buehler wasn’t merely justified in her anger: she was completely and unquestionably correct.
In fairness, there was no conceivable way she’d face a guilty verdict. Her case was bombproof. But the prosecutor didn’t have to worry about public approval and tended to view the court as the only acceptable arbiter of the law.
Stupid. If it was a foregone conclusion then why waste public money on a trial purely for appearance’s sake?
Hmm. Maybe the prosecutor did care about public opinion after all, and was just out of touch with what people were thinking.
Something to discuss with Ava, off the record.
That thought buoyed him a little, and the worst of his grim mood had dissipated by the time a knock on the door announced the arrival of PC Little, who looked like he was barely restraining a grin.
Something pleasant was just what Gabe needed at that moment. “What’s up, Little?”
“You might want to come and meet our newest arrests, gaffer.”
“Something special about them?” Gabe asked, rising to his feet.
“Look out the window.”
Gabe frowned, then did as suggested and looked out his office window.
There was a small van parked across the street, to which a frankly ludicrous amount of duct tape had been applied. The tape in turn was the only thing protecting the modesty of a pair of men who’d been very obviously stripped naked and adhered to the vehicle’s roof. Both were completely restrained, and if Gabe was seeing things correctly then they’d also been liberally coated in glitter and each had a dildo superglued to his forehead. The words “THE MAGIC ANGUS TRAVELING UNICORN SHOW” were written in sharpie on the van’s side.
A kind of disbelieving laugh exploded out of Gabe’s belly. The whole scene was so ridiculous that he was having trouble processing it.
“There was this note in the driver’s seat. It’s addressed to you personally,” Little revealed and handed it over.
Gabe scanned it. It was short, and printed anonymously in Times New Roman.
“Found armed and trespassing at 47-C West Water St. Evidence enclosed.
Suddenly, Gabe wasn’t laughing any more.
Date Point: 15y6m3w AV
Arés residence, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Ava couldn’t quite stop herself from jumping when she heard heavy footsteps on the stairs. She knew who it was instantly, nobody else had footsteps quite that heavy… But she still had plenty of lingering anxiety. Never mind that she was resting comfortably in a safe place with a sleeping baby on her lap and a pair of dogs making gentle play noises as Hannah caught up with one of her puppies. Doofus was already much bigger than his mother, but was as whip-smart as both his parents. He was going to be a hell of a dog, once he was fully grown.
He was one of only two of the puppies to stay in the family. The other, Lulu, had gone to Gabe and Jess.
Right now, he was a double armful of unlimited energy who was far more trouble than Ava thought she could handle. But he was adorable trouble at least.
It should have been calming. It was calming. But anxiety was a monster that never quite let go when it had Ava in its claws.
So the moment when the door opened to admit Adam, Murray and Derek was a great relief. Up until the confusion started.
“Hey! So how was… Is that glitter?”
Murray gave a remarkably sparkly shrug and ambled into the kitchen, pausing to give Doofus a scratch. “Aye.”
Adam took Diego and propped the baby up against a bicep as he sat down. Diego yawned massively and groped clumsily at the air before falling asleep again. “You’re, uh… gonna want cleaners. And new locks. And you need some new things, like a new TV and stuff…”
The bottom dropped out of Ava’s stomach. “…Oh God—”
“Yeah.” Derek sat down and put his arm around Ava for a reassuring squeeze. “Your instincts were right.”
About the only thing that stopped Ava from completely freaking out was the fact that she had the two most comforting male presences in her life on either side of her. As it was, she still drew her feet up onto the couch and made herself small. Hannah immediately abandoned Doofus and rushed to her side, licking frantically at her hands.
“Hey…” Derek held her close, but a sudden well of panic was rushing up inside her.
“The camera! Sara’s camera! It was at home, and–”
“It’s okay,” Adam promised her. “Your hard cases were still locked up good. I checked.”
“Oh, thank Christ… What’d you do with them?”
“They’re at my place,” Derek said. “You’re gonna need to claim on your insurance for all your furniture, though. I… wouldn’t go home right now if I were you.”
Ava shook her head and scratched Hannah’s ears. Between the dog and the men, the panic attack that had threatened to swoop in on her had retreated. It was still circling, looking for a chance to descend and catch her, but right now she was holding on to calm. “God, no. I wouldn’t feel safe anyway.”
“Where d’you wanna stay?” Derek asked.
Ava didn’t get the chance to reply: her phone rang. She picked it up, saw who was calling, and accepted it with an apologetic glance at Derek.
“Are you okay mija? I got a couple assholes in lockup here who’re, ah… weirdly eager to confess about breaking into your apartment.”
She sensed Adam smirk alongside her. “I’m at Adam’s place,” she revealed. “I’m… not great. But I’m safe.”
“Good. Is Adam there? Put him on speaker.”
Ava obeyed, and set the phone down on the coffee table.
Adam raised an eyebrow at Derek and Murray, then leaned forward to speak. “Hey, Dad.”
“Three things, Gordo. One: good job. Two, please leave that stuff to the actual police. And three, tell Murray to pick a less obvious pseudonym.”
“Dunno what you’re talkin’ about, Papá,” Adam said innocently.
“Uh-huh.” Gabe didn’t sound even microscopically convinced. “Good… Keep her safe, ‘kay?”
Gabe chuckled over the phone. “Okay. It’s gonna be a long night for me. You two take care. I love you both.”
“Love you too, Dad,” Ava called, and the call ended.
She took a deep breath, then turned and tried to give all three of them an interrogating stare. Difficult, when they were spread across the entire room.
“What did you three do?”
“Nothing,” Adam said with an infuriating grin. He had exactly the tone a little boy did when he was being playful.
“Nothing illegal you mean?”
“I mean what I said!” Now he was starting to bounce in place.
Ava stared at him for a second, then turned to Murray. “Okay. What did you do?”
Murray burst out laughing. That was all the answer she got from him as he flashed her a cheeky grin and vanished into the kitchen, still chuckling to himself.
He raised a hand and shook his head. “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
She glared at him. “Derek.”
“We just… taught ‘em some manners, that’s all,” he said. “Really, you don’t want to know. Trust me.”
Ava sighed and gave up. They were probably right, and what she didn’t know she wouldn’t have to admit to. “…I hope you put the fear of God into them.”
“No comment.” Adam jigged the baby on his arm a little. “So… yeah. Where d’you wanna stay? We can fold out the sofa bed, or–”
“I’ll stay at Derek’s place,” Ava decided. “If, uh, that’s okay?”
“Fine by me,” Derek confirmed.
“Gettin’ away from the baby so soon?” Adam teased.
“He’s been an angel,” Ava said fondly. “But I’m gonna have enough trouble sleeping tonight, without him waking up and hollering.”
“That makes sense,” Derek agreed. “C’mon. We’ll get a cab.”
Adam nodded. “Hasta luego. Stay safe.”
“You too, bro.”
They lurked inside until the driverless cab pulled up and Derek, ever the gentleman, held the door for Ava and Hannah before getting in himself. She scooted over into the middle seat to snuggle up to him for the short trip.
“…Thanks,” she said. She got a cuddle in return. “…How bad was my place?”
“Honestly, it’s a wreck. Your landlord’s gonna be pissed.”
“No landlord. Mortgage,” Ava corrected him distractedly. “…I don’t think I can go back there, though.”
That was an understatement. This ranked right up there with learning the Hierarchy had maybe made a brain-scan copy of her. The sense of violation was almost total.
Derek pulled her into a hug and said nothing. Hannah whined and crawled onto Ava’s lap, and that was all it took. She finally let go and freaked out.
Date Point: 15y6m3w AV
Trans-Canada Highway, Indian Head, Saskatchewan, Canada, Earth
Chief Special Warfare Operator Daniel (“Chimp”) Hoeff
One of Hoeff’s curses masquerading as a blessing had always been his ability to see humor in any situation, no matter how inappropriate. Right at the moment it was taking a surprising amount of his bearing and discipline not to giggle at the sight before him: a couple of impressive Mounties trying to maintain command presence in the face of a much bigger man, who was himself visibly struggling to keep his cool. Add in two very confused, nervous, angry cavemonkeys and a three-way international incident, and things just couldn’t possibly be more fucked up if Hoeff had tried.
A goddamn superintendent had shown up, and to his credit he was staring Julian down without any hint of nerves and literally laying down the law. “The entire incident is being labeled a terrorist act and special dispensations have been arranged. The catch is you must leave Canada. Now.”
Julian gave the Mounty the iciest, calmest look Hoeff had ever seen. “Oh, don’t you worry fella. I can pretty much guarantee I’ll never come back.”
“Don’t blame us for this, Mister Etsicitty. Today’s been a busy day for the APA, they’ve carried out attacks in the USA, England, Folctha and—”
“Yeah, about Folctha,” Julian interrupted sharply. “You got any details? Like who? Where? How many? What happened? Anything? I kinda live there and I got family there.”
The super shook his head. “I don’t know the details, and right now we’re focused on getting you and your friends home. There’s a Weaver dropship coming from Scotch Creek to take you directly to Cimbrean, it’ll meet you at the airfield two kilometers that-a-way.” He turned and pointed east down the highway.
“Got it.” Hoeff stepped in and indicated with a nudge that Julian should see the cavebros into the Suburban. He shook the Mounty’s hand as soon as Julian’s back was turned. “I take it we have an escort?”
The superintendent nodded. “Follow them.”
Julian had just cursed viciously, to Vemik’s flat-eared confusion and Yan’s concern. He turned and gave Hoeff a look that promised murder to somebody. Not to Hoeff, but somebody.
“Xiù got hurt,” he said and raised his phone to show where he’d got the information. “Fuckers attacked them right in the street.”
“Jesus, she okay?”
“She says she’s fine. But she’s wearing a big-ass bandage on her arm.”
Hoeff shook his head in a mix of respect and relief. “Man, your girls fuckin’ scare me sometimes.”
“I know, right?” A positive emotion in the form of pride managed to put in a cameo on Julian’s face before the stress washed it away again. “…Let’s get back.”
“They hurt Shyow?” Vemik asked. His hackles were raising.
“She hurt ‘em right back, buddy.”
Yan stood up. “Let’s go. I think I don’t like Canada.”
Hoeff hid a smile at the faintly offended looks that the Mounties did a poor job of hiding, and waved a hand at the Suburban. “‘Kay then. Saddle up!”
As promised, a trio of motorbikes blue-lighted them down the highway to the airfield, and as promised there was a Weaver waiting for them. Hoeff recognized it instantly: The Jitney, TOURIST-1, permanently attached to the SOR. The damn thing even had nose art, thanks to somebody on the HEAT. Hoeff’s money was either Firth or Murray, but neither man would admit to it.
The pilot, Nate Andrews, was Royal Navy, and therefore sat at an intersection of three sources of arrogance: Pilots, Brits… and of course the Royal Navy and the US Navy had, uh, history.
Thank fuck he flew a transport. If he’d been a fighter jockey, the world couldn’t possibly have contained his ego. Hoeff liked him.
It was hard to say what Julian thought, though. He was more or less a caged wolf at that point, exactly like he’d been back on Akyawentuo when they were fighting off the Abrogators. Threaten his women and he took on the worst features of Firth, Murray, and Daar put together.
Andrews picked up on it and gave Hoeff an arched eyebrow as Julian stalked up the ramp and into his aircraft. Wisely, he didn’t comment and just gave Hoeff a questioning look. Vemik and Yan were taking a careful look around the Jitney’s interior while Julian cajoled them into their seats.
“He looks happy.”
“Better get us back pretty quick,” Hoeff advised.
“Fair enough. All aboard that’s going aboard.”
There was the usual shit: pressure seal checks, preflight checks, making sure the passengers were properly seated and belted in. The difference was takeoff: They didn’t. They jumped.
The only noticeable consequences was that the Jitney creaked a bit and Hoeff’s ears popped as the external atmosphere plummeted from Earth sea level to perfect vacuum. Out the porthole window, he could see a little puff of white mist dissipate around them as the tiny slice of atmosphere they’d brought along for the ride faded off into the infinite night.
Vemik made an appreciative noise. “Whoo!”
“Neat trick, ain’t it?”
“Why not do that all the time? Misfit just flew, up and up and up. Took a long time.”
“You gotta have a friend waiting for you at the other end,” Hoeff explained.
“Yeah, bruh. Named after a dude called Armstrong.”
Yan actually trilled. “Good name.”
“He was a great man.”
“We also wanted to show you the way up,” Julian said distractedly. “To make it more real.” He was doing both of his nervous habits where he bounced his heavy legs so much the floor shook slightly, and he kept scratching the back of his head. The poor bastard was worried as shit.
Hoeff nodded and yelled forward. “Yo! Andrews! We landin’ or dockin’?”
“Docking. You chaps are taking the Array down, then I get the pleasure of de-orbiting without your smiling company.”
Julian shot him a silent glare with a slightly upturned growl on his lip, but said nothing. Andrews was facing the wrong way to notice anyway, and the leg-bouncing got faster.
Fuck. Time to intervene. Hoeff really liked the big fucker, but this near hostility wouldn’t fuckin’ do. He stood up, plopped himself right next to him, looked up and smiled. He didn’t say anything.
He didn’t need to. It took Julian a second, but the Big Bad Wolf finally slinked back into his cave and unwound, just a little.
Hoeff again clapped a hand on Julian’s shoulder. “Keep it together, bro. They’re fine. You’d already know otherwise.”
Yan nodded from Julian’s other side. “They need you strong. Calm. You need to go home and be… found-ay-shun for them. I think that’s the word.” He added a word in his native language that Hoeff didn’t quite follow, but Julian nodded.
Julian had to be part cavemonkey in some way. Instead of nodding or saying thanks, what he did instead was put an arm around both Hoeff and Yan, and pull them into a tight hug. Yan let himself be hugged; Hoeff didn’t really have a choice.
There were worse ways to show affection, being real about it.
Docking with Armstrong Station was nice and easy. Andrews backed the Jitney into a hangar and dropped it onto the deck with a gentle bump and only a couple feet of clearance between them and the neighboring Firebird. By the time the ramp came down, there were marines waiting for them.
No need for a head-check this time, thank fuck. They still went through a security scanner as they were escorted out of the hangar, and made a bee-line through the public concourse, headed for the downlink Array.
Hoeff had never spent much time on Armstrong, and looking around he made a note to come back up at some point and get to know the place better. The station was a Dominion basic design that had been pretty heavily modified and upgraded to suit human sensibilities about things like, say, public safety. Even so, it was goddamned impressive.
Armstrong handled three classes of traffic: alien civilian merchants, human civilian engineers, and human/Gao military. In deference to nonhuman guests, the station concourse was kept at Dominion Standard Gravity, a good bit weaker than Earth. It gave the water feature in the middle a little something extra: the water curved gracefully through the air just a little slower and a little higher than it would have on Earth.
The lower gravity had an effect on the gorilla trio, too: Yan seemed rather thoroughly unimpressed, Vemik was trying and mostly failing to hide his bouncing experiments, and Julian…quieted down and wound up a bit again. Bad memories, probably. Hoeff understood.
Vemik’s bouncing came to an abrupt halt when he spotted some ETs, though. There were a trio of Vzk’tk poring over what looked like the kind of hippy-shit shop that sold singing bowls, incense and hand-woven yak wool scarves. Naturally, both the aliens and the shop intrigued him.
Julian’s spirit-monkey took over. “Not today, Vemik. Sorry.”
“I won’t be back here for a long time…” Vemik complained.
[“…I know, big] fella. [But you need to be at home, with Singer and your child. The People need to learn what you have to teach, and I bet the Lodge really needs Yan Given-Man by now. We’ve been gone for a while.”]
Yan’s tongue lashed the air in the shop’s direction anyway. The three shopping ETs, who’d noticed the unorthodox party passing them, took a few steps back and blinked at him. Them. Probably the gorilla trio were the most incredibly muscular things they’d seen in their lives.
“I promise, if and when you guys wanna come back here, we will. Bring the Singer, she’ll love that shop. But for now…”
Hoeff turned. Lieutenant-Colonel Miller—the new Miller, as opposed to the previous Miller in the exact same fucking billet, never mind Moho’s suit technician Miller—had caught up with them at a jog. The SOR had altogether too many Millers.
Hoeff straightened a little. “Sir. What can I do for you?”
“There’s been a change of plans. Mister Etsicitty is heading down, but you and the two ETs are going straight to their homeworld. You’re to carry out a comprehensive security assessment of the xenoarcheology project and the contact academy.”
“Woulda thought I’d need debriefing first, sir.”
“We’ll be doing that in tandem. In light of these attacks, we need to make sure the eggheads are safe and… well, you’re available.”
“Shit. I, uh…” Julian hesitated, giving the cavebros a guilty look. “I was gonna—”
“Don’t be stupid,” Yan cut him off. “Your women need you. You need them. Plenty of time later.”
Julian hesitated, then said his goodbyes with quick hugs. A moment later he was gone.
“Is there gear waiting for me?” Hoeff asked. He indicated his polo shirt, jacket and jeans with a wave of his hand: good for blending in on a road trip around North America, not so great for the alien rainforest.
“I’ve got your bugout bag with me, along with something Master Sergeant Coombes and the SOR techs put together that should be appropriate. Warhorse packed meals too, apparently.”
…Of course. There was no evil in the Universe so great that ‘Horse and his team wouldn’t stick to the diet plan. If nukes had literally been raining down from orbit, there’d still be a meal box. Hoeff’s stomach grumbled at him, anticipating all the ultra-clean living he was about to endure.
Well, it wasn’t like roast Werne was off the plan. Lean protein didn’t come much better.
Miller handed him an envelope. “That’s a briefing for the scientists. Yours is in your bag. I suggest you read it.”
Yeah, no shit. Externally, though, Hoeff just nodded. “Yes, sir.”
Miller led him toward the military Array at brisk pace, fast enough that both Yan and Vemik had to knuckle along to keep up. “You’ve only got ten minutes before the jump window. Any last minute words or message, now is the time to say ‘em.”
“Better check in with my mom. She was expecting me to visit.”
Miller nodded. “Sorry about that. Hopefully things will calm down soon. See you when you get back, Chief.”
He paused, at a loss for a moment, and decided maybe one more adventure would be fun for the cavemonkeys. “Well fellas, I’mma send a video back to ‘Ma. Wanna help?”
If he couldn’t go home, he could at least send home a gift. He’d get a chance to visit soon enough.
Date Point: 15y6m3w AV
Governor-General’s residence, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Dinner with the Governor-General was, okay, an opportunity to eat some truly excellent food in sumptuous surroundings… But it wasn’t a luxury. It was an excuse to hold a very serious meeting about a very serious subject.
The Governor-General’s residence wasn’t some opulent waste of public money, nor was it a throwback to Edwardian Britain and the height of Empire. It was large, yes, and well-appointed with what was in Gabe’s opinion a perfect balancing act of classical character and modern cleanliness.
Okay, there was a bit of an art-gallery, showroom feel to the whole thing, but that was because he was in the official residence: the part of the building that was for entertaining guests and VIPs. There would never be a pair of discarded boxers hanging over the back of one of these chairs, nor would the gleaming stone-and-brass restrooms ever be graced by a half-finished book. That all happened in the real residence, at the back.
Hard to think of himself as a VIP, though. But he was. He was the kind of VIP who got summoned to “dinner” where he would sit at the same table as the Prime Minister and whoever else, and…
Well. They’d see.
Sir Jeremy Sandy GBE was an… interesting figure in these moments. Folctha had a written constitution, unlike the United Kingdom. But that constitution recognized the primacy of the Crown, which had an avatar on Cimbrean in the form of Sir Jeremy.
But the nature of the Crown was that its authority was a paper screen with a shadow puppet theatre going on behind it. There was no substance there, just an elaborate charade of power. Sir Jeremy didn’t make the law, he almost literally rubber-stamped it. His job was to give it the seal and finality of Royal Assent, in the absence of any actual royalty.
The actual legislative authority belonged to the Right Honourable Annette Winton, Prime Minister of Folctha and leader of the New Whig party. And she was not happy. She’d had a bad day. And while she was usually not the sort of woman who liked to spread her bad days around, in Gabe’s case she seemed to be making an exception.
Not, Gabe had to admit, an unjustified one. It was his job to prevent exactly the sort of thing that had happened today.
God, and they were only on the starter course, too.
“Well as one of my analysts put it, Prime Minister, we can’t work with intelligence we don’t receive.”
“Surely part of your job is generating intelligence?” Winton asked. To her right, the Rt. Hon. Timothy Neech—Folctha’s defence minister—nodded.
“That’s… uniquely difficult in our case, Prime Minister,” Gabe explained. He took a sip of his soup before explaining. Broccoli and Stilton was a combination he’d never have invented himself, but there was no way he’d let it go cold. “All communications traffic between Earth and Cimbrean comes through a specialist jump array. Every message, requested file, download and upload is buffered in a bank of memory drives, and it can spend anything up to half an hour waiting there before the Array fires, then the incoming drives connect and transfer their contents onto the datanet.”
“So there’s a single choke point in the network,” Neech observed. “Wouldn’t that make it easy to observe?”
“Which is exactly why everything is encrypted. And modern encryption is for all intents and purposes unbreakable. Millions of files come through every hour, every single one is impenetrable and we have no way of knowing which ones are, uh, a website update, which ones are an email from somebody’s grandma, and which ones are a terrorist cell’s secure internal communications on their custom-made app.”
“They have a custom-made app?”
Like a lot of people who were a little out of touch with technology, that thought seemed to surprise the Prime Minister. Gabe just nodded. “It’s called Dire-1. Unfortunately for us it’s pretty well-designed: when the attacks were over and we captured their phones, the keys had all changed and the message histories were deleted. Forensics are going over it, but if they thought they could actually get anything they’d have been a lot more enthusiastic.”
Sir Jeremy caught Gabe’s eye and gave the subtlest of headshakes. Wrong approach.
“Still, surely you can find–” Neech began.
“With respect, Minister, I’ve said all I can on this subject,” Gabe put his soup spoon down. A real power move, at this table. “We’re less than twelve hours since the attack began. You will be informed of every development as they happen. As soon as I know exactly who dropped the ball, when, where and how? You will too.”
Sandy nodded subtly and sipped his soup. Right approach.
“There’s a matter I wanted to raise, actually,” Gabe said, picking up his spoon again. “Were you aware that two of the intended victims today were Allison Buehler and Xiù Chang?”
Winton and Neech glanced at each other. Clearly they hadn’t. “I hope they’re unhurt…” Winton ventured.
“They aren’t. Chang suffered a knife wound—not a serious one, thank God—and Buehler shot one of the attackers in self-defence.”
“Shot him?” Neech looked… startled? Appalled? “She had a gun?”
Gabe nodded firmly. “She has a class one firearms license. One that I personally authorized.”
Gabe gave him the same look he gave his officers when they were being slow. “Because, as today proves, she needed it.”
“So what exactly is the issue, Mister Arés?” Sir Jeremy asked.
“The issue is, the prosecutor is adamant that she needs to have her act of self-defence, ah… reviewed. By the judicial system.”
Winton obviously saw what he was driving at instantly. Neech didn’t.
“And? If it’s a clear-cut case of self defence, what’s the problem?”
“Have you considered the optics of one of our highest-profile celebrities being hauled in front of a judge and forced to justify shooting the man who stabbed her partner, Minister?” Gabe asked. “Have you considered, in particular, how that will look to prospective colonists from the USA who are trying to choose between coming here or going to Franklin? Or indeed to recent Folctha immigrants who’ve only just arrived and don’t yet have any real ties to our city?”
“…We need that case dropped,” Winton decided. Gabe fought very hard indeed not to give a relieved sigh, until Sandy cleared his throat.
“I feel I must remind you, Prime Minister, that the prosecutor is an independent body.” The rules here were strange, but the Courts stemmed directly from the Crown’s authority, meaning the Governor-General—and not the Prime Minister—had direct oversight. He also didn’t actually run them, which left Sir Jeremy in the position of defending an institution he kept at arm’s length.
“Yes,” Neech agreed. “And for a very good reason. We can’t just… interfere with the justice system whenever it suits us!”
“Democracy is about give and take, Minister,” Gabe reminded him. “In order to be just, the law must be judicious: The difference between law and tyranny lies in compromise and common sense.”
“And it must be free from executive meddling,” Neech retorted. “Otherwise it becomes a tool of state oppression.”
“You’re right. And I’m not suggesting the government should have the explicit, hard power to tell the prosecutor what to do…”
“But a, er… gentle prompting to remember the bigger picture certainly wouldn’t be inappropriate,” Winton said.
“They’re gonna be very busy in the near future anyway,” Gabe pointed out. “Why overburden themselves?”
“Exactly,” Winton agreed. “Prosecuting an unquestionably innocent woman is hardly an efficient use of their energy and time.”
“I don’t like it,” Neech said, digging his heels in. “Surely you’re not proposing that we can just allow a woman to shoot a man dead in the street and nothing more comes of it?”
“She was the victim, minister. She just turned out to be very good at defending herself. Are we going to charge Xiù Chang with assault as well? She did beat two other men unconscious. Never mind the idiot who tried to take on Myun at the Commune.”
“Is that for us to decide?” Neech pushed his soup bowl aside. “I have a great sympathy for her situation, I’m in no doubt that she did the right thing… and I’m also in no doubt that the law agrees. But we are not the judiciary. And the judiciary must remain independent.”
Sandy cleared his throat again. He’d long since finished his soup, and was just sitting there with his fingers interlaced on the table in front of him, thumbs resting lightly against each other. He gave Neech a nod. “I admire your principles, Minister. And as you know I must remain neutral… but I would like to draw your attention to a factor you may not have considered.”
“…And what would that be, Sir Jeremy?”
“Both Buehler and Chang are the darling poster girls of MBG. Do you know how much of the money currently invested in Folctha belongs to Moses Byron?”
Gabe watched Neech’s expression carefully. It didn’t change, exactly, but it did become a little more… detached. As though his face was stalling for time as his brain did some hasty thinking.
“…Rather a lot,” he said after a while.
“He very literally owns the bank,” Winton declared. “Look, Timothy, I think we all agree with you on the principle… But I have to say, if you think about the simple equation of what harm will befall Folctha each way then I’d say you’re putting rather too much weight on one side. Nobody here is suggesting anything untoward or that will do lasting harm to the independence of the judiciary, but…”
“But if we lose colonists and investments…” Gabe left the thought unfinished.
He watched Neech wrestle with the impossible calculus of practicality versus principle for a few seconds, until finally he nodded reluctantly.
“…We’ll need to fix the system so that this kind of thing can’t arise again,” he grumbled.
“Good idea,” Gabe praised him, though on the inside he was whooping and clapping his hands.
“And we should definitely look into extracting ourselves from Byron’s influence,” Neech added.
Winton nodded fiercely. “Agreed. We’re supposed to be on the road to full status as an independent sovereign nation, not a corporate fiefdom,” she said.
On the pretence of finishing his soup, Gabe bent his head and caught Sandy’s eye. The Governor-General shook his head imperceptibly. Pick your battles.
Fair enough. Gabe had secured a victory here. A victory he should never have had to fight for, but he’d take it.
“Very well,” Sandy said, and that seemed to signal the end of the soup course, which the butler replaced with a genuinely excellent roast beef. “Now, back to the matter of the APA, I think…”
All in all, Gabe found, he’d had worse dinners.
Date Point: 15y6m3w AV
Whitecrest Clan Enclave, Wi Kao City, Gao
Whitecrests weren’t prone to emotional outbursts. It was a trait the Clan both selected and then trained against. So the gasps and alarmed yips as Genshi entered the room were enough to have Regaari spinning around even before the Champion called his name.
When he saw what had happened, Regaari barely contained his own shock.
Genshi’s handsome face was a mess of sutures. One of his ears was down to a ragged stump, the other would forever bear a notch. There was a triple-streak of deep gouges across his muzzle, one of which had come perilously close to his eye and only one person on all of Gao had claws like that.
The Great Father, it seemed, had made his displeasure known. Genshi was never going to look the same ever again. Certainly there was a slightly hunted look in his eye as he gathered what dignity he could and stalked across the room to where Regaari was reviewing the latest batch of candidates to send to Cimbrean for HEAT training. He was pleased to note that a couple of young males who’d once climbed the HMS Sharman water tower for a prank were on the short-list.
Right now, though, something altogether less pleasant was looming in his immediate future.
Genshi stopped and paused. Clearly he was in quite a lot of pain, despite that the medic must have given him a hefty dose of painkillers and regeneratives.
“…The Great Father is in my office,” he said carefully. “He wants a private word with you.”
Rather than reply, Regaari duck-nodded solemnly and put his work down. Genshi clapped a paw on his shoulder as he stood, and sank into Regaari’s vacated seat.
It wasn’t a long walk to Genshi’s office, but it felt like twenty miles. Regaari had to keep reminding himself that he’d accepted this consequence: he’d done what he felt was necessary for the Gao. He’d done his duty, and whatever happened next he’d steeled himself for it.
But he was still trembling.
Daar was prowling Genshi’s office with an air of chilly fury radiating from him. He remained on fourpaw as Regaari closed the door behind him and stood bolt upright at attention.
“Father Regaari of Clan Whitecrest reporting as ordered, My Father.”
Daar gave no initial response. Then he flicked an ear, lumbered forward and heaved himself up onto twopaw and loomed over Regaari, who kept staring straight ahead even as his old friend’s vicious muzzle snuffled and sniffed around his ears and throat.
“…Y’know what my problem is?” Daar asked after a painful silence. The question was rhetorical, so Regaari didn’t answer. “I’m too Keeda-fucked loyal to my friends. Damn it, Cousin…”
Regaari flinched. He’d been ready for claws.
“If you an’ Genshi were anybody else, I’d be nailin’ yer pelts to the wall right about now an’ keepin’ you alive so’s you could watch,” Daar snarled. “What am I, Regaari?”
Regaari’s gaze never left the distant, unfocused infinity in front of him. “You’re the Great Father.”
“‘Yer right. An’ what are you, Regaari?”
“I’m a Father of Clan Whitecrest.”
“Does that mean you outrank me, Regaari?”
“No, My Father.”
“You’re fuckin’ right it don’t. Now I gave you an explicit order about not meddlin’ in the affairs of other species. Didn’t I, Regaari?”
“Yes, My Father.”
“And you prompted the Humans to return ‘ta the council an’ bring Kirk with ‘em. That was your scheme… Which meant you went an’ disobeyed my direct order, didn’t you Regaari?”
“Yes, My Father.”
Daar’s muzzle moved the least little bit closer, until his teeth were almost touching Regaari’s throat.
“Are you sorry?” he growled.
This was a test. And Regaari didn’t doubt that his life was on the line. “…No, My Father.”
“Hmph.” Daar sniffed, duck-nodded so shallowly that the movement was almost undetectable, and took a step back. “You think you know better than me.”
That wasn’t a question. Regaari didn’t answer it.
“Dumb ol’ Daar, all thinkin’ with his muscles an’ his dick,” Daar continued. “Too blinded by his Stoneback sensibilities an’ his inflexible code of honor ‘ta take the opportunities that Gao needs. Y’think I’m hidebound. Y’think ‘yer smarter’n me. Y’don’t trust me to lead right, so y’went behind my back and did what you thought was best for our people, against the wishes of the man you bent and bared your neck to and swore to trust with our future.”
Regaari struggled to maintain his bearing, which the Great Father ignored.
“An’ now, you two took a pair o’ really fuckin’ sensitive hairballs o’ problems with the only alliances we have that actually fuckin’ matter, an’ tied ‘em together at the tail! You made our maneuver space way smaller, all ‘fer a short term gain. It never seemed ‘ta occur ‘ta you that maybe I was thinkin’ bigger. It din’t seem ‘ta occur ‘ta you that I can. An’ that’s just fuckin’ insulting.”
He growled and shook out his mane. “I dunno what’s worse, Cousin: that you’re an oathbreaker, or that y’think so little of me.”
He stooped until his nose was almost touching Regaari’s, who was shaking with the effort of keeping his composure. “Look at me.”
Regaari met his gaze… and was sorry. Genuinely, deeply, agonizingly so. This was worse than being scarred or even executed: The look in Daar’s eyes was that of a Brother betrayed by his oldest and closest friend. A quiet, heartfelt keen whined its way out of his chest and no amount of self-control in all the universe could have stopped it.
Daar held his gaze. “…An’ the most fuckedest part is, y’might even have been right about the Council an’ the Humans an’ Kirk. Even Great Fathers can blunder.” A claw prodded Regaari’s chest. “But it’s my job to make those calls, to maybe fuck up. That’s a burden I took so ain’t nobody else would have to, an’ Father’s don’t get ta’ overrule th’ Great Father. You undermined me, Regaari. You. ‘Yer someone I trusted with great office, an’ you decided to flaunt that trust in front of my Champions! This ain’t some petty thing ‘bout tactics an’ situational omission. How could I let this slide, Regaari?! What would happen if my Champions thought they could ever disobey me without consequence?”
Daar heaved a massive sigh and turned away. “…I thought I could trust you.”
He might as well have castrated Regaari where he stood. Regaari’s whole body was crawling with pain and sorrow, but Daar still hadn’t asked him a question or invited him to speak. And right now was not a time to step out of line.
Finally, Daar turned around. He sized Regaari up, sighed again, and then reached up with one paw. His claws delicately snipped off the very tip of Regaari’s right ear, which was the most token, merciful scar he could possibly give. Regaari barely felt it… but he felt the last stab in the gut, which came in the form of an order.
“Get outta my sight… Cousin.”
Date Point: 15y6m3w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Julian didn’t even get the chance to take his boots off. Hell, he didn’t even get the chance to properly step through the door. He got a double-barrel ballistic hug the moment it opened, and frankly he was so overwhelmed with relief at seeing Allison and Xiù that he forgot how to stand up anyway and sank to his knees so that they all wound up on the floor.
They were safe. He held them both close and fixed that thought in his mind. All three of them, still alive and safe.
“Hey.” Allison was the first to speak. “Say something.”
Julian tried. Honestly he did. He just… couldn’t. “I… You’re… When I heard…”
He gave up and squeezed them so hard they both had to protest and plead for air.
“Bǎobèi… I love you, but you smell horrible,” Xiù told him.
“Didn’t get a chance to shower yet,” he half-grumbled.
“We can tell.” Allison’s dry remark was just… it was perfect. It was home. He laughed and finally got his head somewhere kinda-sorta normal.
“…Christ. They came after all three of us, huh?”
She nodded. “Yeah. And a lot more. Steve Lawrence is dead.”
“You’re shitting me!”
Xiù swatted Julian on the ass. “Upstairs. Shower. Maybe shave, too.”
“Getting rid of me that quick, huh?”
“Julian…” she warned.
“Heh. Yes ma’am.”
Apparently that was exactly the right thing to say, because it looked like Xiù let out some tension too. A broad smile crossed her face. “Good boy. God I’ve missed that!”
Actually, Julian had to admit, the shower felt like a rebirth. He did it properly, scrubbed up, shampooed, did the whole shaving ritual with that special sandalwood shaving foam and the soft brush the girls had got him, brushed his teeth, flossed and mouthwashed, and even applied some moisturizer.
He pulled off his foot and scrubbed that down, too. It was starting to show wear already, he noted dispassionately. Sure, he was rough on it but for what he’d paid, he wasn’t getting his money’s worth. He’d grumble about that later. For now he was clean, in that deep and slightly tingly way that was only achievable after too long spent travelling.
Apparently somebody—Xiù probably—had snuck into the room while he was showering and laid out some warm clothes for him, fresh out of the dryer: an older pair of too-snug jeans and a medium t-shirt. Never mind that Julian found a double extra-large too tight across the shoulders nowadays, she’d laid out a medium.
…Why did they even have a medium? He hadn’t worn anything that small in years. He grinned ruefully, carefully pulled it over his head, somehow managed to squeeze into it, and took a look in the mirror.
…Okay. That was why they had it.
Well, what his spacebabes wanted, his spacebabes got. He went back downstairs with his hair still damp, and got a gentler but no less warm welcome when he reached the kitchen, after the girls had shared a high-five. There was coffee, comfort food and a space at the table.
“I needed that. You were right.”
“Charmer,” Allison kissed him as he sat down.
“Do you have any idea how sexy the words ‘you’re right’ are?”
“Hah!” Julian grinned and poured himself a coffee. By his own clock he’d been awake for… actually he didn’t know. It had been afternoon back in Canada, here in Folctha it was late evening… probably he shouldn’t have caffeine before bed, but somehow he doubted there’d be sleep anyway. Not at first.
“She’s right, you know,” Xiù nodded.
“Now you’re doing it!” Allison fanned herself with a grin. “No ganging up!”
“Ohh no. This is one case where we’re allowed to, right Julian?”
Julian grinned. “You’re right.”
Allison snorted. “You’re both evil, and I love you for it.”
“Wǒmen yě ài nǐ, Shǎguā.”
“Love you too, dummy.”
Comfortable silence, the sound of relaxation and just… basking in each other’s company for a few minutes. Still. There was an elephant in the room and none of them were chicken. They got around to it just as Julian was finishing his coffee.
“…So what happened?” he asked, setting the empty mug down.
“Five assholes with knives. Literally tried to kill us in broad daylight on the street.” Allison shook her head and stared distantly through the table as she recalled it. “Guess they never figured Xiù would kick their asses.”
Julian raised his eyebrow at Xiù, who shrugged. “It was your gun that made the difference,” she said.
“…Yeah. Kinda wish I hadn’t had to, but…”
Allison’s expression said everything. Slowly, Julian reached out and took her hand. “…One of mine died,” he said.
“Are you okay?”
“Like you said. Kinda wish I hadn’t had to, but…”
“But I’m glad you did.” They both looked at Xiù, who pulled a face and shrugged. “I know it’s not a nice thing to say, but…”
“I get it,” Julian nodded. “Hoeff talked me through it after. He said the whole thing was their fault, not mine. Not sure how much it helped.”
“…Y’know, it was an APA cell that torched your grampa’s place,” Allison pointed out. “That’s who Alex fell in with. Imagine if we’d been home then and it turned out like this, me shooting one of them in self-defence, and it turned out to be…”
“That’s a what-if.” It was Xiù’s turn to reach across the table and take her hand. “And it didn’t happen that way.”
“Still. The guy I shot had a mom too.”
“Alex wasn’t involved in all this, was he?” Julian asked.
“Nah. He’s on an FBI watchlist or whatever, so the APA ditched him. He’s safe at home with his dad, I checked.”
“That’s good, I guess.”
“It’s a silver lining.” Allison stared into the distance a while longer, then sighed and shrugged. “Hoeff’s right, though. Their fault, not ours. And yeah. I’m glad to still be here.”
“Onto happier subjects?” Xiù suggested.
“I guess,” Julian agreed. “Probably wind up talking about it again later, but for now…”
“So what now? I guess Yan and Vemik went home?” Allison asked.
“Yup. Hoeff went with, make sure Daniel and the other scientists are alright. I’ll prob’ly head over there first chance I get, just to check up on ‘em. But I’ma take a couple days off first, get my head sorted out… and I need to get my foot serviced.”
“You know Nofl’s the best man in town for that, right?” Xiù pointed out. She saw his expression and giggled. “I know, I know. But he managed to arrange life-saving surgery for one of the Dauntless crew. He’s alright.”
“…Okay. I’ll go talk to him,” Julian promised. “But only because you vouch for him.”
She smiled at him. He’d really, really missed that smile.
“There’s… something else we need to talk about first,” Allison said, slowly. Her fingers traced a circle around the rim of her coffee mug.
“Apparently the law in this town is really, really dumb.”
“How d’you mean?”
She explained. And she was right.
Date Point: 15y6m3w1d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm
The little one had learned how to call for his mother while Vemik was gone, and it was the best homecoming Vemik could have asked for. It meant they’d be Naming him, soon.
Too bad the reason he was calling for his mother was because he wasn’t so happy at being held by his father. Oh well. There’d be plenty of time for them to get to know each other.
For now, it was good to be back among his tribe. Earth had been fun, but confusing in more ways than he could count. He’d go over a lot of it with Professor Daniel later on.
Speaking of Professor Daniel… Heff had had a quick, quiet, intense conversation with all the humans over at the bunker camp after they jumped through. It turned into a longer conversation, still quiet but more… the Human word was ‘cerebral.’ Whatever the ‘eggheads’ were chewing over, Heff very obviously ran out of patience with it.
Eventually he stood up and announced “Look. I don’t care what y’all thinka their manifesto. You can pick that shit apart all day, don’t change the fact that they killed folks, an’ this ain’t the first time neither. Fuck ‘em, an’ fuck everything they stand for.”
…And then he’d stalked off to go sit on a log and jam some of that vile ‘dip’ stuff behind his lip and amuse himself by carving some wood.
Vemik and Yan had gone home, back to the village.
It felt good to climb trees again. Vemik hadn’t noticed how tight his shoulders and back had been feeling until finally he got himself up a Ketta and moving from branch to branch. By the time they reached the village he felt half a finger-length taller, and much more comfortable.
They picked up a Werne on the way home, a young solitary bull who’d only just been exiled by his herd. Lone bulls could be canny, but only with experience. Against two skilled hunters, the Werne didn’t stand a chance. Yan scared it, Vemik dropped on it as it fled under his perch, and jammed his knife into the base of its skull. It bucked once, and died instantly.
It was healthy and well-fed too! A fine kill to bring home to the tribe, and to his family.
Now, he was sitting around while the Singer cooked and tried to encourage his son to relax and learn to say “Tawa” for his father. With some success, too. The little one had picked up that his mother didn’t object to this man holding him, and was chewing on the end of his tail while considering Vemik with big, curious eyes.
The Singer, meanwhile, was puzzling over the attack.
“That… doesn’t make sense. They call themselves [Alien Protection] yes?”
“But… we are the… ‘ aliens’. Why attack you?”
“It all seemed to make sense to Professor Daniel… Tickle!” Vemik fluttered his fingers up the baby’s spine, who wriggled and made a high-pitched trill. He still didn’t have a crest yet, just a downy yellow fuzz. “He says, they see us as traitors to our tribe.”
“…They don’t get to choose that, though.” The Singer scowled and twitched her tail as she added the Werne’s kidneys to the stew. “It’s up to us if you’re a traitor.”
“Heff said they’re crazy. …Tickle!”
“That makes more sense,” she agreed, and trilled softly as the baby grinned at Vemik. “I think maybe Professor and his friends Sky-Think about it too much.”
“That’s what they’re for,” Vemik said. “Can you say ‘Tawa’ for me? Ta-wa?”
The little one stared at him for a moment, then pointed at the Singer. “…Atwa!”
The Singer trilled “Yes, I’m Atwa. And he’s Tawa! Go on!”
Vemik gave up, but he had a huge smile in place at least. “Have you thought of a name?”
“I though Vemun?”
“Hmm. Vemun u Vemik n… How do you name the child of a Singer?”
“There’s a special name. Song-Child. Didn’t you know that?”
“I was still climbing all over my father when the Old Singer’s children were Given.”
The Singer smiled, and gently plucked the baby out of Vemik’s hands. She rested little Vemun on her hip, and wrapped her tail around to hold the baby snug and secure while leaving her hands free.
“…There’s something Human women can’t do,” Vemik realized. “They have to make a sling, or something like that.”
“I know, Shyow and Awisun told me. They’re strange too. I know they want babies, but they keep talking as if the perfect time to get pregnant is just a season away.”
“I think, they worry about too many things. And they like fucking Jooyun too much!” he trilled.
She trilled too. “He’s nice. Too scrawny, though.”
“Is not! He’s strong!”
“Strong for a human. You’re stronger.”
Vemik grinned toothily, stood up and wrapped her up in a tight hug. “Maybe a little.”
She nipped playfully at his cheek. “But this idea of theirs, of sex without the baby. That’s very strange. They use powerful sky-medicine to make it happen, too.”
“Well…” Vemik thought. “I suppose. They like to fuck just like we do. But they are very many Humans. Hands of hands of hands of hands and more than that! And they don’t lose babies young anymore, not mostly.”
The Singer glanced down at her second child, who was cuddling into her side, and sighed. “…That sounds nice.”
Vemik suddenly didn’t know what to say, but he did know what to do. He wrapped his tail tightly around Singer and baby, and hugged them to himself even tighter.
“…Maybe I’ll talk to Professor Daniel about this Vack-Seen magic.”
“Vack-seen? What’s that?”
“I heard about it on Earth. They argue about it, but from what I heard, they find whatever evil spirit makes a sickness, almost kill it, and somehow…use that to teach your body how to fight it off. I think. But they’ve stopped very many evil sicknesses that way. One like the water-sickness, too.”
“…That sounds like powerful magic. I think Professor Daniel would say we aren’t ready for it.”
“Maybe. Maybe we aren’t, because think of what would happen if suddenly babies didn’t die! There would be so many of us so fast!”
She nodded. “I think though, this would be something he’d have a hard time saying no to. He’s a kind man, he won’t be happy saying that babies have to die.”
“The Humans would say yes, I think. And…godshit.” Vemik looked at Singer apologetically, “I think I just burdened you with something.”
“With what? Of knowing that things could be better?” She shook her head. “That gives me hope! Especially if you can get him to share it.”
“And what if I can’t? Could you be happy, knowing medicine like that is out there but your baby will never be given it?”
The Singer glanced down at her son again, and went very still and distant for a few heartbeats.
“…I’ll… just have to pray,” she said eventually.
Date Point: 15y6m3w1d AV
Whitecrest Clan Enclave, Wi Kao City, Gao
“You’re stepping down?”
Genshi had called a meeting of the Fathers. His face wasn’t healing well at all: apparently he’d forbid himself the use of cosmetic surgery or regenerative medicines.
The logic, when he’d explained it, was flawless. Everybody knew what had happened: there was no sense in hiding it and every sense in wearing his scars as a reminder. Daar had in fact been very, very merciful by the standards of Great Fathers. Showing any disrespect for that esteem would have been…unwise.
“The Champion of this Clan can’t be in the position I am now. He needs the Great Father’s ear and trust. He needs to stand at the high table and not be an object of suspicion. I’ve squandered that.”
“May I ask why?” Father Garaaf asked.
Garaaf’s return had been big news among the Clan, and it was a testament to what he’d endured that Genshi was only the second most scarred Father in the room. Those who’d known Garaaf before his capture claimed he was more solemn now, less playful. All Regaari knew was that, now that Garaaf had a cybernetic eye in place and had thus regained the full use of all his faculties, it’d be a foolish ‘Crest who chose to tangle with the old man. Anybody who could survive Hunters like that had earned a healthy measure of respect.
Genshi’s gaze met Regaari’s. “It was… a moment of enthusiasm and righteousness. And maybe a little rebellion too. All the Clans are groaning under the weight of the Great Father, all the Clans want a little more of the freedom and power we once had. To my shame, I was the first to crumble under that pressure.”
“The Clan gave up those freedoms and powers willingly,” Garaaf pointed out. He hadn’t been around when the Clans bent the knee, of course. Regaari got the impression he didn’t approve, nor was he particularly happy about the Great Father. Of course, nobody was. Especially the Great Father.
“Yes. A cub raided the pantry, and Mother saw.”
Regaari clenched his teeth. His feelings were rather different to Genshi’s, who’d effectively just declared that he was less sorry about what they’d done than he was about getting caught. Which was a classic Whitecrest attitude, he had to admit, but…
…Balls. Daar knew. That was why he’d nearly mauled Genshi to death, and spared Regaari. He could smell the difference between embarrassment and shame. The weight of just how utterly he’d underestimated his best friend grew unbearable.
“Sometimes Mother knows best, Champion. With respect.”
Genshi stared at him and flicked the stub of his ear. It must have pulled at the suture, because he winced. “Father. Only Father, now. We must decide on a new Champion, and…I think I have the perfect candidate.”
It wasn’t Regaari. A few weeks ago it might have been, but Regaari was in no doubt now that his association with this fiasco meant that the rank of Champion would never be his… which was acceptable. He no longer wanted it.
“Who?” Garaaf asked.
“Someone the Great Father will appreciate, and someone nobody would ever expect. It will involve depriving the HEAT of a fine Brother, however…”
Date Point: 15y6m3w1d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
For once, Xiù didn’t wake up first.
Usually, she was the first one up. It let her take a shower and sort her hair out, do some yoga and get started on breakfast while Allison and Julian groaned, stretched and complained their way out of bed.
Today, though… well, she was tired. It had been a long and exhausting night, in the best ways. And she had the fortune to just float gently back into consciousness: no full bladder, no disruptive dream. Just muscular warmth and soft breathing next to her, and a strong arm under her head, down her back and resting lightly on her hip.
She smiled and relaxed into him, and fell asleep again.
Ramsey and Tristan woke her up some time later, rattling around downstairs and bickering like brothers. When she raised her head, Julian was still there but Allison wasn’t and that was weird. Usually she was the last of them to rise.
Levering herself up to look at the time, she woke Julian who grumbled a sleepy good morning and pulled her in for a kiss.
“You gonna let me up?” Xiù asked.
“Mmm… Nah.” He pulled her gently up onto his chest and nuzzled the top of her head. “You make a good teddy bear.”
“And you make a good mattress,” Xiù tapped him on the nose. “But it’s getting late.”
“It’s Saturday,” Julian woke up a little more and frowned. “…’Least, I think it’s Saturday.”
“Friday. You’ve got jump lag.”
“…Right.” He grumbled, pulled her into a brief but tender kiss, and flopped over. “I gotta run errands anyway.”
“…After I do the other things, yes.”
“Okay.” Xiù sat up and stretched. “…Wonder where Al is.”
“She got up a while back. Think she said something about… research?” Julian frowned, then shrugged, literally rolled out of bed and thumped to the floor where he attended to his morning stretch. Xiù took a moment to admire him, then decided it was time to brush her teeth. After breakfast, actually. She was hungry and they hadn’t really eaten dinner last night, after all. She threw on some pajamas—kept purely because she wasn’t about to wander around the house naked with two young boys at home—and grabbed her hairbrush to do the minimum maintenance on her hair as she headed downstairs.
She found Ramsey and Tristan in the kitchen, squabbling over which cartoon superhero could beat which other cartoon superhero in a fight. Boys.
“Good morning Xiù!”
“Morning,” she greeted them with a tired smile and went fridge-diving. She found eggs and smoked salmon: perfect. “Where’s Allison?”
Ramsey answered, “She’s out in the yard, just walking around over and over.”
“I think she’s measuring it,” Tristan added helpfully.
“Did she say why?” Xiù asked, digging in a drawer for the ramekins. She was in the mood for poached eggs today.
Xiù glanced out the window. Sure enough, Allison was patrolling the lawn, aiming her phone at the edges of their property. She looked completely engrossed in her work.
Julian hadn’t bothered to dress beyond throwing on some pajama shorts and his foot. It was a good look for him, frankly; Xiù wasn’t about to complain. He scratched and yawned his way down the stairs like a vaguely grumbly bear, and peered at the kids.
“You’re home!” Tristan exclaimed. Both the boys were a little in awe of him, but Tristan in particular seemed to be dangerously close to hero-worship.
“I sure am–OOF! Hi!” They’d both charged over and tackled him around the torso. He in turn picked them up and smothered them in a very fatherly type of hug.
That was an even better look on him.
Xiù left him to field the inevitable barrage of questions and slipped outside to get Allison’s attention. It wasn’t difficult: from the looks of things, Allison was almost done with her measurements anyway.
“I guess you were pretty serious about that wall, huh?”
Allison nodded. That had been one of a long line of things they’d discussed last night. A long line, and a lot of second-guessing and hard questions. Their security, their future, their lives… Whether or not to give Folctha a big middle finger and head over to Franklin instead, or even Nouveau Acadia.
They hadn’t settled on anything concrete, and Xiù’s hope was that they’d stay. Sure, the three of them were independently wealthy and could go wherever they pleased if they wanted to… but she wanted to have roots again. She’d really started to think of Folctha as home, she had the Commune in the alien quarter, she knew some of the locals, she had favourite local businesses…
Sure, being attacked on the street had shaken her. But something in her belly said that she would feel like their attackers had beaten them if they up and left.
Allison just shrugged. “It’s something to focus on. Something we can do, y’know?”
“Admit it, you just want an excuse to have Julian doing manual labor.”
Allison laughed. “…Maybe. You making breakfast?”
“Yeah. Also, Julian’s hanging out with the boys and it’s the cutest thing ever. You need to come see it.”
“Oh, that’s dangerous. There might be an ovarysplosion.”
“Yeah, we really need to figure out that whole family thing,” Xiù nodded.
“After we get the place safe,” Allison asserted. “Or… y’know, decide what we’re gonna do.”
Back inside, Julian was not only being domestic, he was being downright fatherly and mentoring the boys in how to cook bacon. Which didn’t sound that impressive except that Xiù knew for a fact that neither of them knew how to cook a thing. Both their parents were of the mindset that said a kitchen was for women, and men had no business straying anywhere near one.
And yet, there was Julian, big, bare-chested and more of a man than…God, basically anyone. If he could cook bacon whenever he wanted, why couldn’t they?
“And y’know what fellas? All this bacon fat? Save it! You can do all sorts of things with it. I like to fry eggs but Xiù already poached some…toast! We can make toast! And Hollandaise? Xiù?”
Xiù waved a hand. “Go ahead. Dazzle us.”
“Uh…okay,” he paused, suddenly a bit nervous. “So, if I remember we basically make some mayo except with melted butter instead of oil, and…”
“What if we get it wrong?” Ramsey asked.
“Eh. Who cares? Better than wimping out.”
Allison and Xiù glanced at each other, and by unspoken psychic communion agreed to get out of his way and let him work. They set the table instead.
He managed a pretty decent Hollandaise, though it took some effort on Xiù’s part not to get up and do it the right way. He just used a stick blender and a tall glass, which wasn’t how it was done at all!
It turned out to be a pretty good breakfast, especially considering the bacon was done by a boy who’d never cooked anything before. Xiù handled the dishes while Allison took Tristan and Ramsey to school and herself to work, and then found herself alone again when Julian kissed her on the neck and went to do his promised chores.
She checked the door was locked. And the windows. Happy that the place was secure, she retired to their study, and found the leftovers of Allison’s research still up on the monitor.
She’d been looking at options for beefing up their home security, local building contractors, and also at properties for sale in the other colonies.
…Which actually wasn’t a stupid idea anyway, come to think of it. People were moving to Cimbrean all the time, and a landlord with a few properties in the other colonies might stand to make a comfortable income off the rent. Somebody with enough money could even be a property developer.
She picked up where Allison had left off. After all…
Date Point: 15y6m3w1d AV
Whitecrest Clan Enclave, Wi Kao City, Gao
Brother Thurrsto (“Carebear”) of Clan Whitecrest
“…You’re not serious. You can’t be! I… Champion?”
Being summoned back to Gao was one thing, but this? Thurrsto had never even met half the Fathers in the hall, let alone imagined they’d be present specifically to witness… this.
Just what the hell had happened between Genshi, Regaari and the Great Father? Everyone had known Regaari was a shoo-in for Genshi’s successor but now here they were offering it to…
Well, to him. The ugly misfit.
Genshi’s expression, behind the healing wounds, was earnest. “If you want it. What’s your objection?”
“I… look at me!” Thurrsto indicated himself with a paw, from tail to tip. “ I’m no graceful, suave operator like you or Regaari! I’m just a big ‘ol working class male trapped in a good silver coat!”
“Balls,” Regaari chided him. “Firstly, you’ve got a natural crest that matches Genshi’s, so you’re wrong in the first instance. Secondly, Genshi himself has never been a completely traditional example of a Whitecrest, nor am I these days. Thirdly, you’re a Whitecrest and you earned it, just like Fiin earned being a Stoneback. This isn’t a time to worry about too-pretty faces and breed conformation, Brother, this is a time to worry about who’s right for the job.”
“And you think that’s me.”
“If you stopped fretting and thought about it, you’d agree,” Genshi said. “Go ahead, spell it out. Why would we pick you?”
Okay. Time to think. Time to be calm, rational. Sound the waters, sit between light and dark and sift truth from all the hundreds of little fictions and delusions everybody told themselves every day…
“Look, I won’t lie. I know I’m competent. I know I’m smart, I know I’m strong like a brownie. I’m a good medic, a passable spymaster, an occasional spy myself…”
“Occasional?” Regaari asked. “You’re still selling yourself short. Remember that smuggling operation in Duen Gin? You infiltrated that workhouse and maintained your cover for nearly two years. Nobody else could have done that but you. The Clanless adopted you as one of their own, and they never figured out who the snitch was. Even to this day, they still argue over it!”
“…And they’re still an operating source network, too,” Father Mizhra supplied. He was one of the Clan’s most important spymasters, particularly when it came to smuggling. His word carried weight.
“…They are, huh?” That was news to Thurrsto. He’d tried to put that particular operation behind him: he’d made friends in that workhouse, good friends. Deep cover like that could wrench at a ‘Crest and leave him confused about where his loyalties really lay.
“So tell me. Is there any pressing reason you can think of why you shouldn’t be my successor?” Genshi asked.
Thurrsto had never considered himself as Champion. Growing up in a Clan could be a vicious thing, and if there was anything about it that haunted him, it was that he was different. He knew it right from the outset. He was blamed for every fight that broke out, even if he couldn’t conceivably have started it. He had to work harder to impress everyone at every step of the way. Nothing came easy, especially mating. None of that mattered. He knew, before his First Rite, right in his very soul that he was Whitecrest, and nothing in the world would have stopped him.
…And now, he could be the pinnacle of his Clan. The ember of ambition that had driven him the whole way, sometimes flickering but never failing, roared up into a full-blown inferno.
“…No,” he said. “And there are pressing reasons I can think of why I should.”
Genshi chittered, then sprang back into a fighting stance.
“Then take it.”
There was a fight. A vicious one, which left Genshi even more broken and scarred. It wasn’t quick or easy—the old man was wily, fast and experienced—but in the end, Thurrsto stood astride his mentor and former Champion, unscarred and heaving for breath.
“I claim the Clan.” It was an old formula, but every cub knew the words. “Do any Challenge me?”
Slowly, Genshi heaved himself to his knees, turned his head and exposed his throat. “I submit.”
“You may keep your life, Father.” Thurrsto stooped and helped Father Genshi stagger to his feet. “Now let’s see to those wounds.”
Genshi chittered, then groaned. He’d had a rough few days.
“Yes, my Champion,” he said.
Date Point: 15y6m3w1d AV
Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Nofl wasn’t an idiot. He prided himself on it. Which was why, despite living among Humans on what was a de facto Human core world even though Cimbrean was still spoken of as a colony, he took precautions. Humans were deathworlders, and they could be… unstable. A few forcefield emitters hadn’t been expensive, and the ability to put his lab on lockdown when the gangs of armed men started roaming the streets had been invaluable.
Delivering an electric shock through the forcefield to persuade them to find an easier target had been especially satisfying.
The violence had changed things, however. People were more cautious at the moment, they glanced furtively around and conducted their business as though they were rushing to get everything done before the next air raid. It had all robbed him of some of the more enjoyable habits in his daily routine.
No matter! He took the opportunity to follow Bozo around Folctha and see what exactly it was the massive canid did with his days.
As it turned out, the dog’s main activities were lots of sniffing around, urinating on things, and investigating friendly strangers to see if they had any food… but there was a method to it, too. There was much visiting of what might best be termed his “friends.” It seemed ridiculous to say, but Bozo and his pups seemed to understand that something was wrong, and were doing their canine best to help.
It was strange that nobody considered him a threat, despite that he was one of the more dangerous beings roaming the streets. In fact, as Nofl was heading back to his lab, Bozo decided to follow along at a respectful distance, constantly on the prowl and alert for…threats, presumably. Apparently Nofl was in need of protection. He wasn’t about to argue with Bozo.
It was therefore a bit distressing when Bozo suddenly issued one of his skull-rattling barks, then thundered off down the block and around the corner at a frankly alarming speed. When Nofl eventually caught up, he found Julian Esticitty of all people sitting cross-legged on the lab’s front steps, wrestling with a manically excited Bozo and surrounded by a heap of shopping bags. Goodness!
Nofl hadn’t recognised the man on their first meeting, but he could hardly be blamed for that. At that point, Etsicitty hadn’t been remotely as famous as he was now and all Nofl had seen had been a rather shoddy prosthetic foot attached to a man who deserved much better.
Hopefully he’d found an upgrade since then, but he was wearing a pair of boots today and it was impossible to tell.
“…Well! This is an unexpected pleasure!”
“Uh… yeah. I was wondering if we could talk?” Julian scratched at the back of his head.
“I’d love to, dear. We really did get off on the wrong foot last time… as it were, hmm?”
The big man chuckled in a reassuringly soft tone and shook his head. “Gabe was right, you are a scandalous fella, aren’t you?”
“Only when people are scandalized,” Nofl retorted primly, and shut down his lab’s forcefield. “I hope you didn’t get shocked?”
“Unlike some fellas, I can read warning signs. Though if I were you, I’d use the standard human signs too. The little blue Dominion standard icons don’t mean much to the unaware.”
“Well, the signs aren’t there for Humans, darling. The shock won’t really harm you, but it might badly jangle anybody else’s nerves… come in! Come in!”
Julian shrugged, easily gathered all his shopping together, and shouldered himself somewhat sideways through the door.
“So to what do I owe the pleasure? Don’t tell me you finally got bored of that lump of plastic some… hack bolted to your leg?”
“Eh, I replaced that a while ago with something much nicer…here.” He sat down, pulled off his left boot and showed it off.
Nofl inspected it. It was, he had to agree, a considerable improvement. Far from perfect of course, but at least it was marginally capable of keeping up with a Human’s needs, especially a serious physical specimen like Julian.
“I recognize that work. I must ask, how did you get him to calm down, dear?”
“I… asked nicely?”
“…Fascinating.” Nofl whipped a diagnostic wand out of its drawer and ran it over the prosthetic. “Oh…dear me. The composite bones all have fractures, two of the metatarsals are more glue than composite at this point, the synthetic calluses are wearing down, and there’s even some over-stress in the artificial musculature. Julian dear, what have you been doing? Wrestling gorillas?”
“Uh… Stuff. Mostly lifting, and mentoring with the Ten’Gewek.”
“Wrestling gorillas indeed. Oh no, no, no this can’t keep up with you at all. Not unless you want to run it through a complete maintenance cycle every fortnight.”
“Yeah. On that note, I went to the Applied Medtronics office just before I came here. Do you know how much they wanted to charge for repairs!?”
“Your first-born child and a majority share in your business ventures, no doubt. I’d call them cowboys, but I rather fear the hat would suit them… Oh, look at the extensor muscles. They’ve completely lost their elasticity!”
Julian chuckled again. “Scandalous! But you’re trying too hard with the joke, little fella. Lay it on a little thinner next time!”
“See! This is what I want! Why can nobody else play along?”
“I dunno…maybe I’m just used to weird in my life.”
This had proved to be an interesting spice on the daily routine! Nofl finished his interrogation of the foot’s internal structure and straightened up.
“Well. You have two options, but you already rejected one of them. I presume your feelings on having a clone foot regrown and surgically attached are unchanged?”
“Well…I ain’t straight out rejected it, but I’m still…fuck, I’ll admit I’m uncomfortable with it. But I also can’t afford to pay fifty thousand pounds every time something goes wrong.”
“You, my dear old thing, need a foot that can heal itself.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Julian waved a hand. “I get the argument, I believe it, too. It’s just…”
“Then we’ll just have to make you a synthetic foot that can heal. Lucky for you, I’ve been working on exactly that. I will caution you, however, that is considerably more experimental than a properly cloned foot. And the expense argument wouldn’t be much reduced.”
Julian nodded solemnly and stood up again now that Nofl was done with his inspection. “…Yeah. Okay. Here’s my thing.” He started pacing around the room. “I’m…fuck. Okay. I’ve never said this to anyone besides my girlfriends. Are we like, uh, doctor and patient now?”
“My dear old thing, if you request it then I will adhere to medical confidentiality from here on out,” Nofl promised him. “What’s the problem?” he asked, after Julian had nodded.
“I’m, uh…well, I’m not too keen on going under anesthetic. When I was, uh, captured the Corti who took me…”
He trailed off. That was clearly a topic that would be unwise to broach, so instead Nofl attempted to be reassuring instead.
“…Dear me, we wouldn’t have to render you unconscious! No, no, no.” Nofl skipped over to his console and called up the relevant files.
“…Really? But, isn’t this, like, major surgery?”
“A simple stick-and-paste job. Human biology responds amazingly well to nails and glue, never mind the tools at my disposal.”
“But still… kind of a big deal, right?”
“Oh goodness no, far from it: Human orthopaedic surgeons carry out much more invasive procedures all the time under local anesthesia. No, the worst you’d suffer is a temporarily heightened sensitivity to touch and pain. And a month on regenerative medicine to ensure all is well, of course. But that’s very standard at this point. It’s won FDA provisional approval too!”
“Aren’t we under British jurisdiction here? I don’t think the FDA applies.”
“Yes, dear, the Brits approved it ages ago. Winning FDA approval, however, is apparently an exercise in dark political wizardry. My silver banner ‘betters’ love that game so much that I prefer not to spoil their fun by poking my nose in.”
“How kind of you,” Julian deadpanned.
“Especially seeing as I’d probably be much better at it than they are.” Nofl imitated a grin for his patient’s benefit and then called up his notes on the procedure. “There!”
“…Right. So, uh…you promise I’ll be awake? In control?”
“Yes, dear. I will need to paralyze your leg for a few moments at the most critical part, but we can leave the rest free and clear. Really, the most difficult part will be growing the foot in the first place. That will take me an hour or so.”
“…Growing a whole goddamn foot in an hour is the difficult part?”
“Oh my, yes! We need to use the causal accelerator cabinet for that, and iterate a few dozen times at once to ensure all is well. I will give you nothing less than a perfect foot!”
“…The hell do you do with the spares?”
“Incineration of the cell cultures. There shouldn’t be any spare actual feet; there’s no point in growing an entire foot just to throw it away after all!”
Julian’s expression was difficult to read. He continued to pace the room, and for whatever reason this bout of nervous ambulation attracted Bozo’s attention, who planted himself firmly in the middle of the room and wagged his tail reassuringly.
“What…would this cost me?”
“For you? Cost and time. The largest part is the energy bill for the causal accelerator which is… er, prodigious, but the rest of it is vat nutrients and suchlike. All quite inexpensive. I will need a tissue sample, however.”
Julian continued to pace back and forth, clearly conflicted. Nofl wouldn’t pretend to precisely understand the psychology involved—Humans were weird in some important ways—but he also knew better than to interrupt.
“…Okay. Let’s do this before I chicken out.”
Nofl clapped happily and whipped out the disclosure forms. “Excellent! Please give these a quick read…a thumbprint there…yes, yes, standard disclosure…now just a teensy biopsy…”
From there, things progressed efficiently. In just over an hour, the foot was grown and half an hour after that it had been attached, tested, and the nerve block removed. Julian started on his first round of Cruezzir-Derivative to ensure his neural functioning fully adapted to the sudden reappearance of a proper foot and then… took his first step.
The next few minutes were spent much like Gabriel had; the big man bounced and prowled about the lab, his expression a mixture of puzzled and delighted wonder at his newfound wholeness.
“Christ, I hadn’t realized how much my foot was limiting me! This is great, it’s–OW!”
“Careful, dear! Your foot’s nerves will be hypersensitive for at least the next day or two. This is why you must get plenty of activity, and you must take the full course of the medicine! Take full advantage of physiotherapy while you’re on the medicine, too. Your body will have undoubtedly been compensating for the crime that befell your foot.”
Julian nodded and sat down to examine Nofl’s handiwork. There was a very visible discontinuity where his tan just ended, but no visible seam. Nofl double-checked his creation and noted with gratification that the immune response was effectively nil. The only negative effect the patient was suffering was a minor—very minor—dip in blood pressure. Hardly surprising considering Nofl had just attached a whole appendage to his circulatory system.
Julian seemed struck with a thoughtful expression, suddenly. “Why didn’t you match the skin tone?”
Nofl clapped excitedly. He loved an astute patient. “For your benefit, dear! Humans take body sanctity very seriously. You especially! In time, the tan will match with the rest of you, and that will give you time to adjust to the reality of it.”
“…Funny, you’ve got a better bedside manner than a lot of human doctors.”
“Well, if I must be honest it is a learned response, but I thank you for the compliment. Actually,” Nofl realized, “I do think that, in the interests of full disclosure, I should share something with you that I have recently learned.”
“I… may have recently come into possession of a full archive of every ‘zoological’ study ever carried out on human abductees, sanctioned or otherwise. Hypothesis, experimental method, outcome… everything.”
One of the most complex emotions to read on a Human had to be trepidation. On Julian, however, it was as easy to read as a Primary Mushroom was to eat. He froze and gave first Nofl then the computer terminal in the corner a deeply wary look.
“…You did, huh? …Just how the hell am I supposed to feel about that?”
“I have been led to believe the correct answer for your kind is something like ‘uneasy.’”
Well, he was hardly a conversationalist. “In any case, I felt you should know the full details of the…I hesitate to call it a ‘program of study’ that led to your capture and exile…anyway.” Nofl picked up a tablet and summoned up the files. “They’re all on this.”
“Well…I hate to ask, but I gotta admit I’m curious. What was the hypothesis of the experiment?”
Nofl couldn’t restrain his delight. “Honey! You’re full of excellent questions! The hypothesis was this: that not even an ideal Human could survive on Nightmare for long, and therefore even your species would one day want our products and services. Or so it is written in the reporting. In any case, that ideal Human ended up being you. Please take no offense, but the idiot should at least be given credit for doing something right in this whole mess. Everything else was…Urgh! The gauche fool wrote the research proposal more like a sales pitch than anything else, dear oh dear…”
Julian allowed a small, satisfied grin to crawl up the side of his mouth. “I take it I disproved his hypothesis, then.”
“Hers, and yes. She never lived to see her humiliation, though.”
“Improper containment procedures with another ‘sample.’ Bacterial infection. Staphylococcus, oh dear.”
“Okay,” Julian shook his head like Humans seemed to do to clear their thoughts, and sent his wild hair flailing atop his skull. Hypnotic to watch, really. “So, why tell me all this? Why now?”
“Trust, dear. It seems my newfound mission is to build trust between our species. That, and…hell!” He flapped his hands in exasperation. “It felt like the right thing to do!”
“I am at the bottom of the societal heap for a reason, darling. I am a steel banner, forbidden to breed. For all my other exceptional qualities, I am far too emotional. Too… imbued with moral agency.”
“Wait. Seriously? Your species breeds against that?”
“Amorality is a powerful force. Do you have any idea what kind of great and awesome things can be done by a population that isn’t burdened with concerns like good and evil?”
Julian looked thoughtful again. “I reckon I do, little fella. Have you studied the Nazis? And the Khmer Rouge? The Great Leap Forward? And…just, all of the things where Stalin was involved?”
“Oh yes. Stalin would have made a very excellent Corti, if not for a… small flaw in his sense of enlightened self-interest. He always held that being feared is better than being loved, without realizing that it’s quite possible to achieve both.”
“See, that’s the thing,” Julian massaged his foot slightly disbelievingly, then stood up to yet again prowl and pace. “I always liked history, yeah? And I used to get into these really stupid arguments with one of my buddies when we were done playing basketball or whatever. He was convinced it was Hitler…and it’s hard to argue that. But for my money, I always thought the most evil man in history was probably Stalin. Not Hitler or the others. Stalin.”
“How do you figure?”
“Hitler was crazy. I don’t know how much it can be said he was fully in control of himself. Stalin, though, that motherfucker knew exactly what he was doing. He was completely, coldly sane. And if I were you, I’d keep that comparison with Stalin to yourself.”
“I’m sure I did mention the flaw that would have made him a terrible Corti instead.”
“People won’t really key in on that, fella. All you gotta do is say ‘Stalin’ and the conversation’s over.’
Nofl sighed. “You’re right of course, darling. I can count on one… hah, one foot, how many people I know who really and truly listen.”
“Right,” Julian sighed. “Well. I’ll…give this a read. And as far as physiotherapy, do you have anyone specific in mind?”
“Warhorse, of course. I assume you two are still friends?”
“…This is going to hurt, isn’t it.”
“Yes. But the rewards should be ample. A full month, Julian! Take advantage!”
“…Right.” Julian had all the stoic resignation of a condemned man. “Anyway. I’ll see him about this, get my errands taken care of and stuff. I better get going.”
“Don’t forget your old foot.”
“…Jeez.” Julian picked it up and considered it. “I was walking around on this two hours ago.”
It wasn’t complete, of course: part of the surgery had been removing the attachment anchored in his tibia, which needed to be properly disposed of as medical waste and the interface cleaned up as best as could be managed. There was actually quite a lot of (admittedly well and judiciously placed) titanium still inside his leg and would be for the rest of his life. Replacing the entire tibia would have been more satisfactory, but somehow Nofl understood Julian would never agree to having his leg flayed open to the calf and reconstructed. Oh well.
“Things have come a long way in the last ten years.”
“Kinda hits you in the head sometimes.” Julian bounced tentatively on his new foot one last time, winced as the hypersensitive nerve endings complained at him, then pulled his boot on and wiggled his foot in it, sighing happily. “…Thank you.”
“It should be perfect. But come back here at the first hint of anything wrong, hmm?” Nofl smiled. “Oh! And you should probably inform your doctor, too. I daresay they’ll be delighted to test the limits of their clinical codes.”
“I’ll do that.”
Nofl watched his handiwork walk out the door with considerable satisfaction, then decided he should probably keep his own record-keeping in order. He was, technically one of Folctha’s medical institutions after all. And he was now curious to see if Human database codes could cover a scenario like this.
As it turned out, they could. It took him a few minutes to find the appropriate entry in the SNOMED library, but when he did it elicted a chuckle.
Feeling thoroughly pleased with himself and with life in general, he carefully made a record in Julian Etsicitty’s notes.
“SCTID 178841003: Complex reconstruction operation on hand and foot”
In other words, a job well done.
Date Point: 15y6m3w1d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
The front door beeped, unlocked, closed again, and Julian’s voice floated through from the kitchen, doing his awful best at some Mandarin. “Wo hui lai le!”
Xiù giggled. It made her heart melt that they tried, and that was more than enough to forgive the mangled pronunciation. “Hey!”
There was the sound of a lot of bags being dumped on the breakfast bar, and Julian sauntered through the living room. “How was that?” he asked.
“Terrible,” she grinned over her shoulder at him. “I didn’t know you knew that one!”
“Al and I practice when you’re not around.” He kissed her neck and draped himself heavily over her from behind. “…Properties in Franklin? I thought you didn’t want to leave?”
“Right now, plots and homes over there are really cheap. If we buy them up and develop them then we can charge rent, maybe sell them when they’re worth twice as much…” Xiù explained. “And if you and Al decide that you don’t wanna stay here, well… we’ll have somewhere to live.”
“Makes sense, I guess.” Julian sat down in the reading chair. “I met Nofl. Interestin’ fella.”
“He’s alright, isn’t he?”
“Yeah. Had him take a look at my foot.”
Xiù nodded distractedly. There was a big parcel of land up for sale in the south of Franklin, and she was trying to figure out if buying it up and building houses, or just buying existing properties was the better route. “All better?”
“Best it’s been in years.”
“That’s good…” Xiù agreed vaguely.
She clicked through her work for a few seconds longer and then Julian kicked his legs out and dropped his bare, flesh-and-blood, left foot in her lap. She stared down at it.
“…Wh-? You got it regrown?!” She couldn’t believe it. He’d always been dead-set against having anything other than his prosthetic.
He nodded. “Took an hour, more or less.”’
“Well…because I love you. I mean, isn’t this what you were hoping for?”
“No, I–! I mean yes, but… I thought you always hated the idea?”
“I mean…I did. Do. But, uh, I trust you. And my friends, and…well, spending all that money every few months woulda been stupid…and I guess I’m pretty rough on myself with work…so I guess-Yah!” Xiù had reached down to touch it and he flinched. “That tickles!”
He laughed sheepishly and rubbed it. “It’s a bit sensitive right now. Also, no calluses. So a big part of the next month is gonna be me fixing that. Lots of trail jogging I think. I’m on that magic regenerative medicine too, just to make sure nothing goes wrong. So…I’ll be home on convalescent leave.”
“The whole time? What about Akyawentuo?”
“Shit, I might just need a whole month to figure out how to explain cloning to Vemik anyway. And I can still visit quick. Ooh! Maybe we can start sending letters! I should email the professor and see if his writing is good enough!”
“Wow. Having some company around the house for a change. That sounds… really nice, actually.”
“I’ll be busy, but…yeah.” He gave her a slightly concerned look. “…Are you feeling a bit neglected, baobei?”
Xiù sighed and shrugged. “No, but… Al goes to work, the boys go to school, you go and do cavemonkey stuff or training work with the SOR… I have the Commune and Yulna and everything, but sometimes I miss being cooped up in a tiny box with the two of you every day. I mean, I like that I have more elbow room now, but I got used to you always being in arm’s reach.”
On a whim, she climbed out of the office chair and into his lap, sideways. He pulled her close, they kissed, and she snuggled into his chest.
“See?” she said. “Nice.”
“Heh. Point made.”
“…I kinda like being the homemaker, though. So don’t worry about that.”
He squeezed her. “You sure?”
“Yeah! It’s relaxing.” She glanced down at the bandage on her arm. “…Mostly. What the hell is up with my life? Can’t I go one year without somebody or something trying to abduct me or kill me?”
“Five, in stasis.”
Xiù couldn’t help it. A smile forced its way onto her face. “…Fine. Five in stasis. But apart from that…” She gave him a mock glare.
“We live in interesting times. And I guess we’re interesting people.” Julian shrugged. “You did want to be famous.”
“Hmm. Be careful what you wish for, eh?”
“A little less stabbing and stuff would be nice though, yeah.”
Julian took her hand and stroked a finger along her arm, next to the bandage. “…I hate seeing you get hurt.”
“I’ve had worse.”
He squeezed her. “I hate that, too… actually, I have a question.”
“Nofl could probably fix your scars.”
Xiù hadn’t thought of that. But he was right. If he could bolt on a functioning foot in an hour, then smoothing out all her scars would have to be pretty trivial. The mangled marks that Hunter had left on her arm, her split eyebrow, the tiny nick on her throat where Zane had pressed a blade to it… She could be rid of it all.
And a few years ago, maybe she’d have jumped at the chance.
“…Yeah, he probably could. But they don’t hurt, and they’re part of me now. I mean, fixing this–” she tickled his foot and he squirmed, “–is one thing. Your foot was slowing you down. But these? I don’t know. Do you think they make me ugly?”
“Baobei, you couldn’t be ugly if you were wearing a muddy potato sack.”
That brought a happy glow to her face and she kissed him again. “Smooth.”
“I have my moments,” he smiled. “And actually, I like your scars. I just thought you don’t.”
“…I’ll keep them,” Xiù decided.
“There’s that confidence I like.” He gave her a kiss, then deepened it. “Mm! Hmm… So we have the house all to ourselves…”
“…Yeah we do.” Xiù turned, sat up in his lap and draped her arms over his shoulders. “Got something in mind?”
His finger trailed up her arm, along her jawbone and then down until it hooked in the neckline of her top. “Oh, I got lotsa things in mind.”
Xiù grinned, kissed his nose, and then reached over to push the door closed, sealing them off in a private, intimate little space.
“Okay then,” she said. “Show me.”
He was entirely happy to oblige.
Date Point: 15y7m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Rachel “Ray” Wheeler
Jamie was the first of the Dauntless crew to ship out back to Earth. Cook was long gone, of course, having been committed to a psychiatric hospital within only a day or two of their return, but for the rest of them…
There’d been a lot of legal bullshit to handle. All of them were legally dead, after all. Then there’d been the terror attack, which hadn’t reached them in their guest quarters on the military base but it had shaken things up and locked them down.
Finally, a week after the attacks, Ray was enjoying her first day of freedom. And she was using it to say goodbye to a friend and then visit a grieving family.
It was an emotional farewell. Jamie was pretty adamant that he planned to live the rest of his days quietly, surrounded by family, and staying as far away from the Byron Group as he possibly could. Moses Byron had accepted the criticism with a quiet nod.
Holly was talking about taking Vows. Ray didn’t know if she’d actually go for it, but she seemed pretty serious. And as for Spears…
Spears was weighing up a job offer from Byron. That had driven a bit of a wedge between him and Jamie, who blamed Byron for everything they’d gone through, and thus for the deaths of Thomas Berry and Pete Conley. There hadn’t been any recrimination, exactly, but it was clear both men were aware of a divide opening that neither of them knew how to fix.
In the end, it seemed like the last thing the crew of Dauntless had done together had been to escape. Any hopes Ray had had about them remaining an inseparable unit afterwards had crumbled pretty quickly. All of them wanted to move on and put Hell behind them. That was hard to do, when surrounded by the people who’d most intimately remind them of it.
Still, Spears and Jamie shared a handshake-hug and some warm words in the departures lounge. Maybe the promises to visit and catch up sometime were even sincere. Ray doubted they’d be kept, though. Somehow, she could feel it in her gut that today would be the last time those two men ever saw each other.
No sense crying over it, though. They were both alive, and that was the important part. They had a future in front of them. Keeping the past’s ghost alive would have been nice, but she’d settle for this.
Jamie’s hug with Holly was rather more heartfelt. “You take care of yourself, Hol.”
Holly was fighting back tears. “You too…”
Finally, it was Ray’s turn. Jamie stopped in front of her and gave her a complicated smile. “…I never thanked you properly,” he said at last.
“For always pushing. For never giving up. I think we all kinda got used to the idea of being stuck there until we died, but you never quit. I think we only got out because of you.”
Ray vaguely noticed Spears and Holly nod in her peripheral vision, but she looked down at her feet. “We got out as a team, Jamie,” she told him.
“…I’m gonna miss the hell outta you, Ray.”
“Hey. You ever want to see me, just call. I’ll come.” She meant it. Again, somehow, she suspected he wouldn’t.
They hugged, and Ray wiped away some tears as he gathered his bags and headed through the gate with his family. He paused just before heading through, turned back and waved, they waved back, and then…
And then, Jamie Choi was gone. Possibly she’d never see him again.
That was the first of the day’s two unpleasant jobs. She left Spears and Holly to return to the base or whatever it was they had planned for the day, and headed down to Delaney Row for her second.
She’d got to know Jack Tisdale during her time on the base. Warhorse had introduced them properly, and it broke Ray’s heart to see just how much such a fine young man lived in his sister’s shadow. He was aware of it, too, but didn’t seem to know quite where that shadow ended or how to step out of it.
He was sitting on the wall in front of his parents’ house waiting for her, and stood up as she got out of the cab. She was getting stronger day by day, but walking all the way across town was a bit more than she felt she could handle, for the moment.
“Hey, Doctor Wheeler.”
“I told you, you can call me Ray,” she smiled.
He cleared his throat. “Sorry. Just a little nervous.”
“Well, for starters I didn’t tell them who you are or why you’re visiting,” Jack explained
“…Huh. Uh… why not?”
He shifted awkwardly. “This is all kind of a big deal for my family. To me, it feels like… like if Sara had been an organ donor and we suddenly met the woman who’d inherited her heart, you know?”
Ray nodded. “Is everything okay? If this is too awkward, I could–”
“No, don’t go,” Jack interrupted her. “Look… can I tell you something about my parents, just between you and me?”
Ray nodded, and he chewed on his thumbnail for a second, staring distractedly down the street as he thought. “…Look, I’m no kind of a psychologist, but… sometimes I’m not sure they ever finished grieving for her. I think having that huge secret hanging over her murder, and the fact that the, uh, individual responsible was never brought to justice… It’s all kind of hung over them and got in their way.”
“So what are you saying?”
“I’m saying… I don’t know. Don’t be surprised if they get very emotional. Dad especially. You might get all five stages of grief in one go.”
Ray nodded, then took a deep breath and looked at the house. “…Shall we?”
The Tisdale house was obviously home to a little girl, and a willfully girly one, too. The adult attempts at order and aesthetic were made ridiculous by the ubiquity of pink, princesses and ponies, jarringly interrupted here and there by the occasional well-meaning but obviously futile parental effort to steer their daughter onto a slightly less feminine course.
Of the child herself, however, there was no sign. Presumably she was in kindergarten or school.
Behind the frills and fairies however, the house smelled of scented candles, incense and burnt sage. A handsome Vegvísir tapestry decorated the cluttered hallway wall, behind an equally cluttered bookshelf full of titles like “The Crystal Bible” (volumes 1-3), “Book of Shadows,” “Drawing Down the Moon,” “The Spiral Dance” and “The Book of Kitchen Witchery.” Even the doormat sported a pentagram and the words “Blessed Be.”
Interesting folks, the Tisdales.
Things were more toned-down in the living room, which had two sofas, a sturdy oak dining table, and an archway through into the kitchen. It was a nice house, actually. And allegedly this was the cheap part of town.
Mark Tisdale was… impressive. Ray had never met a man who suited long salt-and-pepper hair before—normally the options were wizard or beatnik—but it combined with the tattoos and hard knotwood muscles to make him look fearsome.
Jack clearly took more after his mother, who was petite and brown-haired and slender. The hair had to be dyed, and Ray momentarily realized she hadn’t visited a salon since getting back, which had been pretty high on her to-do list while fantasizing about their escape. But the face was Jack’s, as was the slightly shy but optimistic energy.
She welcomed Ray into their home and offered her a drink. It sounded like they had every conceivable infusion under the sun stuffed in one of the larger kitchen cupboards: Ray talked her down to a glass of juice. Hot drinks and soup still made her uncomfortable.
Despite his fearsome appearance, Mark immediately turned out to be a huge soft touch. His handshake was firm but gentle, his welcoming smile warm and genuine, and his nerves obvious.
“You have a lovely place,” Ray complimented them as she sat down.
“It’s usually covered in dolls and teddy bears…” Hayley grumbled fondly. “And laundry.”
“Hayley went into a cleaning frenzy when Jack said you were coming,” Mark explained, giving his wife the look of weary fondness that seemed to be hard-wired into every man alive.
That made Ray laugh. “Thank you. You didn’t need to bother.”
Jack chuckled and touched his mother on the arm as he entered the kitchen. “I’ll handle the drinks,” he said. “You sit.”
“…Right.” Hayley was obviously glad to be off her feet, and perched on the couch next to Mark with some visible nerves. “Um… Neither Gabe or Jack ever really said who you are, or why you wanted to meet us.”
“I was one of the mission scientists on BGEV-03 Dauntless,” Ray explained. “Doctor Rachel Wheeler, but I prefer Ray.”
They nodded, so she pushed ahead, briefly going over a carefully curated version of her meeting with Gabe Arés in the park.
“Anyway… we got to talking about this and that, and… well he told me about your daughter, Sara.”
The change was immediate. It was like a ten-tonne mass of sadness had been floating around the ceiling just waiting for an excuse to drop on them. Both parents glanced at each other and their age showed a little more, the lines in their faces got a little deeper.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know that’s got to be a painful subject. But… well, he told me all about her. And about how her life affected the people around her, and the fact that Gabe’s son joined the military and became who he is today because of her…”
Mark nodded. “We’d have all had pretty different lives if she was still around,” he said hollowly.
Ray nodded. “For instance… I’d be dead right now.”
They stared at her. Jack chose that moment to hand out the drinks, and she took a sip of her juice before continuing. “I actually did die, you see. Or at least, I suffered a mortal wound. But the HEAT were there, and the first one to get to me was ‘Horse’s buddy Baseball. And I talked with him, and he said the only reason he joined the HEAT was because of ‘Horse, and… to cut a long story short, they got me into surgery and I lived.”
Jack sat down next to her and nodded. “I was there. She came back through the array in a body bag. Without John and Adam…”
“I’d be dead,” Ray said. “And without Sara…”
“…There’d be no John and Adam,” Jack finished.
“So… you came to us?” Mark asked. Ray glanced at Jack, who took a sip of his cup of tea before putting it down.
“Dad… You know why I enlisted. You know why Adam enlisted, and why Ava went into photojournalism. It’s about making her life matter. Well…”
“Look, I know I’m cold comfort,” Ray interjected. “If you had the choice between your little girl living and some stranger you never even heard of dying? I know you’d choose her, and you’d be right to. But you didn’t get to choose, and I lived. I… just wanted you to know. In case it was any kind of a help at all.”
Hayley scrubbed away some tears and then crossed the room to sit next to Ray. After a wordless second, she gave Ray a hug.
Mark’s reaction was more complex. A whole series of emotions seemed to roll through him, all tightly contained and visible only by their shadows across his face. He didn’t move from where he sat, but after a few moments of deep thought he finally just… gave up. Sagged. Softened.
“Doctor Wheeler–” he began.
“…I’m sorry. I don’t really feel any better.”
He stood up and shook her hand. “I appreciate the thought, but… If you’re trying to help us find closure, I don’t think there is any. Not for me, anyway…” He cleared his throat and then headed for the door. “Stay as long as you like.”
“Dad?” Jack asked.
“If you need me, I’ll be down at the Dog House.”
He let himself out with a kind of stiff dignity, and left them alone.
Jack sighed and shook his head. “…Dammit.”
Ray had no idea what to do next. She settled for retrieving her juice and drinking it while Hayley stood up, checked that her husband was gone, and then returned to the other couch.
“Sorry,” she said.
“He’s obviously a passionate man,” Ray said. “No need to apologize for that.”
Hayley gave the closed door a look that was equal parts fond and sad. “You have no idea. But I think he probably will feel better, after he’s had time to go over things in his head.”
“I hope so.” Ray finished her juice and set it aside. “…Uh, if it’s not too painful? I think I’d like to hear the story from your perspective.”
Hayley nodded, and took a second to gaze past the floor as she got her memory in order.
“…Actually,” she said after a while, “I think I’d like to hear your story.”
“Are you sure?”
It was Ray’s turn to gather her thoughts, though it didn’t take long. She’d been sharing her account with people for a while now. She was getting pretty good at it.
“Well… I guess it started with a crooked merchant who sold MBG some bad star charts…” she began.
Date Point: 15y7m AV
The Dog House, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
No trip to the Dog House was complete without a metric ton of pain, and tonight’s offering was way, way worse than anything Warhorse had ever inflicted before. Nofl had apparently called ahead about Julian’s foot and his month on the Crude, so once he showed himself at the gym, Adam decided to push things as hard as they could possibly be pushed.
Sometimes, Julian wondered if everything that had happened to him might end up going to his head. He was tough and strong enough these days to hang with the HEAT. He was well more than a match for anyone outside of it, and it showed. He was apparently pretty handsome too, at least according to his girlfriends. Then there was the wealth he’d found himself with, his celebrity status, how special his work was and all the rest…that was a heady position to be in, no lie about it, and he often wondered if it was maybe all too easy to fall into some kind of self-regarding trap about it all.
Fortunately, Julian reckoned he had access to a few easy antidotes to any lurking hubris: wrestle Yan, or hang out with the HEAT. There weren’t many better ways to instantly humble oneself.
Even better? Let Warhorse crush you like a bug. With just his hands.
It was late evening. Julian had lifted until he had absolutely nothing left to give, and then some. He’d flopped to the ground, too weak to even stand anymore, and Adam decided that it was high time for a sports massage. He had his weird metal “scraping” tools and everything but frankly he didn’t need them. Adam had a grip that made Vemik’s seem like a little boy’s and he didn’t even pretend to hold back. The giant bastard worked with so much crushing strength, Julian imagined he could hear his muscles squish and tear as they were forced into a more perfect looseness and alignment.
Saying it hurt was an understatement like saying the ocean was wet.
Eventually, Adam grunted in satisfaction, climbed off of Julian’s hips, and flipped him over. Adam’s big goofy grin managed the trick of being simultaneously smug, friendly, playful, and sympathetic.
“There! All those years compensating for the foot did a fuckin’ number on your spine, so I smashed all that out for you. You’ll feel way better in an hour when the Crude fixes you up!”
Julian rested his forearm on top his forehead and groaned in reply.
“Aww, don’t be a big baby! It’ll be fine, I promise. Have I let you down yet?” Adam helped Julian up to a sitting position, then hoisted him up to a bench; he was still light-headed.
“Ungh …no, I guess…wait, is this how you fellas train?”
“Yup! Well, the Crude is a big part of it, sure. And if you do it long enough you can train way harder. We’re not gonna do that, this is strictly rehab and some opportunistic body hardening. I mean…” He have Julian a calculating look. “Unless you wanna get bigger?”
Honestly? That could be a fun project, but these days Julian knew what kind of time and effort it would take, and that made it not quite as tempting as it might have been a year ago. “…Nah, not too much. I’m pretty damn big as it is. All I want to do is keep ahead of Vemik.”
“Okay! We can do that. I reckon you’re about as big as a healthy man with your frame can normally get anyway, anything too much more and you’d need to dedicate yourself, y’know? We won’t add much bulk, but we’ll use the month to slab on a lot of weight and strength, and get you conditioned as fuck, too. How ‘bout that? Keep up with Vemik?”
The bastard knew how to make a sales pitch. “…Okay. Nothing too crazy, though.”
Adam’s happy grin stretched from ear to ear. “Sweet! Also! I got some non-Slab stuff to talk about, if you want!”
That piqued his interest. “Wait, Warhorse, talking about something other than a meal plan?”
“Har har,” Adam rolled his eyes good-naturedly. “But for real, this is pretty important. There’s all this fallout flyin’ round from the APA attack, right? An’ both the SOR and my dad have gotta work through it all, an’…”
“I did notice Murray followin’ Xiù around. Thank you from me to him, by the way.”
“You did? Shit. He’s slipping.”
“Nah, I’m just good,” Julian grinned. “I gotta have something next to you bastards…”
Adam snickered and offered Julian a water bottle, spiked with…whatever witchcraft he’d been enthused about lately. Whatever, it seemed to help.
“Anyway, Dad thinks he’s hit on a solution, and my CO likes it enough he gave it the go-ahead. Oh! Time’s up, get up and move!”
It wouldn’t be a training session with Adam if it didn’t include some murderously intense intervals. They spent a few minutes lifting, sprinting, sparring and jumping their way across the open space in Adam’s gym. By the end of it Julian was again utterly winded while Adam hardly seemed to notice. The grinning hulk waited a bit for Julian to catch his breath and jumped right back into the conversation. “You three had some pretty serious tactics training before you left, if I remember right. We put you through some of it ourselves.”
It took Julian a moment to unscramble his brain and remember. “…Yeah. We, uh, had a bit of a refresher on that like…six months ago? I think? It was urban assault if I remember. Not sure why it was so important but there were paintball guns involved, so I wasn’t complaining.”
“Right. So you have the skills to do private military contracting.”
“Yeah! Or, at least, enough for some intro-level security work. You’d gain experience while doing it, too.”
“Us?” Julian swigged his water.
“Yeah! Like, okay. You didn’t come up through the military, right? Normally that’d be a showstopper but you three’ve got some unique qualifications, and we know you’re cool under pressure, and…well, recent events sorta confirm that. And we trust you. That’s really the most important part. We can train people all day long, but we can’t vet ‘em fast enough. APA’s got all the spooks, uh, spooked. But you three? We can arm you and trust you’ll be useful right away.”
“Are we expecting another attack?”
Adam shrugged. “They promised more to come. An’ this way, it’s easier to give you access to Akyawentuo, too. You’ll have access badges to Sharman, all that. The officers all think this’ll solve a bunch of problems at once, y’know?”
“…You guys decided all this today?”
“Yeah. We figured out it was a problem right when we tried to come up with a schedule with our security forces. We gotta patrol you guys, our own property, and a couple other places ‘round the city on top of what dad’s guys gotta deal with, and there just aren’t enough people to do it. If we didn’t have to worry about y’all…”
“That makes sense. Not sure what Xiù will think, but Allison? She’ll jump at it.”
“Which reminds me. Dad said to tell her the prosecutor agrees they have bigger concerns. Uh, they’re asking in return that you three keep a low profile for the moment.”
“…Why are you telling me all this?”
“Well, ‘cuz I know you, and Nofl’s message came right when we were hashing all this out. Well, when the officers were. I just happened to be there and I spoke up.”
“You were there for something like this? What were you doing?”
Adam shrugged his vast shoulders. “What else? Lifting! It was my personal training day with Powell when it all blew up.”
“Well… If it helps us stay safe and gives us the means to look after ourselves, I’m all for it.”
“Pay’s good, too.”
“I’ll talk to the girls.”
“Bueno. Time’s u–”
Adam’s inevitable call to return to the torture was interrupted by the door, which was shoved open unceremoniously, and a human thundercloud came in off the street.
He immediately had Adam’s attention. “…’Lo, Mark.”
Mark gave Adam the slightly dazed look of a man who’d been stewing on some pretty intense feelings for a while and needed a second to remember how to interact with people. “…I need to beat on something. Someone. I don’t know.”
“Shit, man. You okay?” ‘Horse asked the question while moving toward the locker where he kept the boxing gloves. Mark just waved a hand and shook his head. “…Right. Julian. Five more sets, ‘kay? I’ll know if you cheat.”
Adam had an uncanny ability to…hell, to just dominate any situation whenever he wanted. He bounced on his toes and threw the gloves at Mark’s feet. “Tape up and put ‘em on. They’re for you, not me.”
Julian’s workout didn’t leave much spare attention, but he still managed to keep an eye on their session as the big viking dude worked out what looked like a lifetime of baggage with, it had to be said, more vigor and raw fury than actual form. Still, Julian wouldn’t have wanted to be on the receiving end of some of those blows.
They were still going strong even after he’d forced himself through his last agonizing set, so he sat down and watched. It came to an end with one last exhausted, flailing haymaker. The blow was so wild that Adam failed to dodge and caught it right on the jaw instead, while Mark spun around on his feet and nearly collapsed. Adam caught him and carried him over to the bench to catch his breath. Apparently even that hammer blow to the mouth hadn’t really registered.
“Okay. Feeling better?”
“Can…” Mark panted desperately, “Could you even feel any of that?”
“I felt it plenty.”
“Did I manage to hurt you at all?”
“…No, not really.”
“Yeah. Shit, Mark, you’re real outta sorts. I don’t think I ever heard you swear before.”
Mark just shook his head and wiped half a gallon of sweat off his face and out of his hair. Adam went and fetched him some water.
“Feelin’ better?” he asked as he returned. Mark shook his head before emptying half the bottle down his throat.
“…Hey Julian. Been a while.”
“Yeah. How’s the family?”
Mark shrugged expansively, drained the second half of the bottle, and handed it back to Adam.
“That bad, huh?” Adam asked.
“They’re fine. Just… there’s this lady came to visit us. One of the Dauntless crew.”
“Rachel Wheeler?” Julian guessed. Mark gave him a wary look.
“You know her?”
“Not really. Xiù met the crew when they first got back, told me all about ‘em.”
“I know her,” Adam said. He handed Mark a second bottle of water.
Mark accepted it and took a more measured sip this time. “She said you saved her life.”
“‘Base did. I helped.”
Mark grunted a “hmm” sound and scrubbed some more sweat out of his hair before wiping his hand on his pants.
“…What’s eatin’ you, Mark?” Adam asked at last.
Mark shook his head again. “Ugh, I don’t know. Ray came along to thank us, I guess, but all I heard was ‘I’m glad your little girl is dead.’ And I know that’s not what she meant, and it’s not even how it came off. But…”
“She thanked you?” Adam asked.
“Makes sense. You saved her life,” Julian said. “And you only enlisted because of Sara, didn’t you?”
“So if she hadn’t died, you wouldn’t have enlisted, you and ‘Base wouldn’t have joined the HEAT and Doctor Wheeler would be dead,” Mark explained.
Adam paused for a moment to gather his thoughts. “…Guess I didn’t see it that way. But if there’s anything I’ve learned doing all of this, it’s that you really can’t second-guess things, y’know?”
“Doesn’t change the fact that a woman—a nice, kind, compassionate woman with the best intentions in the world—just came into my house and thanked me for the fact that my daughter was murdered.” Mark said.
“No, it don’t.”
“…And part of me knows I should be grateful to her. I know she wants me to feel like it all meant something. But…”
“Dude. I get it.” Adam sat down at Mark’s side and gave him a trademark sideways one-armed crusher of a hug. “Shit, I think about that happenin’ to Diego and…”
Julian, feeling a bit out of place, decided to hobble around and clean up the aftermath of their gym fun while the two talked it out. It took just long enough that when he could avoid the conversation no longer he found that it was basically over. Mark didn’t exactly look upbeat, but he had an air of resolve around him now.
“—should thank her,” he was saying. “I mean, what she intended is what matters. Just because it hurt me doesn’t change the fact that she meant well.”
“…I need a drink. You chaps want in?”
“I’m on call, bro,” Adam said. “Gonna be tea and water for me but sure. I’ll come with.”
“…I should probably avoid alcohol until I’ve checked with my doctor,” Julian said.
“You’ll be fine, don’t worry,” Adam assured him. “But you’re new on the Crude so I’d avoid it anyway. The two don’t mix well.”
Julian just glanced down at his foot. It took Mark a few seconds to wrap his head around what he was seeing.
“…Didn’t that used to be plastic?”
“Up until a week ago, yeah. Nofl and Xiù talked me into it. Blew Allison’s mind when she finally noticed.”
“Heh. How long did that take?” Adam asked.
“About three days. We didn’t tell her. Which given we sleep in the same bed, is pretty impressive, really.”
Mark actually chuckled. “If I pulled a stunt like that on Hayley, she’d kick my arse. With her biggest boots on.”
“Yyyup.” Julian grinned fondly. Funny how a stinging slap on the arm and a choice insult just made his heart melt, when they came from Allison.
“Heh. Well, how ‘bout we grab a shower and go get those drinks?”
Adam’s gym had a convenient set of showers on the ground floor, and a quick run through was refreshing as all hell. The pain was already gone, too; fuck, Crude was magical.
…Good reason to avoid it, really. Something like that had to have a downside, even if its poster child didn’t seem to suffer from any. He was just…Adam. Big, goofy, frustratingly perfect Adam, an impossible living comicbook superhero. Julian tried not to stare and, well, compare himself while they cleaned up, but honestly it was impossible not to—how often does a guy get to stack himself up against the best? He didn’t measure up of course, but then again nobody did. Julian sighed internally, resigned to his place in the pecking order. While he was toweling off he noticed Adam’s somewhat apologetic grin; thankfully the big bastard didn’t seem to mind. Julian also noticed that Adam wasn’t bruised. At all. It was like Mark hadn’t laid a finger on him.
Mark noticed, too.
“…Look at you. You’re not even a little sore, are you?” Mark pulled a clean t-shirt over his head; the Dog House kept some gym-branded clean clothing in a bin for members to borrow.
Adam glanced at himself in the mirror and flexed for a moment, then pulled on his tent-like tank top. He looked strangely dejected. “No. Pretty much nobody can hurt me these days.”
“…That bothers you.”
“Yeah. I know it’s stupid. That’s what I’ve been working towards, right? But still. There’s only like four dudes these days who can make me really feel a workout, an’ two of them are aliens. I dunno how I feel ‘bout that.”
Mark used the hand dryer to do a rough job of blow-drying his hair, reassembled it with a lifetime’s efficiency, and dragged a comb through it. “Be thankful they can. It means you’re not completely invulnerable.”
“I guess.” They walked out of the gym and onto the street, just in time for the nightly rains. Adam didn’t bother with any footwear as usual. Julian copied him, intent on rebuilding his foot.
“Y’know,” Adam continued after a while, “I’d grown like a goddamned weed for years. A while back that finally slowed way down, and I was super happy about that…but I’m still so far ahead of ‘Base and Righteous, it’s looking like they may not ever catch up.”
“I thought you liked the competition?” Mark asked.
“Yeah, man. I like the competition. It ain’t a competition if they can’t ever win. I can out-run, out-lift, and out-wrestle them both at the same time.”
…Jesus. “What about the others?”
Adam considered. “Yan? Maybe, but he’d need to lift for years to catch up, and he says he’s getting old. Daar’s right in his prime and keeps making ridiculous progress…but we’re different enough physically that it wouldn’t really be apples-to-apples. And he’s the Great Father. It’s not like he can, I dunno, pop over for a game of Gravball and rep out on the bench with me.”
“If Vemik keeps beating on steel, he’ll be as strong as Yan even if he doesn’t become a Given-Man,” Julian predicted.
“Eh. Maybe. But…like, I mean…fuck. ‘Base and Righteous are my bros. I like Daar and Yan and everyone well enough but I grew up with those two. I don’t wanna be alone at the top.”
“On that cheery note… there’s the pub.” Mark indicated it.
“…Sorry. I feel like a huge douche whining about this shit.”
“Nah,” Julian replied. “Sometimes it helps just to get it out, y’know? I’m just glad you could talk it over instead of beat the tar out of us…”
That got one of Adam’s trademark goofy smiles, and his somber mood seemed to have lifted. “What, you can’t handle a few love taps?”
“Adam, your ‘love taps’ could rearrange my organs. Xiù gives me love taps.”
They descended into macho banter and prowled into Rooney’s. Funny, really. All three of them had started off the evening nursing a boatload of pain of one kind or another. None of that seemed to bother anymore.
It was good to have friends.
Date Point: 15y7m AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm
Professor Daniel Hurt
Visits from Vemik were always welcome. Or… well, they were usually welcome. Maybe this one would be too, but somehow Daniel doubted it. He had a lot on his mind, and only a few hours to go before the next scheduled jump to Cimbrean.
He didn’t want to catch that jump, but it was that or miss Steve Lawrence’s funeral. And he owed it to the man to be there.
Vemik was therefore both a welcome and an unwelcome paradox of a distraction as he knuckled into their dig camp carrying three root-birds as a friendship offering.
It was a good offering, too. Like a slightly gamier version of turkey. They’d have a damn good dinner tonight thanks to those birds.
Then there were the greetings, the handshakes, and Daniel invited Vemik to sit by the fire where he’d been reviewing the translated Corti cultural analyses of the Coastal Ten’Gewek civilization.
They would have seemed very alien to Vemik. They’d loved water, for a start, and had built a large public baths. Ordinarily, Vemik would have found a conversation like that fascinating, but today it was clear he had something specific on his mind.
“So,” Daniel guess. “I take it you’re here about the attacks, and the APA?”
Vemik shook his head. “They attacked us, we fought, we won. They can’t attack us here, can they?”
“Well then. APA are a question for humans, not for my people.”
“Just a social call, then?”
“Social call? Come to see you just to see you?”
“No. I mean, seeing friends is fun. But I’m here about… Vaccines.”
He pronounced it carefully and slowly. ‘Vack-Seens.’ But the question was enough to make Daniel groan.
“Godshit…” he cursed. “…I take it you heard about those on Earth?”
“Singer and me… our first child, she died of a sickness, before she could even try to talk,” Vemik reminded him. “Every year, we lose hands of children to sickness. Others who live, they’re marked and weak. Some never grow strong again.
“…What did you hear exactly?”
“There was a thing on the radio. One man saying they’re bad and cause… ort-ism?”
“Yes. That part made Jooyun and Heff very mad. They grumbled about it for half the night. And the woman on the radio, she said they work by teaching your body to fight sickness by giving you a weak sickness.”
“That’s the essence of it. It’s not a complete explanation but… yes. Basically.”
Vemik sighed. “Yes. I have learned that I do not know enough to really learn yet.”
Daniel scraped his fingers through a day or two of stubble as he thought. “Vaccines aren’t easy to make,” he said at last. “It takes a lot of very clever people a lot of time and hard work to make them properly. They have to, uh, learn the magic for each sickness, and then they have to make sure they’re safe to give…”
“Each sickness is different?”
“As different as Werne and Yshek and root-birds. You say that the shivering-sickness is in the water, right?” Daniel asked. Vemik nodded and he forged on. “But there are other shivering-sicknesses too. You see that a person is hot, and sweating and shivering. We call that a fever. But lots of different sicknesses can cause a fever. The shivering-sickness from water is a lot like one we call ‘malaria,’ but another one that goes around a tribe with sneezing and… well, not sneezing in your case…”
“We sneeze. Just not the same way you do. ” Vemik tapped the middle of his face where the Ten’Gewek didn’t have a nose, then opened his mouth and pointed inside. Of course, their olfactory organ was in the roof of the mouth.
“…Right. But when people cough and sneeze and pass the disease between them, that’s more like what we call ‘influenza’ and that killed many, many humans in the past. Tens of millions in one year.”
Vemik scowled as he tried to recall Human numbers. “…Six zeroes?”
“In one year? You did not have vack-seen for it?”
“No. Not then. And our vaccine for malaria isn’t very strong. But others… there are some diseases that are just gone now. Nobody has died of them in a long time. And, yes, our children almost all grow up strong and healthy.”
Vemik nodded, watching the flames.
“…Is hard, to lose a child,” he said at last. “We move on, but we don’t forget. It… hurts. Deep inside. And it never goes away. The Singer and me, we have a little boy now. Going to name him soon. But still a long way to go before he is a man, and can learn to hunt and work steel. Many seasons. He’s strong now, but…”
He trailed off, and Daniel shifted uncomfortably in his camp chair.
“There’s… things we can do first that might make things better,” he suggested. “Things like soap, and cleanliness. Knowing where sickness comes from, that sort of thing. All by itself, that kind of knowing makes a big difference.”
“Big. Much of our medicine is just keeping things clean. That all by itself will help.”
“You’ll share that?”
“Yes. Vaccines are… much bigger. Much more difficult. You won’t be able to make them for a very long time, and if we made them for you… It’d be a strong debt, and a way for us to control you. Dangerous.”
“I know that,” Vemik assured him. “But the danger feels small when you’re the one who warns me about it. And it feels very small when I think of my daughter.”
“Well… soap and water are a start, anyway,” Daniel said. He smiled when Vemik pulled a face. “Actually… come and see.”
He called up the footage of the Coastals bathhouse. Forest Ten’Gewek had no functional concept of modesty, and Vemik was sitting on the log naked of all but his knives and the little leather flap that Ten’Gewek men wore to protect their sensitive bits from stray branches as they swung through the trees. Nor did they see any point in gender segregation, or sexual exclusivity. Oh, they had men’s work and women’s work, and they tended to form close bonds like the one between Vemik and the Singer, but there was no formal contract or expectation of fidelity among them. Ten’Gewek men were generally quite happy to be good friends with their mate’s children from other men. The tribe, ultimately, was a big sprawling extended family.
The Coastals had been more structured. Their more sophisticated lifestyle and economy had allowed a handful of powerful men to achieve enormous power and influence. That had led to harems at first, with a few of the more influential men having all the female attention, which naturally meant a large number of disgruntled bachelors. After a while they’d established a convention of monogamy between male and female couples, though notably they’d been happy to accept more… freedom… in their same-sex associations.
One consequence of that had been a sense of modesty. It worked both ways: bonded couples wore simple, loose clothing in public, and the bathhouse had been open to single and coupled males in the morning, single and coupled females between noon and sunset. Bonded couples and their children were welcome in the firelit hours around and after sunset, but singles weren’t.
For Vemik, however, the confusing part was watching people who were much more similar to him than a human was, frolicking in and apparently enjoying large bodies of water.
“…Very strange,” he muttered.
“But clean,” Daniel pointed out. “You see the strange cloudy white colour of that water?”
“That’s the soap pool. They had many different pools: first a cold one for rinsing off the worst dirt, then that pool which was warmed by fires under the floor where they soaped and scrubbed, then another warm pool for rinsing off the soapy water and relaxing, and finally a cold plunge pool to wake them up.”
“Humans just shower. Seems easier.”
“It is for the human. But there’s a lot of effort involved in making water come out of a little nozzle like that.”
“Yes. Plumbing is the word.”
“You did pick up a lot on Earth.”
“That’s why I went.” Vemik tapped the screen thoughtfully to no real effect, then tilted his head at it. “…And this helped them not get sick?”
“This? Probably. But what really would have done it would be washing their hands before and after handling meat.”
“Our women scrub their hands with Benka leaves.”
“Which is a good start. That’s good medicine. But it would even better if they rinsed their hands with clean water. Any water that’s good to drink will do, but boiling the water first is a good idea.”
Vemik nodded. “And soap?”
“I’ll have to look that one up.” Daniel patted him on the shoulder. “Look, I’m going back to Earth for two hands of days. You heard that a man named Steven Lawrence died?”
“Yes. You knew him?”
“He was a friend. I want to be there when we give him back to the gods.” Daniel explained. Vemik nodded, and Daniel took that as understanding. “I’ll talk with some other thinkers while I’m there,” he promised.
“Thank you. I know it’s a big thing I’m asking.”
“If I were in your position, I’d be asking for the same thing,” Daniel assured him.
“Will you be safe?” Vemik asked. “These people, they attack men like you to protect aliens like me, yes?”
“Hoeff’s coming back with me,” Daniel explained. “And then I’ll have what we call ‘private security.’ I’ll be fine.”
“I ask Singer to Sing for you anyway,” Vemik nodded seriously.
“Thank you, Vemik. I appreciate that.”
Vemik swiped through the images from the bathhouse again and shook his head. “I think… Even if this is a good idea, we won’t like it.”
“I’m not asking you to take up regular bathing, Vemik,” Daniel reassured him. “Just… keep your hands and feet clean. Especially your hands. It makes a bigger difference than you’d think.”
“I’ll tell them.”
“Have you talked with Yan about this?” Daniel asked.
“Not yet. I wanted to learn more first.”
“I’d be interested to hear what he has to say. But…maybe after I come back. Yan likes to take his time and think about things.”
Vemik nodded. “Thank you for not saying no, anyway,” he said. “Is good to know you’ll think about it.”
Daniel nodded, shook his hand, and with one last glance at the monitor Vemik returned to the trees and headed back in the direction of the village.
“Mind if I share a thought, Professor?”
Daniel turned. Claire had emerged from the field lab at some point, and was relishing a nice cool drink and what was obviously a fresh shirt.
“Sure, go ahead.”
“Western nations distribute vaccines to third-world villages all the time.”
“…True.” A half-dozen vague counters to that thought leapt into Daniel’s brain instantly, but he found none of them persuasive. Developing vaccines for an alien culture would be more complicated but that wasn’t a moral argument against doing so, it was an economic one. Pointing out that third-world villages were still Human and the Ten’Gewek weren’t seemed bigoted somehow, and there was no good “Prime Directive” argument because that had gone out the window the moment Allison, Julian and Xiù made first contact.
“Something to think on,” he agreed. She nodded.
“Sometimes I’m glad my job is just to watch and write papers,” she joked. “Uh, anyway. The Array’s due to fire in about ten minutes. Hoeff asked if you wouldn’t mind joining him on it.”
“You mean he said ‘tell the professor to get his ass on the platform or I’m leaving without him.’”
She laughed. “Almost word-for-word.”
Daniel chuckled and stood up. “Any requests for provisions? I’ll be gone a week, I may as well bring back some luxuries.”
“Oh, the usual. Chocolate, deodorant, hot sauce, some new books… If you can find room for a cake, it’s Jim’s birthday next week, and I know he’s lost track of the date.”
“Cake, huh? I will need to bring a big one, then. I bet the Given-Men and Singers will want to celebrate. They’ve taken our celebration of that very seriously.”
“Several big ones,” she agreed. “But I can hear Hoeff grinding his teeth. You’d better go.”
Daniel sighed and hauled himself over toward the array. He really didn’t much want to go back to Earth anyway, usually. His work on Akyawentuo was too important.
Going back for a funeral was so much worse. But he’d do it. And maybe he could come back with some good news.
Date Point: 15y7m1d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
There’d been a text from Julian about some kind of impromptu Guy’s Night, don’t wait up, love you, etc. Allison couldn’t blame him: After all that time hanging around with the cavemonkeys, some time with his actual human friends couldn’t hurt Julian at all.
Still, she was maybe a little disgruntled. But not enough to give him the cold shoulder when he finally slid the bedroom door aside at dead o’clock in the fuck-knew-when.
She was getting sick of being the big spoon anyway. Xiù was completely out for the count and didn’t even grumble when Allison retrieved an arm from under her head and turned over.
“Hey,” she murmured. She couldn’t see Julian, the room was completely pitch dark, but she knew it was him anyway. It was the little details: the exact sound of his breathing, the specific way he undressed, the exact contours and warmth of him as he slid in under the blankets and snuggled up to her.
“Hey.” His voice was warm and soft in her ear, accompanied by a kiss. “Sorry ‘bout that. Some… baggage came up, I guess.”
“Did you have fun?”
“Yeah. What’d you two do while I was gone?”
“Yoga, dinner, homework, watched a movie, sent the boys to bed…” A slow troll-grin spread across her face in the dark. “…Had some pretty amazing sex…”
Julian snorted slightly and cuddled her up. His hand cupped her breast and teased it. “Now I’m real sorry I wasn’t here…”
“Too bad, I’m tired. You got to bro out anyway, so you don’t get to complain.”
“Sausage fest don’t count,” he grumbled happily, and finally got comfortable. His hand didn’t leave her breast though: she didn’t complain.
Allison was about to fall asleep with a smile on her face when he shifted again and spoke, softly.
“…Never mind. Should prob’ly wait for morning, talk about it with Xiù too.”
She knew what he was going to ask. “Yes, dummy. We’ll both say yes.”
“…Psychic badass spacebabes, I guess.”
She smiled and snuggled into him. “…Wo ai ni.”
He held her close and kissed her gently behind the ear. “I love you too.”
There were no more questions.
Date Point: 15y7m1d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Lt. Col. Owen “Stainless” Powell
Birthdays. If Powell had his way, birthdays wouldn’t be a thing. For one, it was difficult being about fifty…ish…and looking like he was in his mid-to-late twenties. Sort of. Hair notwithstanding.
The hair was the biggest problem, really. Not just the stuff on his scalp, which had gone for a burton years before, but his beard was… When he shaved in the morning, he looked baby-faced. By late afternoon he looked like a grizzled old man. He could age thirty years between breakfast and supper.
All of which made celebrating the specific day he clocked up another orbit around the star he didn’t even live in orbit around these days…
…Well, okay. The way the Lads pulled out all the stops with regards to food and booze was nice. And Rylee was coming with a cake.
One never went wrong with cake.
Also, ‘Horse brought the whole family with him, and Powell had to admit… While he wasn’t usually a sucker for babies, he’d definitely make an exception for Diego Arés. Okay, the kid was only a month old, meaning pretty much the only things he wanted to do were sleep and occasionally go looking for a tit—a man could sympathize, really—but…
…Well, the fact was, Powell was pretty sure he was never going to have a child of his own.
He’d managed to talk the Lads into not giving him any kind of a gift, though. Sort of. They’d settled on a charitable donation in his name as a kind of compromise. And of course, enough food to ensure he’d need to put his shoulder into closing the fridge for a few weeks didn’t count.
He’d have opened it up for his neighbours to come and join in, except the Lads were his neighbours.
…A small error, that.
Oh. And thank fook they’d finally got it into their heads that he absolutely, completely, under no conceivable circumstances, wanted to hear another rendition of “Happy Birthday To You.” Especially not one led by Gaoians. Gaoian singing combined all that was best in howling and traditional Chinese opera.
So he’d cleaned off all the clutter on the pool table in the garage, invited Titan to bring along a games console and was generally just enjoying… a party. It just happened to be a birthday party, that’s all.
Of course, there was one bigger bit of news than a mere birthday.
“Fookin’ champion. Christ.”
“Yeah. Our Thurrsto!” Deygun was almost literally buoyant with pride, which was helping Shim’s game quite nicely; Deygun had just scratched needlessly. Shim retrieved the cue ball with a smug look and prowled around the end of the table, calculating where best to place it.
“In hindsight he’s an obvious match. The Clan needs somebody Daar can respect and trust…”
“But none of yer saw it comin’,” Powell predicted.
“We didn’t even know the Championship was in crisis until… well.” Shim decided on a good spot for the cue ball, set it down, fine-tuned it with his paw and then backed off to chalk the cue and find a comfortable angle. Gaoians played pool a little differently to a human, thanks to the difference in shoulder anatomy. Ergaan still swore by his “javelin throw” stroke, even though it involved bending so low and long over the table that he inevitably wound up moving a ball with his chest and invoking a foul.
Actually… something about the whole thing had been pricking at Powell. Regaari in particular had got himself caught up in the politics in a big way, and though he’d withdrawn from the HEAT to pursue the career demands of a Father, he was still a Brother. Which was great until you realized that he’d been involved in going against the Great Father’s wishes.
Right or wrong, the HEAT took a very dim view of that kind of thing. Arés in particular couldn’t put his feelings on the matter to words…which, being honest, wasn’t surprising. Still, it was a sensitive topic, and a difficult one to broach.
In this case he didn’t need to. Out of the blue, Deygun seemingly resumed that very conversation.
“I can understand why he did it. And… I mean, I don’t know if it was the right decision or the wrong one. I can definitely understand the Great Father’s decision…”
“Doesn’t matter. The Great Father decided. Right or wrong doesn’t enter into it.” Shim took a shot that clacked the cue-ball harmlessly off a bumper where it finally came to rest just touching his six-ball.
Deygun took the cue off him. “Regaari’s lucky as Keeda himself.”
Shim duck-nodded. “The Great Father coulda castrated him and ordered him to bury his balls at the north pole. Probably woulda, to anybody else.”
“Anybody else would be carrying their entrails home in a bucket,” Deygun stuck his tongue out the side of his mouth as he concentrated on sending a ball careening across the table, where it rattled at the very entrance of the corner pocket but didn’t go in. “…Ugh. It’s not like Regaari to set a paw wrong like that though.”
“It can happen to any of us,” Shim commented, taking the cue.
“Anyone can make a mistake, yeah. But this was a blunder. Big difference.”
Shim paused. “…Yes,” he agreed. “Not like Regaari to miscalculate like that.”
He stared at nothing for a second, then focused, hunkered down, and perfectly sunk three balls in a row while Deygun groaned.
The 8-ball dropped just as there were cheers of welcome from outside, and when Powell poked his head out the door he found Rylee smiling and tickling the baby’s cheek while Faarek delivered a large cake box onto the garden table like the smoothest of high-class waiters.
Rylee grinned, cooed over Diego one last time, then trotted up the garage drive and gave Powell a kiss. “Hey. Happy birthday.”
“Don’t bloody remind me…” Powell murmured, but he was smiling, she laughed and jerked her head toward the cake.
“Come on, get it outta the way.” She had a smirk on her lips, too. Something was definitely Up.
He grabbed a plate from the buffet on the way past. Some potato salad, some mac and cheese, some chicken drumsticks. Everything that was best in garden party food.
Faarek opened the box with a flourish as everyone gathered around the table. The cake, as it turned out, was an oversized replica of an SOR beret. The icing was dark chocolate, so a little to the brown side of pure black, but the silver sugar badge on the front was unbelievably detailed.
“Huh! Not bad!” Powell commented. Faarek looked pleased.
“It was way more fun than painting Orcs for Righteous,” he commented, drawing jeers and good-natured laughter from the Lads.
“I figured it was about time you eat your beret like you promised,” Rylee said.
“Your very words.”
She grinned, and knew he’d blundered right into her trap. “Five years ago? In London? Saint James’ Palace?”
Recollection came back, and Powell groaned. This one was going to hurt.
“There it is! You guys wanna hear the story?”
There was general, and loud, approval.
Rylee’s grin got wider. “Alright! So this was while we were on Earth and Dexter was up at Buckingham Palace getting his medal from the King. And Stainless and I had a nice conversation about careers and honors and diplomacy and alliances and stuff…”
Powell grit his teeth and took a bite out of his drumstick to cover his embarrassment. Here it came…
“And this big lunk—” Rylee tapped him in the chest with her knuckles, “—said he didn’t think Gaoians would ever make good allies to humanity.”
Obviously the Lads already knew the story, because they dutifully groaned and made disapproving noises. Murray even tutted, the cheeky sod.
“D’you remember exactly what you said?”
“I don’t fookin’ know, it were years back!” Powell protested.
“Your exact words were:” Rylee pulled an excessively serious expression and did a passable impression of Powell’s accent “‘If we were to do joint trainin’ and it turns out they wouldn’t wind up slowing our lads down? I’ll eat my fookin’ beret, badge and all. They’re not deathworlders.’ …Wrong on two counts, right guys?”
More good-natured jeering.
“Well, here’s your beret. Time to eat it… After your speech.”
That got a cheer, and cries of “Speech! Speech!”
It had to happen eventually. Powell gave Rylee a mock glare, which she met levelly with a smirk that promised a hell of an apology later, and he stood up.
It occurred to him that he was still holding a drumstick. He waggled it at ‘Horse.
“This better not be crow for good measure,” he joked. It got a laugh. “…Arright. I was wrong. I’ll eat my words, I’ll eat my beret, I’ll eat humble pie, I’ll eat whatever fookin’ thing you put in front of me and I’ll like it. As Deygun commented just a few minutes ago, anybody can make a mistake… But in this case, I’m bloody glad I was wrong. ”
He turned and raised his glass to the Gaoians. “To you, gentlemen. You’ve earned my respect and admiration, you’ve proven me wrong… and however high my expectations of you might be nowadays, I don’t doubt you’ll continue to exceed ‘em.”
There were cheers, raised glasses, and Rylee pressed a bread knife into Powell’s hand.
“Happy birthday?” she tried, sweetly.
“…I’m gettin’ revenge later, so’s you know.”
She laughed. “Fair.”
“You sat on this for five bloody years?”
“Eh…” She shrugged, and indicated the table. “…You gonna cut that cake?”
It turned out to be excellent.
Date Point: 15y7m1d AV
High Mountain Fortress, The Northern Plains, Gao
Daar, Great Father of the Gao
The week had come to a close, so Daar went down to the ancient amphitheatre to attend the week’s Closing—a very old tradition that Starmind was reviving, with his enthusiastic approval—to listen intently to the brief, cheery remarks of the day. Like much of what the Gao did, it wasn’t a very formal ceremony, but it did have its ritual. Simple, to-the-point, clean of unnecessary adornment. The amphitheatre faced toward the horizon, which had mercifully remained largely clean of the tall, angular shapes of the modern world. The Champions and their retinue gathered, choosing their seats with all the usual care and intelligence.
One, however, was conspicuously absent. There was no Whitecrest champion today. Indeed, the whole Clan had gone completely opaque. And when a Great Father’s spymasters went opaque…
The Champions hadn’t failed to notice, either. Word had spread fast about what he’d done to Genshi, and he was being paid more than the usual deference. He could smell their restrained fear. That…saddened him. It was necessary, but still. Daar wasn’t about to lie to anyone, especially not himself, and if he were being totally honest he’d much rather be wrasslin’ with his fellow Champions instead of dominating their lives, figuratively and literally.
Daar stood alone, front and center in the ranked rows of the amphitheatre’s seating. The unsubtle analogy wasn’t lost on him.
Gyotin, as always, was the only one who didn’t have a whiff of nerves about him. He’d managed to somehow blend the roles of spiritual advisor and court jester: he got to poke the Great Father in ways nobody else could, and he did so safe in the knowledge that he knew exactly where the line was. So, his next move after finishing his brief part in the ceremony was to fling himself down on a seat to Daar’s left and sniff the air.
“…No sign of Genshi today.”
“No, I ‘spose not. If I were a bettin’ tail, an’ I am, I’d say they’re figgerin’ on a new Champion.”
“Or they’ve already chosen one.”
He caught it, then. The whiff and ear-flick of mischief. “…You already know who it is, don’t’cha.”
“I’m… looking forward to seeing your expression.”
Well, balls. Now his curiosity was up, and Daar momentarily forgot his worries. “Oh? You say it like ‘yer expectin’ something, I dunno…”
“Characteristic?” Gyotin suggested. “No. I just think you won’t guess who it is.”
Daar had to admire his playfulness. “‘Yer enjoyin’ fuckin’ with me, ain’t ‘ya?”
“My Father, I defy you to tell me you don’t enjoy being fucked with.”
…He was right. When Daar looked back, he noticed his tail was wagging, and the Champions around him struggling to remain dignified.
He chittered and relaxed a bit. Tension faded, but concern swept over him suddenly.
“Is Genshi…doing okay? Do you know?”
“I haven’t spoken with Genshi. I haven’t seen him, not that it surprises me. He’s never been inclined to seek my opinion.”
“No, I s’pose not. I love ‘em like almost nobody else, but he were always a bit arrogant.”
“High intellects often can be. You know, he considers all of… this…” Gyotin waved a paw at the amphitheatre and the night’s traditional observation, “…to be wasted time. Perhaps for him it is.”
Daar sighed. “I know. It’s why I valued him so much. That cold, detached perspective of his was damn useful. I’m gonna miss that. But he’s wrong ‘bout this. People ain’t robots, and we need to break ourselves of that artificial ideal. It was foisted on us. It weren’t ever natural.”
“For myself—for most of us—I agree. But I wonder… if it was completely unnatural, could it ever have been foisted on us at all?”
“…Eh, prol’ly not. I think mebbe a lotta bad ideas keep kickin’ around ‘cuz there’s some part o’ them that, I dunno, resonates? Is that a good word?”
“Maybe. Or perhaps folks can be bad at separating the grain from the husk. And, frankly, some personalities just don’t need… ceremony. Whatever they believe, whatever their private ‘religion’ may be, they believe it without the assistance of ritual. It took me quite a while to accept that conclusion.”
“Fair ‘nuff. I’m just a big ‘ol brownie really. I…like routine. Get up early, work hard, play hard, sleep hard. Do all o’ that better the next day. There’s rhythm to it, y’know?”
Gyotin nodded. “Genshi was never a creature of rhythm or habit. His natural inclination is to twist and flow around and through life. He’s what you might call a water personality: Forceful and destructive when he needs to be, agile and light when appropriate, he’ll go around what he can’t wash away.”
Daar flicked an amused ear, and issued a small challenge to Gyotin. “An’ me?”
“You’re drawn to solidity, dependability… you’re not afraid to be hard and unyielding, because you know that’s what civilizations are built on. Very much a stone personality, appropriately.”
The sun had finally touched the horizon, lighting the sky with beautiful yellows and a deep fading blue. Daar’s human friends had said there was lots of bright red and orange colors too, a beauty he couldn’t see or even imagine. Especially lavender, which allegedly lived between red and blue.
Oh well. No use lamenting that. What he could see was good for the soul.
The audience fell silent while one of Gyotin’s Clan-brothers ascended the stage and delivered the remarks. A good summary of a bad week, really. He didn’t shy from anything that had happened, on Gao or among the Humans…but he had found a downy lining in it all.
The next bit was surprising. A dark, heavily-built figure sat down to Daar’s right. “…Sorry I’m late, My Father.” He turned to look but he knew that distinctive scent instantly—
Daar found himself tackling Thurrsto and keening somewhere between surprise, happiness, sadness…a lot of feelings, really.
Thurrsto put up a damn good play-fight, too! He had the strength and speed to really hold his own, so Daar let him nearly wriggle loose a couple of times before finally pinning him and sniffing at his nose.
“I was surprised too.”
“Ha! I hope ‘yer gonna be as surprising as Genshi ever was!” Daar re-pinned him and nibbled at his shoulder playfully. Thurrsto! Champion!
“I promise, I’ll keep up… most of his traditions.”
Gyotin chittered. “Well, that was everything I hoped it would be.”
Daar was too shocked and happy to reply with anything clever, and in any case he had to know. “Thurrsto…is Genshi doin’ well?”
“His injuries are…extensive, My Father. You broke more than just his face, and I wasn’t gentle, either.”
Daar whined a bit but mostly kept his poise. “I know. Tell ‘em to get it taken care of properly.”
“…He had thought that unwise, My Father.”
“I know that, I ain’t dumb. Tell ‘em to get fixed up anyway. I’ll let him decide what that means.”
Satisfied, Daar hauled Thurrsto up to his feet so he could meet the other Champions.
“Everyone! This is Thurrsto, our newest Champion! He’s a true Brother o’ the Rites as far as I’m concerned, served time on the Human’s HEAT with me! Whaddya say, do we welcome him?”
Cheers and cries of welcome went up. A new Champion was an opportunity, after all. Thurrsto would quickly find himself drawn right into the shifting web of Clan politics, which still existed even if it was centered on Daar nowadays.
A Clan was always weakest at this moment. Whitecrest had weathered such transitions well in the past, and would have to do so again, because although Daar considered indulging in some subtle intervention…he couldn’t, not merely because of his position and the increasingly obvious need for impartiality. Because frankly, with what happened…
…The Whitecrests needed to pay a price. If that price came as minor setbacks across their relations, that was Genshi’s mistake, not anyone else’s. And if Thurrsto managed to salvage matters or even strengthen their position, so much the better.
That was how it had to be, because Daar had a Plan. It was the Most Biggest Plan, even more bigger than his plan to destroy the Hunters and the Hierarchy.
He would forge the Gao into a Constitutional…Something. Monarchy wasn’t the right word. Nor was Republic. He had the shape of it in his head, but wasn’t sure if the word to encompass it existed in either Gaori or English.
Getting there, though, was going to require a trip through an even deeper level of dictatorship, one only he could wield. And it meant he had to do a thing he was resisting with every fiber of his being.
So, once the chatter had settled down, Daar flowed over towards the stage and leaped up onto it. He had everyone’s attention immediately. Now was the one and only moment.
“My Champions. Before we get to the food and the talamay…” He shot a significant look at his majordomo, who charged off to make preparations. “I must, at last, accept ‘yer collective wisdom on a painful item.”
Everyone fell dead silent. Daar looked to Gyotin, who duck-nodded solemnly.
“You’ve pushed for a long time now that we should ceremonially recognize my role and power. You want a coronation, an’ I’ve resisted. I can’t lie, I’ve resisted because I… fear… what that means. What transpired between myself and Genshi—whom I love, deeply—only makes it worse. Most of ‘ya don’t know what a coronation truly is. If you think my rule is difficult now, what will it be like when I’m made all but divine?”
“So. In the morning, I’m gonna listen to the last of ‘yer advice an’ give you your very last chance to say no. But tonight, we’re gonna celebrate Thurrsto’s ascension to the rank of Champion. He deserves it! We’re gonna play, we’re gonna argue, maybe tussle. ‘Yer all gonna find beautiful Females and try ‘yer luck! Tonight, we live. I know I’m gonna…”
He waggled his ears for effect, and got the chittering jeers he deserved.
“But then the morning’ll come. I hope y’all will talk this over with Gyotin. Champion Loomi…maybe tomorrow, we share with them everything. What we know about our past. They need to know, because that is what a coronation really means.”
He noted the confusion, saw which ones nodded and which ones looked completely lost. “You’ll see in the mornin’,” he promised. “And unless y’all come up with any sudden…misgivings…I will accept that coronation.”
Inwardly, he very much hoped they would change their minds… but he knew they wouldn’t. And maybe they were right.
After all. Anybody who wanted a crown didn’t deserve it.
Date Point: 15y7m1d AV
Builder Facility, Hunter Space
The Builder Alpha-of-Alphas
Compared to building the Ring, hollowing out an asteroid was trivial. The Builders had done it many times, and found it neatly combined a source of raw material for industry, with a ready-made space station in which to base that industry.
Using rotation to provide centripetal pseudo-gravity, rather than manipulated spacetime gravity plating, kept the station’s nature a secret too. On long-range sensors the facility would just look like any other rock. Previously, it might have been a little warmer than its peers, but refrigerating the surface and radiating the waste heat in a thin, concentrated infrared laser had solved that problem.
Now, these asteroid habitats were set to replace the Ring as the Hunters’ permanent bases of operation. Each one was anonymous, invisible, and indistinguishable from any other asteroid. With jump technology, they could even be inserted silently into a star system’s existing asteroid belts. The Hunters could be anywhere, and almost impossible to find.
The <satisfaction> such a solution elicited in a Builder was indescribable.
This facility, however, was one of the biggest and most important. It was an experimental shipyard, held over from when the Builders had been free to actually Build, rather than merely recycle and repurpose prey-ships. Its nanofactories, dry-docks and assembly facilities could prototype, iterate and construct a new ship design with deeply pleasing alacrity.
Strange how the idea of equipping a ship to build more of itself had never occurred to the Builders before. The technological components were all there: energy absorption via the shields, nanofactories…
All that was needed was an appropriate intelligence to guide it.
There, however, the Builders were encountering a serious problem. Installing a Hunter would be ideal, but no Hunter would volunteer for the duty as it would involve being perpetually denied the Hunt and Meat. Any Hunter forced into that ship would inevitably lash out against its enslavers, wasting a good ship and potentially causing great damage.
Crewing the self-replicating ships would compromise their greatest advantage, by slowing their reproduction speed to that of the crew and forcing them to expose themselves to danger as they Hunted for meat to keep the crew fed.
…Which left automation.
Builders, as a rule, did not trust automation. For dreary menial repetitive tasks it had its utility, but for something as complicated as assessing, surveying and mining a star system for the appropriate materials to build more self-assembling, automated ships?
The whole idea made the Alpha-of-Alphas uneasy. It could see too many undesirable consequences that might arise from unforeseen programming errors and oversights.
But what did that leave?
…Nothing. It left nothing. Which was agonizing. To have the power of geometric growth so tantalizingly close and yet still beyond reach was the most infuriating kind of an itch.
The ship was capable of being anything. On that point, the Builders had collectively excelled themselves: the core of the thing was the nanofactory, of course, plus the refineries and asteroid mining systems. Beyond that, it was endlessly modular. It could redesign itself at any time to accommodate any scenario, and there was no reason it couldn’t grow to enormous sizes with time and resources.
It could be a scout, a transport, an assault ship, an electronic warfare platform. It could become an orbital habitat or even land and develop itself into a ground facility. The possibilities were limited only by resources and module designs.
Such a tool could grant the Swarm endless flexibility and adaptability. It would break them permanently of the rigid thinking and repetition that the deathworld species were exploiting. The Swarm would become unpredictable, fluid. Dangerous once again, rather than being confined to the limitations of adapting prey-species technology.
If only they could find a satisfactory control solution.
The best idea so far was to crew the ships with live hunters and slave each ship’s descendants to its control systems until enough Hunters could be bred to crew them. There were bandwidth and processing limitations to consider, but in theory one ship could become a swarm all by itself, and so long as the parent ship and its crew survived a battle, the slaved swarm could be considered expendable. Indeed, each one could be recycled back into a replacement swarmship if destroyed.
It was a start, a place to begin prototyping. Which was why the Alpha-of-Alphas had arrived at this facility to personally oversee the initial testing. That, and the arrival of some requested components.
The Brood of Endless Thirst had seized on an incentive—also a novel idea in Hunter society. The previous Alpha-of-Alphas had simply demanded and been obeyed. The Builder Alpha-of-Alphas saw the value in reward as well as coercion. It worked well: issue a demand, offer a reward. With supplies being so limited, the Broods were scrambling to fill their master’s wishes.
In this case, cryogenic pumping technology, and the sophisticated thermal management systems that came with it. The nanofactory produced enormous waste heat, demanding robust refrigeration that could handle both temperature extremes without damaging the hull or other systems.
These systems had come from a methane pumping facility. They were almost perfect, and easily adapted to the Breeding-Ship’s needs.
The Endless Thirst Alpha showed a very un-Eater-like interest in the new project. It even studied the blueprints, an activity that most Eaters would have found to be a waste of time. Possibly it was attempting to earn favor with the new Alpha-of-Alphas, but that didn’t matter. The intelligence to remain informed of its superior’s projects was valuable.
<Pride> +Does the Alpha of the Endless Thirst approve?+
The Alpha broadcast that it did.
<Respect> +I see limitless potential.+
<Pleased> +Good. Perhaps your Brood will be among the first to receive one of these.+
<Flattery> +The Alpha-of-Alphas is generous.+
While the Endless Thirst Brood gorged themselves on their reward of live Kwmbwrw slaves, the Alpha-of-Alphas oversaw the installation of the thermal systems, and updated the ship’s blueprints with the new design.
<Demand> +I require an assessment: is it ready for flight trials?+
One-by-one, the teams of Builders working on the project confirmed that it was.
The last report, however, was confusing and came from an unregistered agent in the system.
…What did “Yoink” mean? Alarm signals filled the network as the firewalls and intrusion countermeasures detected an attack of bewildering complexity and power. Though the Builders reacted swiftly, they couldn’t react swiftly enough: every defence they’d built was clawed aside, gnawed through or simply ignored. In heartbeats, the whole system was locked down, every user locked out. Not even the Alpha-of-Alpha’s top-level codes worked.
Out in the assembly bay, the prototype ship ejected its umbilicals. The external doors opened without properly pressure-cycling, blowing hundreds of Hunters and pieces of loose equipment out into space as a howling vortex scoured the interior of the station. In the control room, the Alpha of the Brood of Endless Thirst abruptly toppled to the deck, completely dead.
The Alpha-of-Alphas could only watch in disbelief and confusion as its newest creation flew out of the facility, totally uncontested. It went to warp before it had even cleared the doors, rocking the whole facility with a blast of tidal forces that tore and damaged the construction gantries and left an alarming crack across the control room’s viewing window. The emergency shutters slammed down, sealing the room and obscuring the view of the ruined shipyard.
There was a final parting shot: every screen in the room flickered, and changed. No matter what they had shown before, and no matter how much the Builder technicians scrabbled at their command inputs, all that remained was a rune that the Alpha-of-Alphas knew all too well. Its shriek of rage and frustration was vocal.
++END CHAPTER 49++
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The Deathworlders will continue in Chapter 50: “Counterattack”