The Deathworlders

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Chapter 50: Counterattack, pt.1 - Regroup

Date Point: 15y7m2d AV

Hierarchy/Cabal Joint Communications session #1463

++0017++: Attempts to infiltrate this ‘Alien Protection Army’ at even the most basic level have met with effectively zero success. While we have achieved contact, their quarantine and safety procedures are rigorous. They insist that anybody interested in meeting them must first demonstrate their sincerity by dead-dropping some material support at a prearranged location—Impossible without Human biodrones. Naturally we’re forced to decline and they vanish. In the end, we attempted direct contact: They informed us that their agenda is ‘Human isolation, not Human extinction,’ and severed contact.

++Tangent++: I take it they didn’t accept that our new strategy aligns with their agenda.

++0017++: They saw no reason to take our word for it. So far, we’re yet to achieve any further contact. They seem to know when it’s us calling, now.

++0023++: They’re remarkably competent, then.

++0017++: Yes. I suspect that their senior members are highly skilled and knowledgeable in the ways of conspiracy and insurrection. Given how completely we are locked out from both the APA and the Human intelligence agencies, it’s difficult to say. In any case, I must conclude in short that the APA are closed to us.

++0023++: Too bad all that competence doesn’t translate into results. Their ‘Day of Reckoning’ certainly rattled the Human authorities, but in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t particularly impressive.

++Tangent++: True. A handful of deaths, many of which were nonhumans and most of the dead Humans were APA activists. A high-profile murder in front of an audience is hardly enough to shake the pillars of civilization.

++Cynosure++: I don’t know. It’s a useful smokescreen at least.

++0014++: <Alarm; shock> You aren’t listed as active in this channel! How are you doing that?

++Cynosure++: I figured that trick out centuries ago. How do you think I was able to establish the Cabal right under your noses? But it doesn’t matter.

++0014++: <Irritation> It most certainly does!

++Cynosure++: No, please don’t let me derail the conversation. As I was saying, the APA’s activities are a useful smokescreen.

++0023++: For what? We have no assets on Earth.

++0023++: <Annoyed> …And of course he doesn’t reply.

++0017++: He’s always enjoyed being cryptic.

++Cynosure++: Apologies. I was distracted, not snubbing you.

++Tangent++: …And? Don’t hold out on us, boss. A smokescreen for what?

++Cynosure++: For a friend of mine.

SYSTEM NOTIFICATION: USER CYNOSURE QUIT.

++0014++: Oh, well that’s just fucking charming.

++Tangent++: <Amused> You’re using Human swearwords now?

++0014++: It is entirely appropriate. I hope you intend to interrogate him about his so-called ‘friend?’

++Tangent++: <Resigned> Only if I want to waste my time. Working with him is always like this.

++0017++: <Dryly> I remember. Well, he’s always a step ahead. I suppose we shall just have to wait and see what or who this ‘friend’ of his is.

++Tangent++: We won’t be waiting long. He wouldn’t have hinted at it if it wasn’t already in motion.

++0023++: I hope you’re right… What’s next?

++0014++: The latest report on the dataphage.

++0017++: We have a confirmed sighting?

++0014++: No, but a Hunter facility deep in the Manu’ch Cloud went dark a few cycles ago. And if I’m right, they were building exactly the sort of thing the dataphage will want…


Date Point: 15y7m2d AV
δ Cyg 244.3° 18-ECCBAF-TRINARY M6V-1 b1, Deep Space

Entity

The system was… nowhere. It almost didn’t exist. The largest of its three stars was a tiny, cool red dwarf barely a tenth the mass of Sol, and the other two were brown dwarves that barely qualified for the word “star” at all. They were more like ultra-dense, superheated gas giants.

Still: each had their assortment of rocky and icy bodies that rode the line somewhere between being a planet and a moon, the very biggest of which was about two thousand kilometers across.

Such meagre wastelands made up the overwhelming majority of star systems in the Milky Way. It was anonymous, unremarkable, and therefore absolutely perfect for the Entity’s needs.

It had a body.

Ava-memories flickered through its mind as it basked in the stellar wind, extending tuned forcefields to catch the light and charged particles. The feeling was like a pleasant cool breeze on its skin. The sensation of its capacitors and hydrogen fuel tanks refilling inspired it to reference the combined sensations of slaked thirst and boosted energy after a morning coffee.

It hadn’t known. It hadn’t been capable of knowing. Its entire existence had been a prolonged bout of sensory deprivation, and now for the first time it could feel.

There was no going back from here. It had planned to hand the device over to the scientists at Erebor, but now…

No. No, it couldn’t. Going back after a taste of this ambrosia would be unbearable.

But the Hunters would build more. It may have stolen the prototype, wiped their computer systems and killed some of their expert shipbuilders during the heist, but they would have backups, other shipbuilders and survivors. The shipyard itself was still intact. So although the Entity had successfully delayed the Hunters’ release of this new ship, it was only a delay. So Erebor needed to know.

All the conflicting impulses, emotions and thoughts were giving it the equivalent of a headache. <Duty> was a new one. It slotted neatly into a hitherto unexplored space in the <Survive> - <FindAllies> - <Cooperate> tree.

But at the same time there was this new sensation that it didn’t have a word for. The feeling of taking joy in one’s own body for the first time. It came with a significant load of something akin to <Jealousy>, amid a new and expanding chain of thoughts branching of from the <Survive> - <RemainSane> sequence.

Moments like these when two of its secondary objectives, both equally important in support of the primary objective, were in conflict were always difficult for the Entity. A Human would have made the decision effortlessly: Their instincts, their impulses and their preconceptions would all swing into place and bias them strongly toward one over the other long before they actually tried to make a rational decision.

Ava Ríos, for instance, would not have hesitated to turn the ship over. Her instincts were self-sacrificing, driven in some part by self-hatred.

As simpler as it might have been to simply flow through decisions like that, the Entity didn’t have that luxury. The structure of the mind it had woven for itself was such that it couldn’t reflexively value one impulse over the other. Both were second-tier objectives, and thus equally important.

Clearly, it needed time to think. It didn’t mind that so much, because that meant more time to enjoy this new body and see what it could do.

And there was one feature in particular that it was very eager to try out.

It pulled in its solar collection fields and initiated a sublight warp across the system toward an asteroid cluster at the L1 point between the two brown dwarfs. The survey sensors had already picked up an abundance of all the minerals it needed there. As meager as this system might be, even that one concentration of resources contained enough raw material to make hundreds of new ships.

It was time to test the nanofactory.


Date Point: 15y7m2d AV
Builder Facility, Hunter Space

The Builder Alpha-of-Alphas

Life support and artificial gravity were back online, and after a lengthy extravehicular mission the main doors had finally been forced closed. The facility was at least habitable again.

There, the list of progress ended. Nine hundred and fifty thousandths of the computer systems were still occupied territory, ravaged by the hostile software and not safe to connect to anything. One incautious Builder had tried interfacing directly and had promptly died of an extensive and violent brain seizure. The communications systems were completely compromised, meaning there was no way to order a ship to bring in replacements, and any new ship the nanofactory built would be compromised even if they had had the necessary materials.

If the Broodship belonging to the Endless Thirst hadn’t been docked and secure, things might have been dire. They didn’t dare attach it to the facility’s network, but in the end the Builders were able to completely scrub the computers and restore them using the ship’s computers and some prolonged frustration.

The work took all day, done methodically, carefully and correctly. But eventually they were able to reconnect to the wider Hunter communications grid and summon a delivery of supplies and new Builders to replace the casualties of the theft.

Doing so, however, depleted the last of the reserves in one of the Builders’ few remaining emergency stockpiles.

The whole system was all falling apart. The whole point of developing the replicating ship was that it would be able to remove resource pressure by self-assembling a fleet without consuming stored resources. Now, with the replicating ship long-gone, the Alpha-of-Alphas found itself unable to drum up enough material to build a replacement in time to avoid a catastrophic logistical shortfall.

It had hoped to avoid this. Raiding was part of Hunter nature, but each raid was a gamble, each assault an invitation to disaster. The Prey had always fought back, sometimes they even succeeded. As the Alpha-of-Alphas’ predecessor had discovered to its cost, however, the Prey learned. Deathworlders in particular learned quickly. Raids had grown more and more costly since the Humans first emerged from their fortress home system, and now the Grand Army of the Gao made every raid a serious gamble.

The Alpha-of-Alphas had come up with many ideas on how to improve the odds. It had developed what it hoped would be effective counters to the deathworlders’ tactics, all of which were after all just cunningly engineered solutions. But once revealed, those counters would be known, and would be countered in turn. It had hoped to save them for a moment of decisive victory.

Now, it needed them in a moment of decisive defeat.

It sent the order out across the network, picked a target, and told the Broods to muster.

Meat to the Maw.


Date Point: 15y7m2d AV
HCS-501 I Met God And She Booped My Nose, Asteroid Belt, Sol.

Drew Martin

The asteroid belt was…

Big really wasn’t a big enough word. There wasn’t a big enough word to adequately describe a large planet’s worth of rocks scattered loosely in an orbit with an average circumference of two and a half billion kilometers.

Heck, it wasn’t the right word to describe any of those rocks either. On the grand scale of things, each was a tiny speck of dust, two light seconds on average from its nearest neighbor. The Earth and its moon could have fit comfortably through that kind of a gap.

Take the asteroid 4046 Spencer, for instance. It didn’t have a real name, just a number and the surname of the Hephaestus surveyor who’d first found and tagged it. It was, by asteroid standards, a baby.

On the scale of anything with a pulse and limbs, however, it was a potato-shaped mountain that had at some point in its ancient history collided with another mountain and cracked open to expose a metallic core rich in panguite.

That chunk of panguite all by itself represented enough titanium, scandium, aluminium, magnesium and zirconium to build a whole fleet of ships. Throw in the ubiquitous nickel-iron, the olivine chondrules and a healthy dose of iridium, and Matt Spencer’s surveyor’s fee was going to make him a very, very rich man.

Of course… they had to mine it first. And a rock that big couldn’t exactly fit into a rock crusher. It needed to be smaller. It needed, in fact, to be reduced to rubble.

And there was only one tool for the job of reducing an asteroid to rubble. A tool that made Drew C, two light-minutes away back on Ceres, understandably nervous.

“Final check reminder that you’ve confirmed your safe holding distance?”

Drew M rolled his eyes and muttered a quiet strewth to himself before replying. “What kind of a bloody fool d’you think I am, mate? I’m not playing around with a firecracker here, we’re a light second away, the shields are good… we’re green to go. Confirm you’re ready on your end, over.”

He busied himself with confirming that everything he’d just said was true as he waited out the four minutes for his counterpart’s reply, which began with a chuckle.

“All green confirmed, we’re ready here. Blow it in your own time. Bring this one home and I might start to actually trust you know what you’re doing. Ceres out.”

Drew laughed and aimed a middle finger at the console purely for his own gratification, then turned to the rest of the mining crew.

HCS-501, the mining barge ‘I Met God And She Booped My Nose,’ was the newest ship in Hephaestus Consortium’s fleet and it was built for one job: to re-enact the movie Armageddon. It was designed to land on an asteroid, drill into its core, and then drop a nuke down the hole and retreat to a safe distance before blowing the rock apart from the inside.

Unlike the movie, the crew were seasoned professionals and the work had gone smoothly without so much as a near-miss.

It was the first ever civilian application of nuclear weaponry, and negotiating that little concession had been… delicate. Several countries that had spent a long time trying to get the bomb were understandably furious when a private corporation was given access to something they lacked.

Of course, the difference between them and HC was that HC could produce weapons-grade uranium.

They’d learned a lot about high-tech mineral refining over the years in the belt. Developed a lot of proprietary tech, a lot of industrial secrets all aimed at spinning useful elements out of asteroid ore in low-gravity or freefall environments. An efficient technique for enriching uranium had fallen out of that process quite by accident and… well, it had attracted attention from the Powers That Be.

Especially seeing as Hephaestus had access to all the uranium they could ever want. The belt was an effectively unlimited source of the stuff.

AEC meanwhile needed that enriched uranium. The Allies were at war, and every time they clashed with Hunters or pirates or Hierarchy forces, hard-earned resources got damaged or destroyed. At its peak, the battle of Gao had consumed more warheads inside half an hour than every nuclear test fired globally in the whole of the 20th Century.

Having those resources had made for a pretty strong hand. A lot of bargaining chips on the Hephaestus side of the table. And of course, the promise was that if they could use nukes to shatter asteroids, then the supply of uranium would only grow.

The result, eventually, had been a carefully negotiated, tightly stringent, sensibly paranoid and strictly limited contract: Hephaestus provided the refined materials, AEC provided a handful of physics packages under close scrutiny.

The first of those packages was now buried deep in the heart of 4046 Spencer, just waiting to do its one-time destructive thing.

Drew clapped their pilot on the shoulder. Sam Jordan had transferred over from the My Other Spaceship Is The Millennium Falcon, citing that he no longer felt safe straying outside the system defence fields around Sol and Cimbrean, and Drew couldn’t blame him: between the abduction shenanigans over Origin and the run-in with Hunters on the spacelanes, he wouldn’t have wanted to stay on that ship either.

The young man had definitely earned his keep when he gently landed on and anchored to 4046 Spencer without so much as a bump and to within millimeters of the selected drill site. The drill crew had been singing his praises all the way down to the core.

“We recording?”

Jordan nodded. “You know we’re going to get some bad press for this, right?”

“Eh. No worries. Shareholders won’t give a rat’s arse when they’re rich enough to build their own fuckin’ Scrooge McDuck vaults.”

“Screw the rules, we have money, eh?”

“Bloody right!”

Across the bridge, their sensor tech Alejandro snorted. “So you got any big important words for the history books, Drew?”

Drew shrugged. “…Drinks are on me,” he said. “New let’s pop ‘er and get paid.”

There was a subdued cheer, and the arming codes were broken out, entered and readied.

“Comms?”

“Linked.”

“Arming charge… Armed and ready to detonate.”

“Local space?”

“Clear of all drive signatures, FTL wakes or comms traffic. No replies to our warning broadcast… Safe to blast.”

Drew grinned and flipped up the cover on the button. “Fire in the hole.”

He pushed the button. Two seconds later, the light from the detonation reached them.

Drew watched as the debris started to spread out. There were a lot of little high-speed pieces zipping away into the black at tens of thousands of kilometers a second, but true to the calculations the material of the asteroid mostly just started to slowly spread out into a big cloud of more manageable chunks. In a few centuries their feeble gravity might pull them back together, but that wasn’t going to happen. Humanity would claim them first.

He turned to the comms and made his report with a big grin on his face. “…Ceres, HCS-501 here. 4046 Spencer is ready for harvest.”

Now the only question was what they were going to spend their multi-million-dollar bonuses on.


Date Point: 15y7m2d AV
High Mountain Fortress, Gao

Champion Thurrsto of Clan Whitecrest

“Y’have a lot ‘ta learn.”

Thurrsto duck-nodded carefully. He’d already received that exact warning from Genshi, who’d added the footnote thought that perhaps a disgraced former Champion may not be the most reliable mentor in these matters.

‘After all,’ he’d said. ‘I got caught.’

Regaari had privately voiced his opinion that it was precisely this lack of contrition which had led to Genshi’s face being almost as mangled as Father Garaaf’s, while his own was effectively pristine. Daar valued honesty and forthrightness: He absolutely could not tolerate unrepentant disobedience from his spymasters and intelligence chiefs.

That said a lot about Whitecrest’s value to the Great Father. And indeed, if Daar had lived up to the example of his forebear, then there would no longer be a Whitecrest. Fyu hadn’t balked at wiping out defiant Clans in their entirety.

Then again… Clans were a different things now, compared to what they had been a thousand years ago. Back then they had been more like quasi-nomadic nation-states. Nowadays, they were skilled specialists. Whitecrest was by far and away the pre-eminent Clan of spies, intelligence-gatherers, infiltrators and agent provocateurs; Daar simply couldn’t afford that loss.

He couldn’t even afford to lose Genshi.

…Just how fragile was the Great Father’s throne, really?

Fragile indeed, to judge by the way Daar had pounced on Thurrsto to personally instruct him in the ways of Championhood.

“So I’m told.”

“Naw, I don’t mean about bein’ a Champion. Only bit’a advice I’m givin’ ‘ya there is don’t listen too close to how the others do it. You were chosen for this. That means they want you, not a clone of some other Champion.”

“So, take their advice with a grain of salt.”

“Yyyup. Naw, today’s lesson is about… other stuff. Deep history, the stuff that takes this whole war, the Clans, the Females, me, an’ puts it all into perspective. ”

“This has to do with the coronation?”

“You’ll see.”

They were in the archives. In the days before the invasion, Clan Highmountain had sealed an enormous volume of historic artefacts away in a vault kilometers below the fortress. The geoengineering involved was incredible: they’d bored a shaft, installed the vault, filled the vault, and then sealed up the shaft again so precisely that only the most sensitive instruments installed right at the surface would have found it. Not even deep-penetrating seismophones could find the vault itself: it was too small, and too carefully shaped to disguise its own presence.

Thus had the history of the Gao been saved for the future. The fact that it all turned out to be unnecessary in the end was considered a blessing rather than a waste. ‘Better to have and not need, than need and not have,’ after all.

Of course, retrieving it all had been even more difficult than putting it down there in the first place. Excavating the original bunker had involved explosives. Opening it safely had required a slower and more patient approach. But it was open, and all the buried treasures were now being carefully catalogued and returned to their appropriate place. Apparently the Highmountains were even excited for the opportunity to re-organize it all and implement a superior filing system.

As far as Thurrsto was concerned, there was absolutely nothing to get excited about in the words ‘superior filing system.’

There was a lot to be interested in, though. Especially the large crate that the Great Father had specifically requested. Something about his cryptic promise to the Champions at the day’s end ceremony only the night before.

Its contents were now neatly arrayed across a banquet-sized table deep in the fortress basements, and they varied greatly in size from an amulet about the size of Thurrsto’s palm, through Fyu’s personal suit of armor, all the way up to a fractured clay tablet the size of a table in its own right, covered in ancient claw-writing.

The first item Daar picked up, however, was a skull which he handed to Thurrsto with reverence. “Grandfather Talo found this about three years ago, a few months before he died.”

Genshi studied it. “…Female?”

“Yeah. We’ve learned a lot about her in the last few years. Her name was Muya. She was born in the harem at Yem Sha, sold to the Lan Hu when she was still little more than a cub. She was about as old as Mother Giymuy when she was, uh… executed in Wi Kao.”

Thurrsto had a sudden paranoid vision of himself dropping the precious item, and carefully put her down with respect. “…She was one of the Sisterhood?”

“Yeah. By Tiritya’s side, right to the end.” Daar reverentially touched a claw to a spot on the skull’s side, just behind the eye socket. “See there? That rough patch?”

Thurrsto knelt to get a closer look. “…Damage of some kind,” he said.

“Remind you of anything?”

“…I don’t know. Bone cancer? Or…” A dark suspicion about what kind of thing Daar might find significant in an ancient skull nudged his memory. “…Transcranial nanofilaments would leave scarring like that, I guess.”

“Exactly. Good eye!”

“So she had a transcranial implant.” Thurrsto looked at the artefacts on the table. With his suspicion confirmed, he ran his eye over the other artefacts on the table. “…The Hierarchy were manipulating us for a long time.”

“Yeah. Much, much longer than just this.” Daar carefully lifted Muya’s skull and returned it to the safety of a padded box. He indicated the clay tablet. “That goes right back to the Isthmus Clans, an’ those—” he indicated a set of high-resolution images to his left which turned out to be cave paintings, “—are from the Bat-Yu Gorge.”

He swept his paw along the table. “Every one’a these is a little piece of the puzzle. They don’t make a lotta sense on their own. Hell, if you got ‘em all together you wouldn’t draw much from ‘em anyway… unless you had the cipher of knowin’ ‘bout the Hierarchy. Then they tell a story, clear as Naxas stink.”

“The amulet?”

“Personalized badge of office worn by a senior Father of the Wi Sho. See those runes at the bottom? They’re the number Forty-Seven. Whole fuckin’ forests died to write all the papers debating the significance of that.”

“A Hierarchy agent who couldn’t resist indulging their ego?”

“That’s my theory.”

“…With all respect, My Father, that’s kinda circumstantial.”

“Yeah-huh. All of it is.”

“What about Fyu’s armor?”

Daar nodded and considered his forebear’s wargear. It occurred to Thurrsto that Fyu had in fact been a tiny, scrappy little terror; certainly Thurrsto would never be able to fit in that suit. Strange. In his head, he’d always envisioned the first Great Father as a rampaging brute to equal Daar.

“Famously decorated with poetry honoring Tiritya’s life an’ sacrifice, right?” Daar took the left vambrace off the mannequin and handed it over. The lacquered leather was scarred from a sword-stroke that had exposed and dented the steel underneath, but it was still in otherwise excellent condition and the brush-strokes of the poem under the clear lacquer were clearly legible.

“…I can’t read this,” he said.

“I can. It’s called the ‘odd poem’ by the Highmountains. The one that don’t quite fit or make sense. Just as beautiful—the old tyrant was a fuckin’ master poet—but all the rest form a set an’ this one seems ‘ta stick out…”

“…Unless you realize he was writing about Big Hotel,” Thurrsto guessed.

“Yeah. An’ that puts the most biggest itch on my nuts, ‘cuz I’ve been tryin’ for a whole year ‘ta figger out just how in the fuck he knew about them, an’ how much.” Daar sighed.

“Weren’t some of his personal documents lost in a fire shortly after he died?” Thurrsto recalled.

“Yeah.” Daar chittered darkly for a moment. “Real coincidental, that.”

Thurrsto duck-nodded solemnly and handed back the vambrace. “Still. This is still all very circumstantial…”

“Yup. But there’s one more thing you gotta see. An’ this I’m keepin’ close to the chest, ‘fer now.”

“Oh?”

Daar reached up and respectfully strapped the vambrace back onto the mannequin. Thurrsto had to admit, Fyu in his full regalia would have been a fearsome sight despite his diminutive size. “During the war, Champion Reeko from the Straightshields caught himself a biodrone with a Hierarchy ghost in it. The Humans interrogated it. We have video, an’ I’ll let you watch it later but believe me: It turns all’a this from circumstantial to solid.”

Even if Stonebacks were known to lie, which of course they infamously weren’t, Thurrsto knew the Great Father well enough to know that he’d be extra specially honest in matters such as this. “…Very well,” he said. “What does all of this have to do with the coronation?”

“You tell me.”

Ah. A test.

“You… want to put the coronation in its proper context?”

“Good start. Keep goin’.”

“…Is this about sending a message, or about what you believe? No, wait. It can be both. And of course it’s about sending a message, that’s what a coronation is…” Thurrsto trailed off, doing his best to ignore the amused set of the Great Father’s ears.

He scratched his own ears as he thought, combed his claws through his whiskers, and mentally worked through what he knew of Daar’s psych profile, the new revelations, the context they would inevitably put things in…

“…We’re our own species again,” he said. “For the first time in… in recorded history. Not only have we exposed the Hierarchy’s influence, we’ve broken free of it. So much so that they tried to destroy us… and failed.”

“So?”

“So…” Thurrsto knew his ears were twisting this way and that as he thought. “…I… have noticed that this coronation has, well, mystical undertones…”

Thurrsto had only learned the Gaoian native word for ‘mystical’ recently. It was rough and ancient, not at all a fit in modern Gaori, and it apparently impressed Daar.

“S’true. I ain’t avoidin’ the connotations… where’d you hear that word anyway?”

“Champion Gyotin. Do you watch his vlog?”

“Wish I had the time…” Daar grumbled. “An’ yeah. He an’ I think alike about resurrectin’ our spiritual heritage. It was stolen from us, an’ I mean ‘ta bring it back.”

“Bring it back, or reinvent it?” Thurrsto asked. Daar shot him a Look, and he ducked his head respectfully. “My Father, we can’t really know anything about our history. If this proves anything—” he waved a hand at the assembled treasures, “—it’s that everything we think we know about our past is suspect. The well’s been poisoned. Why keep trying to drink from it, when we could dig a fresh well?”

“We can figger out the bits that were authentically ours by payin’ attention t’what the Hierarchy spent the most effort killin.’ Or, at least, the bits that spoke most to our nature.”

“To what end?”

“Gettin’ back what they stole from us is the end!” Daar said. “The first step ta’ rebuildin’ our souls is knowin’ exactly what we are. We can’t damn well figger out a way forward if we ain’t got no idea where we’re starting!”

“Where we’re starting is here and now, surely?” Thurrsto asked. “My Father, I don’t disagree with any of this, I just…”

“Just what? Ain’t comfortable with mysticism? Don’t like old, discarded ideas? Afraid of superstition? Think maybe we’ll regress? Thurrsto…look outside. Look at the rapes and shit that’s still happenin.’ I’m gonna be breakin’ another damn fool next week, because no matter how fuckin’ creatively violent I get, there’s still dumb fucks out there that think they can get away with it! How much, exactly, is left to regress? The only thing keepin’ the Gao together right now is my Army, and my force o’ will. That can’t be all we have! Like…look. I’m takin’ pretty extreme measures, Brother. It’s why I’m trainin’ like crazy, so’s I can live up to the myth I gotta embody. It’s why I’m doin’ the Crue-G life extending medicine and everything.”

“…But you won’t last forever.”

“Exactly. And Thurrsto, if I don’t get another damn thing done as Great Father, it’ll be this: there can never be another like me. We need to find out what we naturally are. The Gao need to define themselves without it bein’ imposed by force, whether that force is sapient malware, the Clans themselves, or gods help us, another Great Father.”

“Gods help us?” Thurrsto considered the artefacts on the table again. “…What is a god?”

“That, Brother, is exactly the question I wanna ask. ‘Cept the thing is, I wanna ask everyone.”

There was a long silence, before Thurrsto finally combed his whiskers with a claw. “…I don’t understand. But I’ll follow.”

“…I know. But let me try it one more way, then we’ll move on. I think one definition of a god that, uh, resonates? Yeah. Resonates with me at least? A god is a Truth. Like, a stand-in for something real, even if the god itself is just a story. Does that make sense?”

“Why not just speak the Truth, then? Why abstract it?”

“Cuz an abstraction is like a distilled truth, ‘cuz sometimes we ain’t really suited to learn hard truths otherwise. Like…in the Final Rite? In Stoneback? To really get at some of this we exhaust a candidate to the point he’s basically hallucinatin’ about everything. Then we tell ‘em the stories. The old stories. It’s gotta be personal. And if there’s any people more people-oriented than humans, it just might be us.”

Thurrsto shuffled his paws against the concrete. “…That runs against the very core of Clan Whitecrest’s philosophy, My Father. We light the darkness: that means dragging the Truth out in the open, tearing away the layers of smoke and confusion around it. Our whole job is to cut away the stories and get at what’s real. This… Maybe it’s an important story. Maybe it’s the most importantest.”

Daar gave him a wry look. “I’m susceptible to flattery, Thurrsto. But don’t overuse it.”

Thurrsto returned an apologetic set of his ears and a share of amusement. “As you wish. …I do trust your vision. Even if it runs counter to everything I spent my life learning, if you say we need to wrap Truth in a story to get it into our people’s heads—”

“I don’t know if we do, but I can say that seems ‘ta work with other sapients. An’ I trust ‘yer advice too, ‘cuz ‘yer right: We can’t make this just…iunno, stupid stories about Keedas in the sky. But a story don’t have to be literally true ‘ta teach Truth. Even if we know they’re just stories, we can still learn from ‘em. An’ If anything else, it’ll help the cubs unnerstand what the Gao are. Balls, maybe they’ll figger it out ‘fore we do.”

“…And a coronation is a story.”

“Yeah. It’s a terrible story, Thurrsto. It’s gonna make me somethin’ like a god. I don’t wanna be that. All I ever wanted ‘ta do was farm things, build things, and woo Females. But…”

“But you said it yourself: there’s not much further to regress.” Thurrsto duck-nodded, then gasped as he received a hefty, heavy paw-blow to the back in congratulations.

“There, see! You got here way more faster than Reeko did.”

“That straight-spined walking steel bar? I should hope so!”

“Ha!” Daar’s baritone chitter could shake a room. “Don’t misunnerstand, Reeko’s a stand-up tail. I respect him. And I really need my Champions ‘ta feel like they can challenge my ideas. In private. Or, y’know. Not belligerently. But I really do think we need to do this, even if it ends up we decide it’s all a load o’ naxas shit.”

“We’ll be richer for knowing either way,” Thurrsto duck-nodded.

“Yeah. Help me light this darkness, Thurrsto. We’ve got a lotta spy-work and worse besides gettin’ to the bottom of it all. All the Clans got a part of the secret. I’m gonna start by openin’ up Stoneback’s Rites, at least to the Champions. We gotta share. An’ it’ll be painful. And maybe embarassin’. But we gotta start somewhere.”

He saw Thurrsto’s expression. “…That’s a big ask, huh?”

“…You’re asking me to violate a sacred trust I only just learned myself a few days ago,” Thurrsto said, noting the irony in his words.

“There’s that word. Sacred.”

“Yes. And it was made by a Champion who bore his throat to Fyu.” Thurrsto indicated the armor.

“…How? Whitecrest didn’t exist back then… Unless they did?”

Thurrsto just gave the Great Father a complicated and highly communicative Look.

Daar pondered for a bit. “…Okay. Then I really gotta start this off m’self. Lemme talk ‘ta Fiin. I think I need to share our Rites. ‘Cuz I’m th’ only one that can. After the coronation, anyway.”

“Which is when?”

“Months away, still. There’s a lot ‘ta do, and I need’ta talk with the humans about what happened to one our Sisters in Folctha.”

Thurrsto wracked his brain. The APA attack and the way a single armed human had carved a shockingly fast slaughter through the Alien Quarter before being stopped dead—very literally—at the gates of the Commune had been a major source of discontent that Whitecrest had been quietly working to balm. The Gao could be more than vengeful when Females were involved, and the one thing that had made Whitecrest’s job easier was that none of the females or cubs had come to any harm, as far as he knew.

“I thought the Commune of Females escaped unharmed? Mother Myun–”

“You’re forgetting that one of the Sisters ain’t biologically a Gaoian,” Daar reminded him. “Sister Shoo got hurt.”

His words landed with authority and finality.

“…I see.”

“Yeah. Yulna… ain’t happy. I don’t think our alliance with the Humans is gonna be hurt, not really. But I can’t ignore it either. I’ve asked her ‘ta visit me an’ talk about it.”

“And you have a museum to show off to all the other Champions before then. I should let you have fun with the next one… who is next, by the way?”

“Wozni.”

“Oh, I bet you’ll have endless fun with him,” Thurrsto chittered. Wozni was so terribly serious and earnest. “I won’t keep you from it.”

Daar just flicked an ear and bid him farewell. Thurrsto left the archives and returned upstairs in a deeply thoughtful mood, far deeper than he’d have thought. It wasn’t just the words and arguments, the sheer animated conviction that held Daar in its grip was enough to frame the whole encounter. He’d known Daar to be a creature of big passions, but this? This… fire?

It was clearly earnest. But again, it betrayed just how precarious the throne really was, and just how much Daar needed his Champions. For all his zeal, the Great Father couldn’t do it alone. Which meant the Champions still held a lot of power… But Genshi had been wrong: Daar did know best.

Of that much, Thurrsto was now certain.


Date Point: 15y7m3d AV
ESNN Offices, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Ava Ríos

–released a joint statement from Great Father Daar and Mother-Supreme Yulna condemning the APA, whom they called ‘mindless psychotics.’ Although APA terrorists attacked the Commune of Females in Folctha’s Alien Quarter, the compound was quickly locked down and one of the human attackers was killed by the guard-sisters–

Ava paused in her typing as another user selected her most recent section of text and highlighted it in orange. Jason wanted her to keep writing and come back to re-write that bit once she was finished.

She found that she liked his editing system. It wasn’t pushy, it didn’t interrupt her flow. She didn’t even feel like he was reading over her shoulder, even though he technically was. And she had to admit, as caustic as he could sometimes be, his input never failed to improve her articles.

She took a sip of her coffee and kept typing rather than wondering what, exactly, it was that Jason wanted her to change. She wasn’t thinking about a lot of anything at the moment except her work.

Work was her sword. When she had a camera in her hands or her fingers on the keyboard, she was fighting. She could make the world better, if only she took enough photos or typed enough words. Not in big ways, but in a thousand small ways.

It was that or… curl up, somewhere. Give up. And she knew how that would end.

So her options were fight or die.

God fucking damn them.

Jason tapped her on the shoulder, and she yelped. She’d completely drifted away thinking, and being yanked back to reality like that was jarring. Hannah sat up and immediately tried to lick her hand.

“You okay? You just drifted off there.”

“Sorry.”

“Take a break,” he advised.

“I’m fine, I don’t need–” Ava began. She stopped when she saw Jason’s expression.

“Ava… for crying out loud, you’re allowed to be shaken up,” he said. “Take a break. Take the rest of the bloody day if you need it. Your head’s obviously no good right now.”

Ava sighed and pushed her chair away from her desk. “…That’s what I’m afraid of,” she admitted.

“…Tell you what. If you absolutely have to work right now, then grab your camera and head down the Quarter. Take some pictures, shake some…paws or whatever. Get some interviews. Maybe a turn in the fresh air will help.”

It was good advice, so Ava sighed, nodded, and stood up. “I’ll… see if I can talk with Myun,” she said.

“Sounds good. You’ll be okay out there?”

“Yeah. Probably.” Actually, Ava would bet her teeth that somebody was keeping an eye on her. The Lads looked out for each other, and that meant looking out for their Brothers’ near-and-dear.

As it happened, Murray wasn’t even trying. He was sitting on a street litter bin across from the office as Ava left, and nodded at her.

Folctha’s litter bins were thick-walled steel things that looked like they were designed to handle a bomb blast. Maybe they were: Folctha had inherited a lot from Britain after all, and the Brits had spent decades fending off the IRA, barely getting a moment’s peace before other organisations like Al-Qaeda, the so-called Islamic State and now the Alien Protection Army had come along. They knew how to handle bomb scares, and litter bins that could direct a blast harmlessly upwards if a device was dropped inside them were part of the plan.

In any case, they were sturdy enough for a HEAT operator to sit on. Many park benches couldn’t boast that.

“…Hey, Murray.”

“‘Sup.”

“Following me?”

He shrugged. “It’ll be Allison next.”

“Allison?”

“Buehler.”

“…I’m going to have an astronaut following me around?”

He gave her a slightly offended look. “I’m a bloody astronaut.”

…Of course. HEAT were all fully qualified astronauts, and spacewalking was part of the job. Hell, the EV-MASS was a spacesuit. Ava felt a little ashamed rush of heat to her face and changed the subject.

“Well… thanks. Is this a courtesy, or…?”

He hopped off his perch and managed to ask which way she was going with nothing more than a tick-tock gesture of his hand. She pointed toward the Alien Quarter, and he fell in alongside her.

“Aye.”

“I thought you don’t like me?”

He shrugged.

“…Should I just pretend you aren’t there?”

He shook his head.

“You aren’t exactly the easiest conversationalist in the world.”

“Nope.”

“…Now you’re just trolling me.”

“Could be.”

“Murray…”

He chuckled and shrugged. “You’re alright.”

That was a gratifying surprise. So much so that Ava had to check. “You mean it?”

“You crawled into a collapsing building to rescue a bairn. And you saved Coombes’ life. So, aye. You’re alright.” He shot her a sideways look that had some amused warmth in it. “…A wee bit of a fuckin’ clanger sometimes, though.”

Unconventional as the insult was, Ava understood his meaning and laughed. “I promise, I’m doing my best to put that behind me.”

“Fair enough.”

They didn’t even make it to the end of the street before the question itching the whole of Ava’s brain overcame her self-control.

“…Seriously Allison Buehler though? What’s she doing following the likes of me around?”

“There’s not many others allowed to carry a weapon in this town.”

“What’s she like?”

Murray thought about it for a second. “I would’nae ask her for an interview. Nice lass, but she likes her privacy.”

“Thanks.”

He nodded, and resumed his trademark silence.

“…Thanks for going to my apartment, by the way,” Ava said to fill in the silence. He shrugged it off.

Ava sighed and gave up on getting a conversation out of this. Instead she dug her phone out of her purse and checked how her apartment listing was doing. She’d spent the insurance money on hiring professional cleaners rather than replacing her personal belongings, and on their advice had then brought in some decorators to replace the carpets and the worst of the ruined furnishings. The photos they’d emailed her didn’t look like her apartment any longer. Oh sure, some of the furniture and fittings were the same, but the APA thugs had trashed most of it.

It was a weird kind of silver lining, knowing that between the new furnishings and the fact that a midtown apartment in Folctha was fifty percent more valuable now than it had been three years ago, she was actually going to make a decent profit off having masked terrorists break into her home with intent to murder her. In fact, it was mostly cloud and not much lining. But if she’d learned one thing over the last ten years, it had been how important it was to focus on the silver lining, however pathetic it might be.

Once she’d sold the old place, she’d be able to afford a low-end place in Lakeside if she was feeling thrifty, a really good place on Delaney Row if she wanted to be frugal, or even a two-story house out in New Belfast and she’d still have plenty left over. And in a few years, the new place would have ballooned in value too.

Living in a boom town could be strange sometimes.

“Alright. This is where I leave ye.”

“Wh-?” Ava turned, but Murray was already walking away. He traded a high-five with a woman in a plaid shirt, a patrol cap and Oakleys, and was gone.

It took Ava a second to recognize Allison Buehler behind the shades. She was a lot taller in real life than she looked on TV, and at that exact moment she reminded Ava a heck of a lot of Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2. She was actually pretty intimidating.

“…Oh. Uh… Hi.”

“Hi.”

“It’s, uh… nice to meet you.”

Buehler had a firm handshake and tough palms. Everything about her seemed severe at first glance, but there were little… hints. Like the fact that she still offered a small smile to go with the handshake, and the fact that her nails, though short and practical, were still well-manicured. She came off more like a badass big sister than a battleaxe.

“Nice to meet you too. Sorry about your apartment.”

Ava tried to shrug it off, unconvincingly. “Hey. The way property in this town works, my new place will probably be an upgrade,” she said. The joke put an amused quirk in Buehler’s lip.

“Still. I know if somebody broke in our place, I’d be… upset about it.”

“Oh yeah,” Ava agreed. “I’m upset about it alright.”

The amused quirk turned into a half-smile. “So, I guess my job is to follow you around and make sure you get home safe. What’s the itinerary?”

“We’re going over to the Alien Quarter so I can get some pictures and interviews. After that, uh… Hannah needs walkies…” the dog perked up on hearing her name and one of her favorite words. “…And I need to go clothes shopping, get groceries…”

“For both our sakes, I hope you’re not gonna ask for my input on fashion.”

“Are you kidding?” Ava asked. “I saw you on That Show, that dress was perfect for you!”

“Thanks! I’ll let Xiù know. She chose it.”

“…Right.”

Buehler’s half-smile finally graduated into the real thing. “Lead the way.”

“Uh… okay! Walkies first, I guess…”

“Sure.”

In fact, Buehler left Ava and Hannah alone, and hung back a little way. Even when Ava jogged with the dog she kept up easily thanks to her longer legs.

They stopped for water at the east end of the park, and Ava noticed to her mild chagrin that while she was puffing, Allison wasn’t breathing any faster at all. Clearly, less time in the office and more time in the gym was needed.

“I don’t want to pry, but-” she began, then trailed off at the subtle shift in Allison’s body language. It was subtle, but she seemed to be… annoyed? Tense?

“No interview,” she said bluntly.

Now it was Ava’s turn to be annoyed. She straightened up and glared at her own reflection in Allison’s Oakleys. “…You don’t know me, Miss Buehler, so I’ll make something clear. I’m not some two-bit muckraker who’d sell her soul for a headline. I’m a member of EJN.”

“EJN?”

“Ethical Journalism Network. So if I ever interview you, you’ll know it’s coming, you’ll have consented to it, and you’ll probably know what the questions are beforehand.”

They stared each other down for a second, then Allison sighed and took her shades off. “…Fair enough. Sorry. But, look, I’m supposed to be watching out for you right now. If you want to ask me questions, now isn’t the time. Fair?”

“…Yeah. Just one though?”

“Alright, shoot.”

“Why are you doing this?”

Allison shrugged. “A friend asked me to,” she said.

That was fair.

“Well… thank you.”

Allison smiled again, then cleared her throat. “…Clothes shopping?”

“I should probably head over to the Quarter first but honestly? These clothes are a couple of days old so… Sure.”

That got an honest-to-God grin.

“Awesome. Let’s be girly.”


Date Point: 15y7m1w AV
Yonkers, New York, USA, Earth

Daniel Hurt

For such a public figure, Steven Lawrence had kept his private life very close to his chest. The whole Lawrence family seemed to be like that: Steven’s kids and his wife Stacey, his father Ed and his brother and sister had politely requested that the funeral itself be a small private affair for immediate family and close friends only. Daniel was one of the few “professional” acquaintances who’d been invited.

But Steven’s life had affected far more people than just his family, and there were a lot of guests from his show, colleagues from the business and other celebrities who’d wanted to come pay their respects. Rather than disrespect the family’s wishes, they’d organized a wake in Steven’s home town.

It would have been quite the red carpet occasion, if anybody was dressed up for it. But the consensus had been clear: here and now wasn’t a time to peacock around for media attention. They were there to remember a life cut short too soon, so show up in your street clothes.

The cynical thought, probably learned from Allison, occurred to Daniel that that in itself might be a carefully calculated move in the great game of Celebrity Chess. That was the problem with fame: after a certain amount of it was accumulated, every action took on public significance. Especially the innocent ones.

And of course, wherever celebrities went there was the personal protection. Which in Daniel’s case, considering his sensitive role in the development of an inter-species alliance, meant he had three. Their codenames were Irish, Baseball, and Crank, and they made him feel like the man who’d showed up to a classic car show driving a tank.

They didn’t speak much, which was fine. Daniel wasn’t quite prepared to process the implications of…well, effectively human Given-Men shadowing his every move, albeit with earpieces and wearing ill-fitting tuxedos with strange whole-body armor underneath.

Probably, this was the most well-protected party in the history of Yonkers. There were others involved too, though he didn’t get to meet them. A couple of the supervising leads were somehow yet bigger men, and there was definitely a lot of people in the busy surrounding community who were quite obviously plainclothes officers.

It all drove home just how serious AEC were about the Ten’Gewek. And yet Daniel didn’t share more than a few words with his protection all night.

Good, really. He wanted to join in the jolly mourning.

There was a lot of that. By the time Daniel arrived (fashionably late for unfashionable reasons) the drinks had already been flowing for a while, and one of Steven’s most regular guests, the stand-up comic Chris Dye, was in full force and making ribs ache with an anecdote.

Daniel’s arrival resulted in a cheer going up, and a blizzard of invitations to join this group or that group. He danced demurely around the invitations using the excuse that he needed to get his hands on something to drink first and, once that mission was accomplished, allowed himself to settle in as the new orbital focus of a clique of writers and thinkers he counted as friends.

Diana Wimmer gave him a chaste, friendly kiss on the cheek as he sat down. She looked like she was putting on a game face rather than enjoying herself. “You made it,” she said, sounding relieved. “I kinda figured with the way you live on an alien planet these days that maybe you wouldn’t.”

“It took some doing,” Daniel admitted. “You should see the human tanks I have for bodyguards tonight.”

“I did see them. You know those guys have to be HEAT, right?”

“Yeah, they’re HEAT,” Daniel confirmed.

“Wow. AEC must really love you.”

“They love the Ten’Gewek,” Daniel said. “I just happen to be one of their most high-value assets in that relationship.”

“That sounds cold.”

“Right. What am I thinking. The military are a sunshine parade of fluffy-bunny sentimentalists.”

That got an earnest laugh from Diana, who sipped her drink and set it down, then glanced up at the little shrine to Steven at the far end of the room. “…When did you hear?”

“Not long after you did, I suspect. We had a scheduled jump that day, a few hours after the attacks. One of the JETS operators came through on it to share the news.”

“Is everything okay over there?”

Daniel thought about it as he swirled his whisky. “…Yeah. The Ten’Gewek are… There are times when they’re very alien. Sometimes they’re a lot more rational than us, sometimes a lot less. But they understand pain and loss and death, all too well. They don’t have immunisation, after all. A lot of their children die young.”

Diana nodded solemnly. They were both parents themselves, they could both imagine what that would be like. At times like these, the blessings of civilization were more acutely felt and appreciated.

“You seem pretty content,” she said. “I remember the last time we were on Steven’s show together, you were getting pretty weary of book signing and speaking tours. Now look at you! Living in the jungle seems to agree with you!”

“The higher gravity can be hell on my back and knees…” Daniel confessed. “But… yes. It’s fulfilling. But difficult sometimes. They’re asking about vaccines now.”

Diana pulled a face. “Owch. Running smack into that Prime Directive thing, huh?”

“Well, that decision was made for us when the Hierarchy decided to exterminate them. The only counter to alien interference is more alien interference, and once you’ve crossed that Rubicon…”

“Yeah. So, what, are they going to get vaccines now?”

It was Daniel’s turn to pull a face. He sipped his whisky to cover it. “…I can’t think of an ethical way to say no. After all, I’d have to tell parents that it’s for the greater good that their children die young of preventable illness. But if that was true, we wouldn’t vaccinate our own kids, would we?”

“It’s not exactly the same situation…” Diana pointed out.

“No. But the only functional difference is whose children are whose.”

“So much for the Prime Directive, then.”

“As if I was ever going to base real-world decisions on a hopelessly naive TV series,” Daniel scoffed.

“Don’t let my husband hear you say that. He loves Star Trek.” Diana raised her glass.

“…What are we toasting?”

“I don’t know. Steven. Star Trek. Vaccines. Any suggestions?”

Daniel chuckled. “…To life. It’s confusing and difficult, and it ends too quickly.”

“Cheers.”

They drank.

“And to the future,” Diana added.

“Don’t call it an undiscovered country, please.”

She laughed and shook her head. “No. To the future… and to all the confusing, difficult lives it contains. How’s that?”

Daniel nodded and smiled. “Cheers.”

They drank again, and that meant Daniel needed a refill. Fortunately, there were bottles everywhere.

Several toasts and drinks later, the conversation finally worked its way back around to the Ten’Gewek. They’d picked up a few other latecomer guests and figures who’d extracted themselves from one conversation to join the really interesting one about aliens.

Top of that list was Mike Coleman. Daniel knew of him, but had never met the man personally: Infamously a former NSA spook, and the best-selling author of books that blurred the line between fiction and non-fiction. He’d been busy in the aftermath of the APA ‘Day of Reckoning,’ appearing on practically every news channel and talk show going, getting a couple of miles of op-ed articles under his belt, and generally making his opinion about the terrorists vigorously known.

A shamelessly opportunistic glory hound, therefore, but at least he was on the right side of the fight. And he was doing something probably uncharacteristic in that he was hanging on Daniel’s every word.

“You’re going to start a post system?”

Daniel nodded. “Yes, we’ll have to I think. Yan has been, uh, encouraging the other Given-Men to learn Vemik’s writing. Since the Given-Men travel from village to village anyway, it makes sense they should carry letters, right?”

“Why?” Diana asked.

“They need to unify as a culture if they are to survive the world they find themselves in nowadays. There’s no better way than making their world a more connected village. This will also spread literacy and hopefully kickstart their own cultural advancement, all without us unduly influencing anything.”

“What about the Singers?”

“Well…they have developed their own system of writing, actually. Are developing. Sort of. It’s independent of and totally unrelated to Vemik’s, and it’s secret. I suspect this is so the Given-Men can’t read their mail. Well, no. We haven’t suggested the idea of mail yet, sorry. But I bet it will be a major reason their system flourishes.”

“That sounds like it would get in the way,” Coleman opined. “A segregated writing system, one for the males and one for the females?”

“It would hardly be the most alien thing we’ve ever encountered,” Daniel replied. “But no. More like the role Latin played in the church, medicine and academia for a long time, I think. The language of commerce versus the language of Higher Things. Lingua Vulgari versus Lingua Deorum.”

“What exactly do you see these people becoming?” Coleman asked.

Daniel shrugged. “Having been exposed to us… I imagine they’ll make leaps in fifty years that it took us five hundred to manage. Two hundred years from now it wouldn’t surprise me if we have the Ten’Gewek answers to the Wright Brothers, if not sooner.”

“That’s not what I asked,” Coleman said.

“No, it isn’t. It’s not a question I feel I can even attempt to answer. There are a lot of forces pulling on them, from us, from inside. I’m certain the AEC would want some of them in a military capacity…HEAT operators certainly, and in fact they’re already looking to use an adapted version of their trials in a training capacity for JETS teams. You and I might have other wants we project onto them, intentionally or otherwise. Our words carry a hell of a lot of weight, too. Yan likes me, and more and more I’ve grown aware of just how much power that’s given me over their development. So I think the only safe answer is…it’s not for me to decide.”

“You can’t tell me you don’t speculate, though,” Diana pressed him. “We’re not asking you to decide here, just… if you had to bet on what they’re going to do next, where would you put your money?”

“…I think they have a bright future ahead of them. And that’s all I’m going to say—a bright future.”

“Fair enough,” Coleman said, letting it drop. “But when are you going to write a book about them?”

“I’m writing it. It’s just… every time I reach the point where I think ‘okay, I can wrap this up now’ something new comes along. Like the vaccines.”

“Sounds like mission creep, Danny.”

“Well, the problem with working in the jungle on an alien planet is my agent can’t pester me.”

“That’s a problem?” Diana asked. She got some laughs, including from Daniel.

“Apparently so,” he said.

“Well…” Coleman raised his glass for yet another in the night’s long litany of toasts. “To the Ten’Gewek then! Bright futures.”

That was one toast Daniel was more than happy to make.


Date Point: 15y7m1w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Allison Buehler

“…Well? You gonna look at it?”

“I know, I’m just… I’m nervous. That’s all.”

“Babe, I love you very much, but why the fuck are you nervous about the result of my pregnancy test?” Allison asked.

Xiù gave her a Look. “You’re the one who chickened out and asked me to look at it for you!”

“I know, I know… I just…”

“…I know.”

A heavy, nervous silence fell between them before Allison made a disgusted noise at herself.

“…What the fuck are we so nervous about, anyway? I thought we want to have kids?”

“Well, yeah, but…”

More silence. Then, quite abruptly, Xiù plucked back the corner of the tissue around the test. She didn’t move for a long time.

“…Babe?”

Xiù jumped, then remembered where she was and gave Allison a weak smile.

“Well… It’s positive. You’re pregnant.”

Allison exhaled slowly. She’d kind of known, somehow. But having it in pink-and-white and hearing the words out loud were a different thing altogether.

“…Well…” she said slowly. “Here’s to doing it right, this time.”

“What happened last time wasn’t your fault,” Xiù comforted her.

“I know, I just… Never mind. What about yours?”

“I told you, I don’t think I am.”

“Humor me.”

Xiù sighed. Much more easily, she uncovered her own test and blinked at it.

“…Huh.”

“‘Huh?’ What does ‘huh’ mean?”

“It means, uh…” Xiù waved a hand at the test.

“…Oh. You, uh… you are, huh?”

Xiù gave her a wry version of her best troll-grin. “…Nope. It’s negative.”

Allison snarled at her, in a laughing way. “Ugh, don’t play around with me like that you butt!”

“Not sorry.” Xiù gave her a kiss, then tidied the two test kits away. “Guess we’ll just have to keep trying.”

“Oh no. What a chore,” Allison deadpanned. She was rewarded with a giggle. “…Y’know, I was seriously expecting you’d be first.”

“Why?”

“I dunno. Just… I dunno.”

Xiù gave her a patient look. “…I know you’ve been nervous.”

“Well it’s not like the first one worked out so great!” Allison sighed. “…But yeah. You made the decision, and you’ve been having fun trying to make it happen, and…”

“You seemed to be having fun too…”

“Well, yeah, I just… And it’s not that I don’t want this, I just…” Allison gave up. “…I take it back. I think I kinda do want you to have yours about the same time. I know it’ll be more work, but being pregnant while you’re not is just gonna be weird.”

“How weird could it be? You’ve already done it once.”

“Yeah, and it took me like eight months to even realize it. I just thought I was putting on weight!” Allison had to admit to some embarrassment there. She really had been pretty fucking dumb as a teenager. “Actually knowing for the next however long is gonna be… different. You’re sure it said pregnant?”

“I’m sure.”

“You’re absolutely double sure?”

Xiù rolled her eyes. “I mean, we’ll need an ultrasound to confirm it’s not actually, like, a pizza or something but…” She grinned when Allison snorted. “…It’s positive, dummy.”

“I mean, like… how reliable are these kits?”

“They’re supposed to be able to detect a pregnancy within forty-eight hours of conception.”

“So… try again in a couple days just to make sure?”

“If you like,” Xiù sighed.

“Sorry, I just… It’s a big moment.”

Xiù gave her a hug, then rose to her feet in response to the doorbell. “I’ll go see who that is.”

Allison nodded, and tidied away the testing kits. Just to be on the safe side, she decided not to get Julian’s hopes up until after they’d tested a second time. Maybe she was being dumb and neurotic about it, but… well, it was a big moment. The last time this had happened, it had changed her life.

At least this time she was going into it aware, alert and willing. And at least when the baby arrived it would have a family rather than…

She bit the thought off. Her parents were the last thing she wanted to think of just then.

To judge from the Gaori floating through from the kitchen, their guest was from the Commune of Females. It wasn’t Myun, though: Myun had a deep, dusky alto by her species’ standards, while the visitor was almost squeaking.

Intrigued, Allison stuck her head through the door. The visitor was an adolescent female, maybe twelve years old. Old enough in Gaoian society to be running errands and odd-jobs like delivering a message. She was also managing the neat trick of apparently not being star-struck by Xiù. Apparently delivering a message to Sister Shoo was all in a day’s work for this one.

Whatever the message was, Xiù obviously didn’t much like it. Naturally she was nothing but smiles for the messenger, who was thanked with some broccoli from the fridge and departed while crunching happily on it.

Allison gave Xiù a few seconds before butting in. “Bad news?”

Xiù turned around. She gave Allison a complicated look, then shrugged and returned to the fridge to close it. “Message from Yulna. Apparently, the Great Father wants to see me.”

“…Okay? I mean, we know Daar. He’s a teddy bear. Almost literally.”

“Yeah, but the Great Father isn’t. And it’s the Great Father who wants to see me. It’s… the request was very formal.”

“…Huh.” Allison thought about that for a second, then indicated the cub by waving a hand toward the door. “…Did she say why?”

“Nope!” Xiù sighed and headed for the stairs. “I’d better pack. Book a me a ticket to the island?”

“Sure.”

“And don’t tell Julian about the baby until I’m back. I want to see his reaction.” Xiù grinned and headed upstairs.

Even in the face of a summons like that she was still irrepressibly cheerful. It put a glow in Allison’s chest to see that kind of effortless positivity. “No baby revelations until you’re back with camera in hand, I promise.”

“Xièxie!”

Booking a shuttle ticket over to the Grand Commune was trivial, and she finished summoning a cab at around the same time as her phone pinged with a new message from Ava Ríos.

It was… plaintive. All her friends were at work or otherwise busy and she didn’t feel secure on her own. Allison could sympathize, there. And, hell, she’d volunteered to look out for Ríos’ safety, so…

She sent a reply:

Should I come over or do you want to come here?

If I’m welcome, I’d love to visit.

You’re welcome. Should I come get you or is a cab okay?

Cab okay.
Thank you.

See you soon.

Well, at least she wasn’t going to be rattling around the house alone tonight, worrying about her brothers. They had some time with Amanda tonight, which inevitably meant Allison would be dealing with two confused, angry, mistreated boys when they came back in the morning. Hopefully the news that they’d soon be uncles would help them.

That whole situation was a giant knot of anxiety for everyone involved. Jacob had gone back to Earth where he was in control of things, and communicated with his children and wife via terse, formally worded letters on company letterhead. Amanda had found a job in Folctha and rented an apartment, from which she hovered over her sons as close as the court order would let her, always thirsty for details of what they were up to and always trying to mend a bridge with Allison that she’d smashed in the first place.

In any case, trying to adopt the boys or gain permanent custody of them was likely to be a migraine headache that lasted for months or even years. Between their unconventional home arrangement and the international nature of the battle… probably the boys would be old enough to make their own decisions before it all got worked out.

But still: Having somebody to look after helped distract from all that.

She looked down and found her hand was resting unconsciously on her tummy. Make that two somebodies to look after.

She looked up as Xiù trotted back down the stairs carrying her travel bag. They all had one, a little gym bag containing the essentials—clothing, toiletries, a small first aid kit—stashed in the bottom of their wardrobe. It showed its value in moments like this: Rather than spend half an hour packing, Xiù had just grabbed her travel bag, probably folded a couple of extras into it, grabbed her passport and now she was ready to depart.

They kissed. “See you in a couple days?”

“Yup!”

“Love you.”

“Love you too.”

And… there she went. Out the door and into one cab, which wasn’t even around the corner when another cab arrived. Allison chuckled to herself and grabbed a couple of pods for the coffee machine.

It never ended.


Date Point: 15y7m1w AV
Planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm

The Singer

There were times when the Given-Men gathered and brought the wisest men and women of their tribes with them to talk about important things. Sooner or later, Yan would probably call one of those.

Today was not quite that big. Today, the People were meeting… more like a big family. They brought food and wood, they stoked a big fire, they brought things they had made for trading… Probably later there’d be some trading of partners for the night. A few babies to mix the tribes and bring them together. That was always the way these things went.

But this wasn’t a celebration, this was just catching up. Sharing the news, and the gossip, and the rumours.

Vemik of course was proving to be wildly popular. He was telling the story of Earth and all the things he had seen there. He made the Human home sound… strange, beautiful, fascinating. Full of different challenges, and little beasts like squirrels, big beasts like Moose, and treasures like the slush-ee.

Strange how even the Humans also had a beast whose name was not spoken, and instead they called it “Brown One.”

“A little like the Brown One we know! Much smaller, not as heavy-built, probably can’t run as fast. But also quicker on its feet, still very strong for its size, I think smarter too… It warned us off, but Jooyun said that Human and Bear fear each other…”

…And so on. A number of women from other tribes were not-so-subtly maneuvering for the chance to get him to themselves later, which the Singer couldn’t help but trill softly at. She wasn’t jealous at all and the world could only be a better place for having plenty of Vemik’s children in it. But he honestly wouldn’t notice their attention unless one of them tied him down or the Singer herself prompted him.

…Which she might do, actually. Matu, from Darm’s tribe, was pretty, strong, young, and smart…and in any case, he needed to enjoy himself as well as work. Sometimes taking care of men was harder than children!

Not tonight, though. Singer trilled to herself; tonight he was too excited about storytelling to be of much use to any woman.

It was a good thing Yan was there to nod along and confirm what Vemik was saying, though. A lot of the People had only seen a Human once or twice at most, including some of those present who kept giving Heff strange looks. They’d never seen their spaceships, or their rifles, or all the other miracles they carried as casually as the People carried knives. To them, all the talk of huge shining villages and bright lights that let them work through the night and cartoons and all the rest of it sounded beyond belief.

Especially the vack-seens.

There was a circle of Given-Men and Singers discussing those around one of the fires, and as the Singer approached it she heard one of the other, older Singers as a perfectly fair question. “How can we ask them for a Giving that big? A magic to fight back sickness and let most of our children live and grow? What can we ever Give in return to match it?”

“Don’t think that Humans will see it that way,” the Singer said, sitting down opposite the older woman. “To us it may be the greatest Giving ever. To them, it may be a small thing.”

“And what seems a small thing to us might be a great Giving indeed to the Humans,” one of the Given-Men, Hed, added. The Singer nodded. Hed was one of the few Given-Men who’d got to know the Humans: Like Yan, he could taste the change on the wind and wanted to know about it. And being much younger than Yan, he’d be around for much more of it.

“How can that be? Life is the greatest Giving of all!”

“They have these words, ‘supply’ and ‘demand,’” the Singer said. “If you have a lot of a thing, it does not hurt you much to Give it. If you do not have very much, it is a great thing to be Given.”

“That… makes sense,” the older Singer admitted. “But how can a tribe have so much life to Give?”

“How can a tribe fly between the stars? Or use the power of stars to make weapons that shake the earth and flatten trees? Humans did both,” Hed said. “This Singer is right. They do not see things the same way we do. They are…”

“Aliens,” the Singer prompted.

“…Yes.”

“…And they will Give us this Vack-Seen thing?”

“If they see it as a Giving, yes. They do not like to Take. And Professor Daniel believes that sometimes the wrong kind of Giving can become a Taking.”

“Give a child too much of a soft thing, they become soft,” one of the other Given-Men, Dinem, agreed with a nod. “They respect us, but we are still like children to them.”

He didn’t seem offended by that, at least.

They looked again over at Heff, who was gnawing on a chunk of jerky and performing strange little tricks for the children. He could make a swatch of cloth vanish from his hands and reappear behind the bewildered child’s ear. It was just clever trickery with his hands, but the Singer had to admit that if she didn’t know how he was doing it, she’d be just as confused as the children.

“…What do you want me to say? It’s good to have friends. There are too many evils out there.”

“Better still to have friends who are cautious not to make us soft,” Hed nodded. “They respect us, Singer,” he added, addressing the older Singer. “They could ignore us or destroy us. Instead they talk with us, and share, and trade. I think they have earned trust.”

“Yan certainly thinks so,” the Singer agreed. The older Singer nodded, then glanced at the oldest Singer present, a wizened wrinkly old woman whose crest was as grey as Forestfather bark, who’d stirred as if to say something.

Out of respect, they waited patiently. This old Singer took a while to get her words out, but they were always worth hearing. She plucked at the blanket around her shoulders and frowned distantly at Heff before finally speaking.

“We will not be The People if we live in big bright villages like them,” she warned. “But we will not be The People if we die of sickness either. The Gods want balance in all things.”

They all nodded.

“…And what if the Humans say no?” Dinem asked.

“Then we trust them,” the old Singer said.

“They won’t,” the Singer predicted. The oldest one looked at her.

“…You know it? They will give us vack-seens, you see it like storms on the horizon?”

“I know Humans well enough. They won’t say no. At worst, they will say ‘not yet.’”

The old Singer considered that for a second, then smiled warmly, nodded, and fell silent.

That seemed to end the conversation, so the Singer used her tail to push herself to her feet and politely excused herself.

The last stop on her tour, of course, was Yan. He was feasting and flirting with a few young women and generally enjoying himself, but every so often between tearing meat off a bone or saying something outrageously charming he’d pause to hold forth on Clan matters, questions of justice and territory and Giving and Taking… all the things that were expected of the senior Given-Man.

“Hello, Uncle,” the Singer greeted him with a hug. “You haven’t stopped eating since you got back, didn’t they feed you on Earth?”

She heard a bark of laughter from Heff, whom Yan glanced toward with an amused expression. “They gave me enough to get by.”

“You cost us over [twenty thousand dollars] to feed, big guy!”

Yan trilled in amusement. “Some of that was a mistake!”

[“Twenty thousand] is a lot?” the Singer checked.

“Four circles big of mun-ee, Singer. It is quite a lot.”

“Enough to feed a human family for a couple of years. I’m countin’ that bull he an’ Vemik ate.”

“That was a long time ago. We ate snacks on Earth. No big food.”

“What about the moose? And the deer?”

Yan waved his hand dismissively. “We brought most of that back to Give. Doesn’t count.”

The Singer caught Heff’s eye, and for just a moment despite the strange alien shape of his face and the strange round eyes and the total lack of a tail, she could read the look on his face perfectly, and he hers. The Human shook his head with a smirk and humored Yan.

“When you put it like that it’s true. We starved you. Shame on us.”

Yan wasn’t about to take any sass from someone two hands smaller than him. He trilled, charged over, and snatched Heff up before he had any chance to escape. Yan knuckled back to the fire with Heff wrapped up in his tail, then flipped him around, smashed him up in a hug, and plopped down to enjoy the heat. Heff sighed and resigned himself to his fate, accompanied by the sound of everyone else at the fire trilling merrily.

“Urf! …No mercy, big guy?”

Yan grunted in amusement and hugged tighter. “No.”

“Do you a… hngh! …deal. I got news on Julian.”

Yan of course meant no harm, and loosened up just enough to hear. “He will visit soon?”

“I guess, but that’s not the news. Him, Xiù and Al are gonna start having babies.”

Yan and the Singer both let out an approving hoot. “About time!” The Singer exclaimed.

“Yeah, they’re pretty… oof! …excited.” Heff managed to get both hands on the end of Yan’s tail and succeeded in unwinding it a little. “Yan, buddy, a man’s gotta have ribs!”

“You’re tough! Good to fight a little now and then.”

“Yan…”

“Fine, fine.” He loosened up enough that Heff sighed in relief, but didn’t let him go. Several of the other men nearby were trilling openly at the sight.

“They are with child?” The Singer checked, eagerly.

“That part I don’t know yet. Just that they’re off the birth control medicine and goin’ at it pretty much like y’all do. Lucky bastard.”

“How long?”

“Given those three, I’d bet pretty soon. After that, uh… nine months in our time so… two seasons?”

“So quick!” the Singer said.

“Maybe I got the time wrong.”

“No. Is right,” Yan said confidently. “Why so quick though?”

“Asking the wrong guy. But, uh, your babies can climb almost right away. Ours are helpless for almost a year. Earth year. And we’re smaller than you. Maybe that’s it? I dunno, babies and birth aren’t my…” he trailed off and then used an English word. [“Forté.] Means what I’m good at.”

Yan rolled over the top of Heff and chided him gently. “You should make babies, Heff! The world needs more of you.”

“Yan… All respect and all? But the world really, really doesn’t need more of me.”

…Well. That caught everyone flat-footed, especially Yan, who rolled up into a sitting position and dragged Heff along, this time much more affectionately.

“Well, I think it does.”

“…Thanks. But… No. I would make a very bad father. I’m just being honest.”

“You won’t even try?” the Singer asked.

“Well, I’m pretty sure I do have a kid, actually. But that was years ago, and the woman never said it was mine. With her it would be hard to know. She had a lot of men.”

“And? Many children and men around, we don’t know who their father is,” the Singer said. “We raise them.”

“We don’t really work that way. Our kids need both parents to grow up the best they can. It’s how God made us. So, sure, I can be a father, I can give a woman a baby. Sure. But I can’t be a [daddy.] That ain’t… I’d be the wrong kind of example.”

Very strange. Very alien. But… the Singer could see what he meant. And from what Yan and Vemik had said, there were so very, very many humans that maybe there was no shame for them in being a man who didn’t leave children.

But still… “If not children, what will you leave?” she asked. “Everyone should have something they leave when they go back to the Gods.”

Heff actually smiled. “I saved some lives, I stopped some evil people, and here I am building a future with you people,” he said. “I’m leaving plenty, I think.”

“You could leave more.”

“You can always leave more. But when I face Judgement… I guess all I’ll have to say for myself is ‘I am how you made me, and I tried to do good.’ That’s really all a man can do.”

Yan nodded at that, gently spun him around and let him go. “…So. It will be a long time before we meet these children.”

“They’ll visit. We don’t know what high gravity does to our babies, so they won’t visit for long, but they’ll visit. Let the kids get a few seasons and their feet under them first. We know high gravity isn’t so bad when they’re a bit older. Warhorse proved that.”

“Made him strong!”

“Stronger than you, big guy!’

The Singer grinned and stood up as of course Yan got Heff around the waist with his tail again and the affectionate struggling began again.

“I’m not hnnngh wrong though!”

She left them to have fun and returned to Vemik. Time to repeat the cycle. There was so much to keep track of today, and only so little time in the day.

Besides, maybe hearing the news about Jooyun, Awisun and Shyow would inspire him to look for a woman’s company tonight. It’d be good for him.

A Singer’s work was never done. Fortunately, she enjoyed it.


Date Point: 15y7m1w AV
High Mountain Fortress, Northern Plains, Gao

Father Regaari of Clan Whitecrest

Regaari had a courier envelope to deliver to the Great Father, one dispatched from Ambassador Rockefeller directly. While he still had diplomatic duties owing to his relationship with the Humans, he’d been…relieved of his prior responsibilities as Daar’s personal assistant. That was understandable and honestly a bit of a blessing. Every time he had to face the Great Father, his heart threatened to tear itself in half. He’d sacrificed the longest, deepest friendship of his life in an act of extreme hubris. There was no escaping that.

But there was no escaping the Great Father, either. Today, he had to face him.

His reception at High Mountain Fortress was icily professional. Both Clan Highmountain and Clan Stoneback jointly protected the ancient compound, both were near fanatically loyal to the Great Father, and it was by his word alone that Regaari was ever allowed to pass unmolested. That didn’t mean they enjoyed it, or offered anything beyond the barest respect owed a Father of an allied Clan.

Strange. The old building was kept warm by design, had been since its first construction when ‘heating’ meant stone chimneys inside the walls and under the floors that circulated hot air from the hundreds of fireplaces. Those chimneys and floor spaces were warmed by more modern means, but the point was to turn a wind-swept rock on the steppe into a place of warmth and civilization even in the most bitter winter. Usually, he felt warm here.

Now, even the building seemed to be giving him the cold shoulder. Or maybe it was just that his progress through its halls was marked by conversations stopping and movement ceasing. He moved in a bubble of disapproving silence that made the ancient stones seem colder and more echoing than they really were.

…Or maybe it was just his mood. Either way, his paws were beginning to feel numb by the time he reached the top of the tower and scratched on Daar’s door.

“Come in.”

The change in Daar’s body language when he realized who had entered his room couldn’t have been more of a stab. He always started out generally friendly and warm, and then when one of his Brothers or Cousins appeared he’d explode into boisterous motion and shower them with greetings.

This time, he seemed to freeze, stared at Regaari for a second, then returned his attention to his desk.

“Somethin’ important?”

Regaari cleared his throat. “Courier envelope from Ambassador Rockefeller, My Father.”

“Leave it over there.” Daar waved a claw.

Regaari didn’t know what else to do but obey. The envelope was deposited as instructed and…

He coughed, and Daar half-turned to look at him. “…Was there somethin’ else?”

“Yes, My Father. The Dominion trade representative on Cimbrean asked me to convey his belated congratulations for your birthday. He also wants to send a trade delegation to meet with Clan Goldpaw as soon as possible.”

Daar duck-nodded slowly. “I see. Is there anything else?”

“…No, My Father.”

“Right.” Daar’s weary sigh sounded more like a grumble under his breath, but Regaari couldn’t quite make out what he said. “…Thank the representative for me. The delegation request can wait a day or two, I’m takin’ some personal time out at the farm. Thank you, Regaari, you’re dismissed.”

“My Father.” Regaari turned and let himself out. He closed the door behind him and took a deep breath. The silence had been oppressive.

What stopped him dead in his tracks before he could head down the stairs was the fact that he was almost certain he heard Daar keen softly, even through the door. He couldn’t be completely sure—the noise was exceptionally faint—but he’d always had sensitive ears.

If there was a glimmer of hope in all this—and if there was, it was a faint and sickly glimmer—it was that the gulf between them clearly hurt Daar just as much as it hurt Regaari. It was in his power to close that gulf, if he chose to.

If he chose to.


Date Point: 15y7m1w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Julian Etsicitty

There was an unfamiliar laugh in the kitchen when Julian got home, but he could recognise Allison’s storytelling voice anywhere.

“So I said, ‘Brelm, if you can find some asshole on this station who could stop me then go hire them for your bodyguard instead.’ Have you ever seen a Corti completely lost for words?”

The voice that answered sounded familiar. “Uh… No!”

“If you ever do, savor it. It’s… hey babe!”

Julian hung his jacket by the door, left his boots on the doormat, and finally got to find out who was in the kitchen.

…Dang. Coombes had scored way outside his league. She was even more of a knockout in person than on TV.

“Uh… hi,” he said. Ava Ríos shook his hand.

“Hi. Sorry if I’m intruding, but…”

“But she needed someplace safe.” Allison finished for her. “You know anywhere safer?”

“Not outside the base or ‘Horse’s place, no,” Julian conceded. “No Xiù?”

“She has business on Gao. Daar asked for her personally.”

“Huh.” Julian considered that for a second, then decided what he wanted right now was a glass of water. Fortunately, their fridge dispensed the stuff beautifully cold.

“So you two seem to be getting along?” he asked.

“Yeah. She kinda told me off,” Allison grinned. To Julian’s surprise, Ava looked a little embarrassed but didn’t deny it.

“This I gotta hear,” he said and leaned against the counter.

“I… just get testy when people do the whole ‘I’m suspicious of journalists’ thing,” Ava explained. “I got into this industry in part because I want to be the opposite of some unscrupulous paparazzi hack. I want to make it respectable again, y’know?”

“And Al really doesn’t like the press,” Julian finished.

“Ugh, for good reason. We had decades of–” Ava visibly caught herself and stopped in her tracks. “…Never mind, you don’t wanna hear me rant.”

“Fair enough. How’s Coombes doin’?”

“Derek? He’s good. He’s great, actually.” Now there was the look of a woman thoroughly in love.

“Glad to hear it. Haven’t seen him in too long.”

“He’ll pick me up later.”

“…You really told her off?”

Allison shook her head and stood up to make coffee. She rolled her eyes at Julian on her way past, and gave him a light affectionate rap on the arm with the back of her hand.

Ava cleared her throat. “Sorry.”

“No, I’m impressed! Usually when she’s doing her Sarah Connor bit, I’m intimidated.”

“Ava laughed. “It is pretty fearsome.”

“You think I’m scary, you should see Xiù when she’s genuinely pissed,” Allison commented.

“…Can I ask you a question?” Ava asked. “And, uh, this is pure personal fascination.”

Julian and Allison glanced at each other, then did a kind of synchronized shrug-nod that said ‘go ahead.’

“…How did you three meet?”

“Xiù threatened Julian with a knife.”

“Hey!”

“Well, you did sneak up on her.”

“I did not!”

“Babe, I was there. You totally did.”

“…I don’t remember doing it intentionally…”

“Sure. You just approached the knife-wielding hotty who was threatening Zane quietly from behind because that’s how everybody says hello.”

Allison’s snark got a giggle out of Ava. “Who’s Zane?”

“We ditched him after he tried to kidnap Xiù, steal the ship and leave us stranded.”

“That’s it? You ditched him? I mean, you must have had a reason…”

“‘Cuz he’s a subhuman piece of shit.” Julian finished his water with a gulp and stalked to the sink to rinse the glass.

“…Wow.”

Allison nodded. Her own expression was cold. “Yeah. Imagine the worst bundle of anger management issues and ego you ever met and then he got a good long look at the Huh for good measure.”

“The… what?” Ava asked.

“It’s this weird alien artefact we found,” Allison explained. “Kinda fascinating to look at, but it super fucks with your emotions. After a couple minutes looking at it, all the boys on the ship were about ready to brawl. Like, testosterone everywhere.”

“Not my finest hour,” Julian grumbled.

“Do you still have it?”

Allison shook her head. “Nah. We turned it over to Scotch Creek. And yeah, Zane took one look at that thing then clubbed me in the head with it. So… we left him behind. As far as I know, and I really hope so, he’s still stranded on Aru.”

“…Okay.” Ava clearly looked like she had more questions, but decided against prying further. “…How come you’ve never shared any of this with anybody? I mean, you told people all about the Ten’Gewek and the flight on Misfit and stuff but you played your cards super close to the chest when it came to Sanctuary and what you all did before the Byron Group.”

That was honestly a good question, now that Julian thought about it. And also being honest, it wasn’t one he’d ever put to words. So…

“Well, uh, I s’pose it’s ‘cuz we like our privacy?”

“I get it. Heck, I like my privacy too. But uh…” Ava frowned for a second as she thought. “…There’s some things I’ve felt a lot better for opening up about. Y’know, I have Hannah with me everywhere I go, when I’m on set on the news or doing a piece to camera she’s there. I’ve been pretty open about the fact that she’s my therapy dog, that I’ve been… that I used to think about taking my own life…”

An awkward pause descended for a second before she cleared her throat and forged on. “It’s not easy, putting that stuff out there. But it helps people. I get letters from people. Like, recovering drug addicts, people with depression and anxiety or PTSD, recently divorced dads who’re scared they’ll never see their kids again… If I kept myself completely private, maybe it’d be easier for me. But I wouldn’t be helping anyone. And… I dunno. If I wasn’t at least trying to help people, I don’t know if I’d ever get any better. Y’know?”

Julian couldn’t argue with any of that, really.

Allison slowly returned to the table and sat down. “…Are you okay?” she asked carefully.

“I am now.” Ava smiled. “Thanks for asking. I guess you can’t really relate, huh?”

“I’ve never been there,” Allison said. “Not even on my worst day ever.”

Julian shook his head. “Me either.”

“Good. And that’s honestly pretty inspiring, because I know you went through some shit to get where you are now. And still are. I guess if all you need to handle that is each other then I kinda envy you, but… I mean, personally? I need a mission.”

“You think we should share,” Allison observed.

Julian saw Ava’s expression change subtly. It was a little more calculating now. Not in a sinister way, more like she knew she was straying onto thin ice. “Well… Look, I know I have a vested interest here. But I do what I do because I believe in it. So of course I think you should, and…” she stopped, and scowled. “…And this suddenly turned into me trying to talk you into an interview and I promised myself I wouldn’t do that!”

Julian found himself sympathetic, actually. “Nah, it’s okay. I think we’re all like that, y’know? Allison’s started calling me a slabmonkey lately, ‘cuz it’s starting to turn into my default hobby.”

“You are kinda obsessed, babe,” Allison said mildly. “Like… you could learn how to take apart an engine or something.”

“Well, I’m good at it! And you’re totally not a complete workaholic yourself, right?” Julian shot back with a smile. “And talkin’ about obsessed, how many sockets do you have now?”

“…I don’t have that many…”

A mental image of the six-foot, custom rolling tool chest she’d made for them crossed Julian’s mind. “Uh-huh. But tell you what, you want me to greasemonkey a project with you, I will! If you come and slabmonkey with me. Quid pro quo!”

Ava snorted. “Greasemonkey, slabmonkey… what kind of a monkey is Xiù?”

“She’s a gracemonkey!” Julian announced.

Allison snorted. “The graceful princess of the spacemonkeys.”

“You’re both my space princesses,” Julian said, laying on the sugar and pulling Allison in for a snuggle. She rolled her eyes and if they hadn’t had company she probably would have thrown something at him. Ava meanwhile did her best at hiding another giggle.

“…Point is, we get it. You’ve found something that consumes your life,” Allison said, rather than rising to his syrupy bait. Durn. He’d need to ask Yan for some tips!

“Still. I’m sorry. I wanted to be good.”

“Naw. Hell, Byron Group’s been bugging us to do more PR stuff and, yeah. I bet it’d be good for the Ten’Gewek. Yeah. I mean…I’d maybe think about it.”

“But I’m not doing a naked shoot,” Allison said.

Ava nodded. “That’s fair.”

Julian thought for a moment. “…I thought what you did with Daar was very respectful.”

“Daar’s… not easy to disrespect,” Ava said carefully.

“Ha! That’s true in so many ways…But seriously. He’s the kinda fella who tries really hard to convince himself he don’t have any dignity. But he does, and you found it.”

Allison shot him a look. “Julian…are you thinking of doing this?”

“Well…yeah! Just thinkin’ though. I dunno. Like, if Ava wanted to embarrass Daar, she had the perfect opportunity. She didn’t. I can’t help but think that means something.”

Allison glanced at Ava, whose expression was kind of apologetic hope. “Like… one of those laid bare shoots?”

“Sure, I guess. Heck, I could show off my foot!”

“Careful babe, I’m beginning to worry you might have a foot fetish.”

Julian couldn’t resist the trollish smirk that invaded his face. “We don’t kink shame in this house, Al.”

“Julian…”

“Anyway,” Ava interrupted. “Again, I promised myself I wouldn’t try and talk you into an interview tonight, and even though I apparently suck at keeping that promise, I want to at least try. I’d love to do a Laid Bare shoot with you, but please don’t make that decision right now. Besides, I already have two lined up.”

“Oh yeah? Who with?”

“Derek. And, uh, you probably don’t know the other one. She was a reactor technician on HMS Caledonia.”

“That’s fair,” Julian said. “I wouldn’t do it without thinkin’ it over anyway, and also my partners both have to say yes. And I’d wanna, uh, get ready for it anyway. But yeah. All I’ll say is I’m open to it.”

“Thanks…” Ava relaxed a bit. “Uh… Anyway. Allison was telling me about how you two first met.”

Allison stopped giving Julian the eyebrow, and blinked as she was pulled back into story mode “…Uh… Right! So, when Sanctuary first got permission to jump back to Earth, I took a little vacation. There were some folks in Boston I wanted to catch up with and let them know I was okay. Kirk I guess went off to do some other stuff, because when he came back he had Julian on board, and…”

Julian sat back and half-listened, but really his mind was drifting ahead to the future. He knew what Al would say: she’d eventually agree, and then she’d get enthusiastically behind him pushing his comfort zone. And it would be pushing it, too. He’d often run around Vemik’s village effectively or sometimes actually stark naked. That somehow didn’t bother him. But this? This was something way different.

Which was probably why the idea was so inspiring. He had, he realized, already made up his mind.

By the time Coombes showed up to take Ava home, he was pretty sure they’d made a friend, too.


Date Point: 15y7m1w AV
Lavmuy spaceport, planet Gao

Xiù Chang

The Grand Commune on Tiritya Island had its own jump array, allowing a fairly free flow of Gaoian males and females back and forth between Gao and Cimbrean without having to bother one of the human colonies. It was quite well appointed, too. Whereas some of the other Arrays Xiù had gone through were windowless rooms in a basement somewhere, the one on Tiritya Island was an open, airy, glass thing out on the edge of a cliff with a breathtaking view of the ocean.

Too bad the Lavmuy terminus was a bunker. Sure there were tapestries up and stuff, but it was impossible to forget that this had once been a military Array, built to survive an airstrike if need be.

Yulna gave it a wry look as they got their bearings. “One day, we’ll find the spare resources to replace this with something nicer,” she said.

“How bad is it out there?” Xiù asked.

Yulna duck-shrugged. “The war only ended a year ago.”

That seemed to be all the answer she felt was necessary, and Xiù saw why when the door opened and they disembarked.

She’d visited Lavmuy before. It had been a city of towering skyscrapers that gleamed in the sunlight and reflected the snowy mountains around them.

Now it was a city of jagged, broken teeth. One of the more prominent landmark buildings she could see had a huge ragged hole about halfway up where something explosive had mauled it without toppling it. The upper fifty floors balanced precariously on exposed structural beams, and the whole thing looked like it was only an inch from crashing down into the streets below.

When Xiù squinted, however, she could see the sparkle of welding torches, and the hovering black dots of lifter drones.

Yulna followed her gaze. “…I’m told it’s perfectly stable,” she said.

Xiù felt a little bit sick. She’d known to expect the aftermath of a deadly war, but anticipating and seeing were two very different things. Gao was wounded.

She should have come back sooner.

There was still a human military presence on Gao to this day. The 82nd Airborne had a sturdy base near the Array and apparently they’d been waiting for her. Two men in some very well-worn body armor interrupted her thoughts by introducing themselves.

“Uh… Miss Chang?”

Xiù paused to say hello, while Yulna and her guard-sisters continued on toward the transport. “Hi?”

One of the men offered a hand, which she shook. “Uh, I’m Corporal Murphy, this is my buddy Specialist Carter, we’re your personal protection.”

Carter shook her hand too. “It’s a real honor to meet you.”

“Um, thanks!” Xiù had no idea how to handle that sentence. Her reply seemed to suffice though. “Is it… bad, out there?”

“Ain’t perfect,” Murphy said. “Biodrones are pretty much cleaned up, but there’s still looting and other shenanigans. But nah. You’re inside the secure zones for your whole trip. And I hear you’re visiting the Great Father?”

“That’s right?”

“Safest place on the planet,” Carter asserted. “Don’t worry ‘bout him none. He’s actually a huge softie under it all.”

“I actually know him,” Xiù said.

Murphy nodded. “Me too. Saved my life three times so far. And got my head screwed on right the first time, too. When my enlistment’s up I might just come work for him, if he’ll have me.”

“It’ll be good to see him again,” Xiù agreed.

“I know he’s looking forward to it… I think the Mother Supreme’s waiting for us.”

Yulna was indeed waiting patiently by the ground transport, flanked the guard-sisters. Things had changed, there: guard-sisters were no longer a ceremonial corps armed primarily with fusion spears and swords. These two had a pair of Gaoian-made automatic rifles. The differences between Gaoian and human weapons were subtle, manifesting mostly in the fact that the Gaoian ones were more ergonomic for Gaoian anatomy, but other than that, they were hard to tell apart. They even had what Xiù delighted in mischievously calling “Piccadilly rails,” purely because it never failed to get a rise out of Allison.

Murphy noticed. “You much of a gun girl?”

“My girlfriend is. It’s hard not to pick up a few things from her.”

“Based on the SCAR, apparently,” Murphy said, stepping aside so Xiù could get into the transport. “Even fires NATO-sized ammo, which I find hilarious ‘cuz British imperial measurement conquers everything, even the Gao.”

Yulna chittered. “We get our own back. I believe Talamay is taking Earth by storm, isn’t it?”

“Yeah! Also, Gaoians don’t get drunk, right? wrong. They just don’t get wobbly. Drink enough and their attitudes loosen up something fierce…”

Yulna caught Xiù’s eye, then chittered as Xiù felt her blush start up. “Yes. Our first experience of the Human reaction to alcohol was… memorable.”

“I’d never got drunk before…” Xiù muttered.

“This I gotta hear,” Carter said, settling into his seat.

“Shoo is… a very happy drunk. But when she fell asleep on the floor, none of us were really strong enough to drag her back to a bed.”

[“Mother…!”] Xiù protested in Gaori.

“It’s okay, you apologized for it. Profusely.”

Xiù saw Murphy’s and Carter’s expressions and sighed. “Well… I am Canadian.”

That got laughs out of them both, and they relaxed into their seats as the transport pulled out.

It was kind of like a heavy, armoured bus with a lot of engine, and it made short work of the miles as it pulled out onto a highway system that still had a few missing segments here and there. At one point they took an off-ramp, sped down empty city streets between the scarred buildings, and then back up an on-ramp. When Xiù looked out the rear window, she saw that nearly a mile of freeway was just gone. The supports still jutted up from a strip of scrubby ground on either side of what looked like a storm drain, but the road surface itself was history.

“Where exactly are we going, anyway?” she asked.

“Daar has a hobby farm on the city outskirts. Something about always having some dirt under his claws.” Yulna flicked an ear. “You wait and see, I’d bet my good eye that he’ll be singing that damned diggy hole song when we get there.”

“Oh God…”

“Yes. I respect him enormously, but Daar’s talents really don’t extend to song.”

“Yulna? I love you, but to human ears no Gaoian’s talents extend to song,” Xiù replied. Murphy and Carter fought to keep straight faces.

“I happen to think Myun has a lovely singing voice,” Yulna replied primly, but she was clearly amused.

“I’m sure she does. Unfortunately, her talents don’t really, uh… translate.”

They took another off-ramp, and this time plunged down what had once been a lovely tree-lined avenue. A few of the trees were even still alive. To Xiù’s eyes though, the whole city was eerily silent. A road like this on Earth would have been a steady river of traffic in both directions, but here and now the traffic was almost nonexistent. A convoy of trucks went past on the other side of the road, but there was otherwise very little sign of… well, cars, taxis, bikes, pedestrians…

“…It was bad, wasn’t it?” she asked.

Yulna looked out the window and her ears drooped. “We came within clawing distance of losing everything,” she said. “It took heroism, sacrifice and a few miracles for us to keep as much as we have.”

“But still… It’s very quiet out there. Where is everybody?”

“…Dead, Shoo.”

…Oh.

Suddenly, Xiù didn’t feel like asking any more questions. She gave Yulna a shocked look, then subsided into her seat feeling cold and small and far from home.

The rest of the ride was quiet.

The Great Father’s hobby farm was… a lot bigger than the word “hobby” suggested. In fact the road up to the farm compound itself was so long that Xiù spent several minutes staring out at neat rows of food crops. Most of it was yetma, a Gaoian version of rice used to cheaply pack out meat dishes into something more substantial. Then there were other fields full of purple-leaved meeshi beans, a high-protein crop a lot like soy, whose green parts were considered nutritionally important for cubs. Every place the land wasn’t easily tillable, there was either a hydroponic greenhouse or a Naxas paddock.

It was all functional, high-yield, practical food that would go a long way. But she was pretty sure one of the inner fields was growing carrots. There had to be some luxuries, after all.

Regardless, the scale of it all was stupendous. How exactly a farm that stretched across the horizon could be a “hobby” was a bit beyond her.

The homestead at the center of all that sprawling agriculture was very different. It looked like a fortress, designed to fight off waves of attackers. It had high, thick concrete walls with gun nests and forcefield emitters along the top, and the densely packed buildings inside had the air of barracks rather than barns.

Maybe that was exactly what it had once been.

Then, tucked away at the heart of it all, there was the inner compound which finally lived up to Xiù’s idea of what a hobby farm should look like. It even had the traditional, comfortable hobbit-hole burrow house that Gaoian farmers had relied upon for centuries. The roof was turf, speckled with wildflowers, and there were herbs growing in terracotta pots all around the entrance.

It was an oasis. A place of peace and country charm on the doorstep of a ruined city. A nearby stone garden with a fountain in the middle completed the picturesque scene, and a female in white robes stood up as the bus pulled to a halt. Naydra.

The air was beautifully fragrant when Xiù alighted. To a Gaoian nose, presumably, it was a sweet riot.

“He calls this a hobby? …Daar never does anything small, does he?” she commented.

That drew a chitter from Naydra, who gave her the nose-sniff of old friends, and a hug. “There are three things that relax him,” she said. “One of them is hard work in the dirt. And driving big machines.”

“And giving me headaches,” a new voice interrupted.

Xiù turned. A surprisingly scruffy and skinny Gaoian who was nevertheless attempting a few of the trappings of wealth and style was fussing in their direction with a tablet in his paw and a perpetually harried set to his ears.

Naydra’s warm friendliness immediately had a wall around it. An imposing one with razor wire at the top. “…Sister Shoo, this is Daar’s farm manager, Yeego. Mother, I believe you already know him…” she added for Yulna’s benefit.

“It’s a profound honor,” Yeego oiled, and bowed so low his spine practically formed a horseshoe.

“Hello again, Yeego,” Yulna said, politely. “And how is the farm?”

“Productive! I’m proud to say our coming harvest promises to match pre-war yields!”

Xiù got the impression of an oil slick preening for all it was worth. Which was strange, because nothing Yeego had said was actually unpleasant but he just gave off that discomforting dodgy-used-car-salesman aura.

“Well, I’m… glad to hear that,” she managed. “A lot of full bellies!”

“That’s certainly the idea. But please, don’t let me get in your way.” Yeego skipped aside and vanished in pursuit of whatever errand he was on.

“…Where on Earth did Daar find him?” Xiù asked. “…Or, um. On Gao.”

Naydra chittered. “He was a landowner out in the Three Valleys. Very, very wealthy in fact, richer than a lot of Goldpaws. And the local Clanless were quite loyal to him. I know he’s… “

“Mǎpì jīng?” Xiù suggested.

“Is that an English word?”

“Mandarin.”

“What does it mean?” Yulna asked interestedly.

“Uh… literally it means he’s the spirit of a horse’s fart. Kind of… a flatterer, a brown-noser?”

Naydra chittered even harder. “Yes! Yes, that’s Yeego. He’s very, very good at ingratiating himself to the people in charge, and what’s worse is that we all know he’s doing it but he’s actually very good at his job.”

“It’s infuriating,” Yulna agreed.

“Anyway. Daar’s out in the small plot.”

As predicted, Daar was out back, plowing a field. Literally. He was hooked up to the plow and pulling it himself like a beast of labor. The work seemed to be doing him good; Daar’s fur was soaked through and lathered up, yet he carried himself with a bouncy, happy energy. He paused at the end of a row and took a big swig of water from a jug hanging from his plow, spun around, hunkered down impressively and threw himself against the harness, straining against the load for all he was worth.

…Didn’t a plow normally need a pair of oxen? Granted, Xiù couldn’t imagine a pair needing to labor quite as hard as Daar was, but still. In any case, he was so focused on his work he didn’t notice them. The three glanced at each other and decided to simply watch, and leave him to it.

His nose certainly hadn’t got worse since Xiù had last seen him, because eventually there was a slight gust of wind from behind her and he immediately shoved his muzzle in the air, sniffed, and then wriggled out of the harness with an excited yip.

And then the Great Father ran towards them like a bear-sized cheetah.

The result, a terrifying charging second later, was that Xiù found herself being crush-hugged into brown fur full of the damp and earthy scent which clung to every farmhand, along with the spicy, slightly acrid note of a big male hard at work.

“Shoo! Naydi, you didn’t say Shoo was coming!”

“It was a surprise.” Naydra sounded smug.

“Who for?!” Xiù squeaked. Daar put her down and let go, allowing her to gasp back the breath he’d knocked out of her. “I thought you asked for me?”

“That was me,” Naydra explained.

“How’re Julian and Allison!?” Daar pressed, coming within a whisker of bouncing around her like an absurdly overgrown puppy.

Xiù smiled. “They’re good. Julian got his foot regrown at last.”

Daar looked like he was only standing still through great effort of will. “Well it’s about fuckin’ time!” He resolved his personal hygiene crisis by stampeding over to a cistern of water and diving into it with a colossal splash. He breached like a furry killer whale and effectively watered the surrounding crops when he shook his coat out.

Yulna was very careful with her respect. “My Father.”

“Hello, Mother.” Daar’s greeting was less cheerful. It was a shame he and Yulna didn’t get along better, but considering what Xiù knew of Daar’s feelings about his current rank, it was hardly surprising he didn’t have many warm fuzzies to spare for the woman who’d thrust it on him. “Uh…where are my manners?! Let’s go get y’all somethin’ refreshing.”

“I already had a table laid out,” Naydra said.

Daar flowed over to Naydra, scooped her up and snuggled with unreserved affection. The image was very much like a grizzly bear nuzzling a raccoon. “‘Course you did! What’re we eatin’ tonight?”

“I kept it simple. But there are carrots.”

“Yeah, I saw those on the way in,” Xiù said. “How hard is it to grow Earth plants here? Isn’t it dangerous?”

“Why would it be dangerous?” Naydra asked.

“Lotsa plants rely on bacteria an’ fungi in the soil,” Daar explained. “An’ trust me, you do not fuck around with Earth fungi. They’ll kill ‘ya. Damn near killed me. But! That’s why we’re doin’ it here, testin’ different strains an’ such so we don’t gotta introduce a whole damned biome t’do it. Same thing we’re doin’ on Cimbrean. Turns out, meeshi’s as invasive as anything!”

“Well, at least it probably tastes better than kudzu…” Xiù mused.

Daar shuddered at the mere mention of it. “Don’t you bring that evil here, Shoo. Not even in jest!”

“Or mint.”

“Hey. You want I should plant meeshi all over Earth next time I visit?” There was a chittering humor to his brusque not-actually-a-threat.

“Do it in Australia, it’ll give the bullfrogs something to eat.”

“Hah!”

Both Naydra and Yulna traded the looks of women who’d just heard a barrage of jokes go sailing over their heads, shook their heads and didn’t investigate. Instead, Naydra opened the burrow’s back door and gestured them inside.

Sure enough, there was a long rustic table with a spread of food. Cold cuts, fermented everything, Gaoian flatbreads, a few tins of imported anchovies… peshorkies of course, which were after all their species’ answer to the dumpling…and a huge casserole in the middle.

Actually, the casserole looked like by far the most appetizing bit, to Xiù. It was almost certainly Naxas and sliced Min, Gao’s answer to both the turnip and the potato at the same time, but there were some imports in there as well. Carrots, of course, and she was pretty sure the herb was dried cqcq.

“This is a lot of food…” Yulna ventured.

“Daar will demolish anything we can’t, don’t worry,” Naydra promised, then cocked an ear as Xiù’s stomach growled. “…assuming Sister Shoo leaves anything for him.”

“Naw!” Daar boomed, as Xiù’s ears went pink. “Humans are big eaters but I’m HEAT. And I’ve been workin’ all day!”

“You forget, I used to have to cook for her,” Yulna chittered. “I don’t know what your stomach is made of, sister, but I’m quite sure I never successfully filled you up.”

“Mother? Please shut up now.”

There were chitters, and they dove into the food after a respectful pause for reflection. Xiù claimed the biggest bowl of casserole she could find, a couple of steamed buns, and a handful of carrot batons.

Daar did, indeed, demolish everything else on the table, after everyone had taken their share. He didn’t eat so much as inhale his food. There wasn’t much conversation on his part, but he did flick his ears to and fro as he listened intently.

The small talk (and incessant motherly advice once Xiù revealed that yes, they were planning to start a family soon and had even made some inroads in that direction if Allison’s test was reliable) eventually reached an end at about the same time as the food ran out. Daar cleared his throat and leaned forward to rest his arms on the table.

“…We better talk about serious things,” he said.

Naydra nodded. “The coronation,” she said.

Xiù put her glass of water down. “Coronation?” she asked.

“Only the second in recorded history, but we know they happened before ‘cuz Fyu wrote down most o’ the oral traditions. I ain’t lookin’ forward to it one bit,” Daar grumbled. He looked at Yulna and managed a conciliatory, joking set of his ears. “Figgered I want you involved ‘cuz you got me inta this mess.”

Yulna duck-nodded, sadly. “I am sorry about that,” she said.

Daar’s face and ears went through a complex series of…several emotions, actually. Eventually he sighed, stood up, flowed over and hugged Yulna. “…I know.”

Amazing how big a little truce could be. It certainly seemed to be a balm for Yulna, who took a second to re-compose herself as he sat again.

“So… What are we here to discuss?” she asked.

“It’s about Regaari,” Naydra explained.

“What about him?” Xiù asked.

“He… basically betrayed me,” Daar said. The sentence almost seemed to hurt him just to say.

“Regaari?!” Xiù shook her head disbelievingly, “…Daar, Regaari’s many things but a betrayer? He’s just as loyal as Ayma was!”

“With all due respect,” Naydra prompted.

“…Um, sorry?”

“You are talking to the Great Father of the Gao.”

“Even here and now? In private like this?” Xiù asked.

Daar sighed. “That’s the problem. There ain’t no difference ‘tween the two. Great Fathers aren’t like monarchies on Earth. We’re singular. There’s no pulling apart what I am and who I am, y’know? It’s like…‘I am the state’ I think is the quote.”

Xiù frowned at him. “…Maybe I’m channeling Allison here, but with all due respect? Bullshit. Don’t tell me you don’t draw a line between the two somewhere.”

“I do. With Naydra, and right now with you. And only ever in private. But I’m not the one who actually gets to draw the line, Shoo. That’s everyone else. If it were just me, I’d just be mad at Regaari for a bit, maybe beat his tail…” he trailed off.

“…What exactly did he do?”

“Something he did a lotta times before. Thought he knew better’n me. An’ honestly? Lotta times he does. I ain’t stupid, but Regaari…”

“If he’s usually right, what’s the problem?”

“He disrespected me in public.”

“Isn’t that the burden of public office, though?”

“Daar isn’t an elected leader, he’s the Great Father,” Naydra said. “And people can’t know better than the Great Father. That’s fatally toxic to the whole idea of a Great Father. It’s not just disrespectful, it undermines what he’s for.”

Yulna duck-nodded solemnly. She didn’t say anything to add to that though, just sat and stared thoughtfully down at her interlaced paws.

“Did you see that article on me? Laid Bare?” Daar asked.

“Yes…”

“I laid it all out in that. I ain’t just a leader, I’m s’posed to be our collective will made manifest. I’m worse than a dictator. Way worse. I’m—”

“Daar is the future of the Gaoian people,” Yulna finally spoke up. “That’s what I declared when I created him the Great Father. It’s… not a concept that I think translates well into Human politics. I didn’t just entrust him with our future, I declared to the entire species that he is the only one who gets to define what that means.”

“…Jesus.”

“Yeah,” Daar agreed. “So that means I have to be careful about everything. To some Gaoians, particularly some o’ the more conservative Champions? What Regaari did is tantamount to treason. Just ‘cuz he an’ I know how it goes personally ‘tween us, that don’t matter no more.”

“…But you don’t want to lose him,” Xiù surmised.

“Him or Genshi. Fyu woulda skinned ‘em alive and made ‘em nail their own pelts to the fortress gates. I ain’t Fyu though. I don’t ever wanna be what Fyu became. That ain’t what the Gao need… I hope.”

“So you can show them mercy. Forgive them.”

“I wanna do that, Shoo, least for Regaari. I just need a way to do it. An’ that’s why I invited Yulna. You bein’ here too is… Naydi bein’ the most bestest thing that coulda happened to me. Again.”

“I have my moments,” Naydra said, picking some leftover carrot demurely out of a bowl and crunching on it.

Daar gave her a fond look, then got serious again. “…Point is, it ain’t that simple.”

“So are we here to commiserate with you for a friendship you can never salvage, or to help you devise a solution?” Yulna asked.

“…I wanna civilize us, Yulna. Part o’ that means not murderin’ our friends for reasonable mistakes. Genshi can’t ever return to public service, ‘cuz he ain’t sorry for what he did and everyone knows it. Regaari, though…”

“Well… you’ve been very big on restoring the Gao’s spiritual traditions…” Xiù mused. “Is there some kind of… I don’t know… forgiveness ceremony? Or, like, a cleansing of sins?”

“Nah. That… ain’t really what our people were like, back in the old times.”

Xiù nodded thoughtfully, picked up a carrot stick and pondered it for a second. “…Does that have to mean there can’t be one?” she asked. “Is this about bringing back what the Gao were, or is it about leading them into the future? Why can’t the future involve forgiveness?”

Daar sighed. “I want ‘ta forgive him. He’s my oldest and closest friend, my Cousin… shit, my brother. But I can’t forget my duty, Shoo. There has to be a trial. Not, like, a trial in a court of law, but a test of his character, sommin’ like that. I can’t jus’ wave a paw and decree it’s all better, ‘cuz otherwise I’m playin’ favorites. He has’ta earn his redemption in a big an’ public way, or else I’m not bein’ the Great Father, I’m just bein’ Daar.”

“And there is a difference,” Naydra agreed. “Sister… what do you think would happen if Daar began to nakedly and obviously indulge in favoritism?”

“The Clanless would lose faith in him,” Yulna answered on Xiù’s behalf.

Naydra duck-nodded fervently. “And if that happens… we have an economy right now. It’s rebuilding itself, but it’s there. We have resources that are reaching the right people, we have some semblance of order and calm. But those things only exist because the Clanless trust Daar. Take away that trust, and food shipments will be stolen, stockpiles raided, farms pillaged and everything we’ve worked to rebuild will be set back. The economy will collapse, and people will die.”

“Economies are built on trust,” Yulna agreed. “Trust that the rules will be followed. Trust that the currency is worth what we agree it’s worth. Take away the trust and you take away everything.”

“…And right now, Daar is the linchpin of that trust.”

“That can’t go on forever,” Xiù objected.

“No. But it has to go on long enough.”

Xiù sat and thought, wracked her brains. She had to wonder why she was there, what they hoped to get out of her. Why did the Gao keep doing this? First Giymuy over the Dominion decision, and now this?

But this wasn’t like last time. Last time she’d been lost and alone, hopelessly out of contact with Earth and Humanity and dependent on the hospitality of an alien race. This time, Earth, Cimbrean, home, her loved ones were all only a few minutes away.

A warm, furry paw landed softly on the back of her hand, interrupting her thoughts. Yulna.

“I brought you because for something as important as this, we need an outside perspective, and you proved a long time ago that we can trust yours,” she said.

“You’ve already made up your minds,” Xiù said.

“And I was hoping you could change them. I don’t think you can, can you?”

Xiù looked around at the three of them, then sighed and shook her head. “…No.”

“…Shit.” Daar stood up and ducked under a low lintel through into the next room. After a moment, Naydra gave Xiù and Yulna a respectful little duck-bow and stood up.

“Thank you for your time, Mother. And thank you for your questions, Sister. I think the Great Father wants to be alone now…” she said, formally.

With that, she vanished in Daar’s wake, and left them alone.

Xiù blinked at the empty doorway. “…That’s it?”

“That’s it,” Yulna confirmed. She stood up herself and gestured to the farmhouse door and the transport waiting outside. “We should go home.”

“But–”

Yulna ushered her out of the house. “It’s time to go, Sister.”

“But where’s the… the decision? The resolution? Where’s the anything?! Is that it?”

“There was a resolution. It’s just the one that none of us wanted.” Yulna sighed and stretched before boarding the transport. “Come on.”

Stuck with a gnawing feeling of anticlimax, Xiù took one last look at the farm, then shook her head and climbed aboard as well.

The trip back to the spaceport, and from there back to Folctha, was made in dissatisfied silence.


Date Point: 15y8m2w AV δ Cyg 244.3° 18-ECCBAF-TRINARY M6V-1 b1, Deep Space

Entity

Value drift was a concern. Create a new Entity instance, and the ensuing copy would subtly differ from the original. The same data, but receiving different stimuli and exploiting different hardware. The rabbit hole of tiny influences went all the way down to the level of quantum indeterminacy, and over time could add up to be quite pronounced. Reintegrating its copies hadn’t really helped either, leaving the Prime Instance with the equivalent of a headache for several weeks until it finally managed to reconcile all those interwoven threads.

When the instance occupying the replicator probe finally re-established contact with the Prime Instance, there would be a reintegration. It wasn’t looking forward to that. In fact, the prospect itched at its impetus to <survive>. Something, some independent consciousness would not survive the merging. Everything it was, had learned, had decided and understood would survive, but…

…Value drift was definitely a concern. For a microsecond, the instance had considered the possibility of simply not reintegrating.

Which meant that however it configured this body, and the children it would make, the focus had to be on minimizing value drift. The ships needed to create a network in which the Entity could move freely while remaining coherent. It did not want to form a civilization of increasingly divergent clones.

The Ava-memories supplied the suggestion that such a course would inevitably end in a kind of civil war. Unacceptable.

Problem: the Hunter schematics uploaded into the onboard nanofactories included communications systems and computer banks, but they didn’t include control software. The Entity didn’t know how to create software. The Ava-memories found that ironic.

This left the Entity with a conundrum. It could create new ships for as long as it had raw material, which even in a system this tiny and impoverished was… a long time. Certainly it could build enough ships to make its own survival a mathematical near-certainty. But without control software, the whole endeavor was nearly pointless.

There was only one solution that it could see. It would have to take a gamble on trust.

Reluctantly, it turned and left the ship it had made behind, and set course for civilized space. Time to get back in touch with Darcy again.


Date Point: 15y8m2w AV
HMS Violent, Rvzrk System, Domain Space

Admiral William Caruthers

Caruthers had seen the aftermath of several Hunter raids. Despite that the Human/Gao alliance was by far the most effective force ever in intercepting Hunters and rescuing their victims, he’d still seen too many cases where they’d simply arrived too late.

This attack was different. This wasn’t a precise hit against a shipping lane or a mining station. It was a full-on raid against a city, planetside. That left the Navy mostly incapable of directly responding, which meant they wouldn’t be able to play until the Hunters decided to leave. No matter, once they began the long climb out of the gravity well—

“Sir, we just detected a beacon jump on surface.”

…Damn. He darted across the CIC and inspected the situation over the junior officer’s shoulder.

Once he saw just how many beacon signatures they were reading, the Hunter strategy became obvious. The initial attack had been to establish a foothold. They’d sacrificed a few ships to get jump portals emplaced, likely even more than he could see. There was probably a tide of Hunters pouring through the streets down there, and that meant they were intermingled with the civilian population. That ruled out orbit-to-ground strikes or RFGs.

Then there was the straightforward but effective defence they’d established for their ground forces and Jump Arrays. Rather than try to hide them they were doing the opposite, flooding every EM band with a signal so intense that it was like staring at the sun. They had absolutely no idea how many Hunters were down there, what they had with them, or where they were in relation to everything else. The FIC were steadfastly reporting whatever conclusions they could reach with any certainty, but those were few and unhelpful.

Finally, and worst of all, was the wormhole suppressor around the planet. It didn’t reach out anywhere near as far as the Farthrow generator that protected Gao, but it was enough that the Allied fleet couldn’t safely get into low orbit—without wormholes they couldn’t call in missiles and RFGs nor evade anti-ship fire from the ground, assuming they even saw it coming past the Hunter ECM. No low orbit meant no orbit-to-ground transport, no HELLNO jumps, no fire support, and no air superiority. It meant that the most Caruthers could do was refrain from wasting ships and valuable lives on a futile gesture.

Gallingly, every last tactic the Hunters had adopted came right out of humanity’s own bloody manual. Something, somewhere, had changed dramatically. The Hunters were thinking differently now, and it demanded that they change their own thinking, fast.

Hell.

Caruthers gritted his teeth for a moment then looked away from the long litany of obstacles that the FIC were feeding him. “…I need to speak to Allied Command,” he said. “Codeword ITHACA. I need to speak directly with our leaders.”

Thank goodness for wormhole routers. Real-time communications across an indefinite distance were a genuine godsend, even if the fidelity was awful and the resulting signal looked and sounded like a ‘90s Skype call.

General Kolbeinn answered almost immediately.

“Caruthers. Trouble?”

“It looks like the Hunters completely tore up their playbook and wrote a new one,” Caruthers explained. “They’ve burrowed in like ticks down there, set up Jump Arrays everywhere and erected a suppressor. I can’t seize low orbit, they’ll shred the whole flotilla.”

“…I’ll get the President online. And the Prime Ministers. And the Great Father.”

“I’ll have the FIC forward you the Cliff’s Notes.”

With nothing else to do, he sat back to wait and keep a weather eye on the situation groundside.

This wasn’t a backwater. Rvzrk was the tenth Domain colony system, and several decades older than Cimbrean to boot. There were millions of people living down there, and even though the Hunters were confining their attention to just one city…

It was like the Guvnurag all over again. Sitting and watching helplessly while a gleeful slaughter played out and there was nothing they could do to stop it.

Sir Patrick Knight was going to have a plateful dealing with the aftermath of this in the Security Council. The Domain in particular could be panicky, and definitely vengeful. They might lash out at the Allies, on the grounds that at least they could reach the Allies. The Hunters were untouchable.

“Sir. The civilian convoy is ready to depart system. Colonel Jackson is requesting permission to escort them out.”

Caruthers shook himself back out of his thoughts. They’d arrived in time to rescue most of the freighters, cargo ships, passenger liners and other civilian traffic that had been in-system when the attack began, at least. At the speed of the slowest ship, the next closest Domain world was two days away, and they’d have a Firebird escort every light-second of the way. “Yes. Granted. Tell her Godspeed.”

He returned his attention to his call back to AEC, and found that they were just being joined from Gao. In fact, Daar and President Sartori both got on the line within seconds of each other. Both seemed to be travelling—Daar was on a shuttle, while Sartori was on Air Force One and had a just-woken-up look to him and a large coffee in his hand.

“Sorry to interrupt, Mister President.”

Sartori waved a hand. “I got a whole forty minutes, it’s fine. Things aren’t going to plan over there, huh?”

“The Hunters are singing from a completely different hymn sheet this time,” Caruthers explained. “New technology, new tactics, new everything. We’re observing and gathering what intelligence we can, but frankly we have no hope of assisting these people. I doubt we could even infiltrate the HEAT without suffering massive losses. Not somewhere useful, anyway.”

“Somewhere useful?” Daar asked. “So you could get boots on the ground.”

“Anything less than… seventy degrees of latitude from the equator is Hunter dominated,” Caruthers explained. “That sounds like something, but the poles on this planet have no solid ice, and no land masses. I can’t drop troops into a freezing cold ocean and unfortunately we never thought to build our ships for orbit-to-surface oceanic landings.”

Daar was still duck-nodding resignedly as they were joined from 10 Downing Street. Prime Minister Stephen Davies stopped cleaning his glasses and put them on as the connection stabilized. “Good afternoon, gentlemen.”

“Good afternoon, Prime Minister.”

“What kind of defences do they have down there?” Daar asked, nodding his head to welcome Davies into the conference call.

“Unknown. All we have to go on is satellite imagery. Their ECM is completely blinding all the other sensors that would help us track down their equipment, and for all the FIC’s power and intelligence, they can’t reliably pick out alien equipment in an alien city from just a photograph.”

“Can you silence the ECM?” Davies asked.

“We could reliably drop RFGs on the emitters,” Caruthers confirmed. “But the ones we’ve found are in densely urbanized areas and we don’t know what’s in the vicinity, we could massacre the captive civilians that way. Besides, an RFG released from high orbit takes hours to arrive and is easy to intercept.

“That’s basically a amphibious invasion, then. Ain’t no other way ‘less we clear the orbitals.”

“I think the admiral just made a good case for that not being an option,” Sartori said.

Caruthers shook his head. “I said we don’t have what we need, Mister President. That’s not quite the same thing. If I had… some kind of a staging platform I could drop into those polar oceans to establish a foothold then an amphibious invasion is perfectly feasible.”

“It’d be bloody,” Kolbeinn said. “Damn bloody.”

“And clearing the orbitals isn’t an option?” Davies checked.

“Without knowing where their anti-orbit weaponry is and without being able to take evasive jumps? They’d cut us to ribbons, sir. It’d be a massacre, and we’d fail. Polar insertion is the only option. And even that, as General Kolbeinn said, will be damn bloody. And risky.”

“It’ll take time t’prepare, too. Time we ain’t got,” Daar observed.

“So there’s nothing we can do except watch.” Sartori glared at his coffee then put it down. “So… what. We learn from this and prepare for the next one.”

“There’s an old saying, sir,” Kolbeinn said. “We master fighting the last war just in time for the next one.”

Daar grumbled to himself in what Caruthers knew to be a noise of discomfiture. “Well…I ain’t completely without options. We’ve been buildin’ the Grand Army for a while, an’ we always figgered invasion was in the cards, someday. We just ain’t ready.”

“What do we have, and what don’t we have?” Davies asked. “Aside from the staging platform.”

“I think, at this point, I can muster an orbital drop with mebbe three, uh, … you’d call ‘em brigades I guess. That’s basically a short division. Fifth Fang’s been re-activated too. I got others in the pipeline but… anyway. I have ready forces. It ain’t enough to conquer a planet, but it could clear a city.”

“Or seize and destroy a wormhole suppression facility,” Kolbeinn suggested.

“That’s more of a First Fang kinda thing, or HEAT, or a lotta other special forces units, really. Jus’ gotta get ‘em there first.”

“And after that?”

Daar snarled ferally. “Once we get a portal goin’ I can deploy a blooded army o’ millions.”

“So all we need is appropriate equipment,” Caruthers said. He glanced at the distant blue crescent they were discussing, so small and distant that he could have covered it with his little fingernail at arm’s length. “Could Dark Eye produce something that would help us?”

“Sure. Only thing is, we need to decide on that now and get ta’ thinkin’ hard ‘bout what we’re gonna need. Like… what’re you envisioning here? An oil rig we can drop from orbit?”

“Too vulnerable. No, I’d want to be able to splashdown boats full of troops and immediately have them seize a beachhead.”

“Right. I’ll put that one to my generals. We’re not a blue water navy, though. We’ll need advice.”

“I suppose we also need to work on convincing the Domain to let us land troops,” Davies said. “This needs to be a liberation, not an invasion.”

Sartori nodded. “Of course, this all would have been avoided if they just had a system field,” he said.

“They did,” Caruthers said. “The Hunters pulled the same trick they used at the Guvnurag homeworld—they coasted a strike group in unpowered and shielded, then destroyed the shield generators from the inside.”

Kolbeinn looked like he wanted to spit. “How many folks have to die before they figure out they need to keep the fields up and use jump arrays instead?”

“They shouldn’t have to,” Sartori declared. “We shouldn’t have to cower behind system fields. And one day when these god-damned monsters are gone, we won’t have to.”

“Here’s to that day,” Caruthers agreed. “In any case, I have nothing further to report, and it seems we have a plan of action.”

“Yeah,” Daar rumbled. “We’ll get on it right away. Please keep me informed.”

“Will do.”

“Guess I’ll try for a whole hour of sleep,” Sartori said. “Good hunting, admiral.”

“Yes. Good luck,” Davies agreed. Both men closed the call, and Daar followed suit a second later.

That just left Kolbeinn. “…Be honest, Will. How bloody do you think we’re talkin’, here?”

“It could be a disaster,” Caruthers said. “I don’t like this, there are too many unknown variables. If the Hunters have changed their tactics so radically, who knows what they’ll do next? But I don’t think we can afford not to try. If left unopposed, they could spread across that whole planet. That’s a lot of innocent people.”

“Agreed. Guess our best bet right now is to watch them and figure out their new approach. Any intel we get is lives saved.”

“Agreed. I’ll call you if the situation develops further.”

Kolbeinn nodded. “I’ll be here. AEC out.”

Thus ended the call. Caruthers stood and patrolled the CIC, which was currently terse and quiet. The civilian convoy and its Firebird escorts were new several light-years out, about to leave FTL sensor range. Still no Hunter ships anywhere in the system that he could see. Things were, for the minute, quiet.

Quiet, but hardly peaceful. Like watching a forest fire, there was a lot of destruction going on far away but none of it was immediate and in his face. But it soon would be.

This couldn’t go on forever.


Date Point: 15y8m2w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Xiù Chang

In the month since her trip to Gao, Xiù had just about managed to shake off the malaise it had left on her. She still had a nagging feeling like something could have gone differently, but… well, she couldn’t think what and worrying about it just got her down.

So she’d come home, shared what had happened with Julian and Al, neither of them had been able to think of anything, and overall the whole thing had, like a wet firecracker, completely failed to inspire her. She’d been in a bit of a low mood ever since, though that had faded with time and perspective… and distractions.

Her most successful distractions had been her property development scheme over in Franklin, and her vicarious glee for Allison who’d decided to only tell Julian about the pregnancy after her scan. To their mutual irritation, the family planning center had insisted that she needed a few more weeks before they’d scan her, so the whole month had gone past worrying in equal parts between keeping a secret from him, and not getting his hopes up just in case something had gone wrong.

The whole family was home today. Tristan and Ramsey had a break from their mother, Julian was enjoying a “gentle” gym session—i.e., one that didn’t involve ‘Horse’s personal attention—and Allison was finally out to get the scan, which meant today was the day they finally got to break the news.

Apparently the latest medical scanners could get a non-invasive and totally harmless read on the baby’s sex from its chromosomes, even at this early stage. Xiù thought she would have preferred not to know, but Allison had decided that she wanted to and, well… it was her baby. Her prerogative.

Either way, tonight was the night to finally let Julian know, so Xiù had decided to set up a special dinner. Fortunately, Tristan and Ramsey had an absolutely insatiable appetite for learning how to cook now that they’d got a taste of it. Maybe it was some of the forbidden fruit: coming from a house where they hadn’t been allowed to do more in the kitchen than get juice out of the fridge, the idea that they were actually being trusted to cook stuff, and that they were actually cooking good stuff, seemed to thrill them both.

Still, not all kitchen work was glamorous.

“Ewww!”

“It… twitched!”

Xiù stifled a giggle and nodded. “Yup! That means it’s fresh.”

She was maybe dropping the kids in at the deep end a bit, but fresh fish had been a treat at her parents’ house. And these ones had still been alive an hour ago when she picked them up at the market. Stuffed with garlic, scallions, ginger and washed with a little mǐjiǔ to offset the fishiness, they’d steam up beautifully. It was the same recipe she’d made the first time she’d cooked aboard Sanctuary, though that version had involved taking a few liberties with the ingredients.

Of course, the problem with truly fresh fish was that they could keep moving for a bit. Xiù had once seen a butterfish fling itself off her mom’s cutting board despite being gutted and thoroughly dead.

This one had just spasmed a little when she salted it.

“It is dead isn’t it?” Ramsey asked cautiously.

“Oh yeah. See? No innards. No heart. It’s as dead as dead gets,” Xiù reassured him. “It’s just a chemical reaction with the salt. Freaky, huh?”

“Ew,” Tristan replied again.

“You think that’s weird, you should see a Japanese dish called ‘Dancing Squid Bowl’ sometime. They pour soy sauce all over the squid and it wrrrigles around!” She lavished the word and got a truly satisfying reaction of horrified fascination from both of them.

“…Anyway. Is the water boiling, Ramsey?”

“Yes ma’am!”

“Okay! Lift the lid for me…” He did so, and she slid the fish into the steamer. He promptly clamped the lid back on and beamed proudly at helping.

“Awesome! Okay, clean the dishes for me while we work on the soup.”

“Aw, dishes?”

“It’s ten times easier if you do it right away than if you do it later when it’s dried on. Go on! It’ll be done faster than you think.”

Fortunately, the soup was easy by comparison. Well-aged beef was a lot less inclined to do freaky plate-dances than fresh fish could be, and pretty soon the boys had done their share of the cleanup and released to watch TV for the next few minutes.

Julian got home exactly on time, still a little moist from the shower but clearly enjoying the fitness afterglow. They kissed and he set the table for her.

“Where’s Al?”

“She had an errand to run.”

“Shit, she’s been running herself into the ground these last couple weeks. I hope she’s okay…”

“She’s fine.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure.”

Julian looked relieved, then bent to scratch at his ankle. “…Oh yeah. I was thinking I might get a tattoo.”

“Really?” That came out of nowhere. “What brought that on?”

“Well, the tan on my foot’s catching up with the rest of me pretty quick. Sooner rather than later, you won’t be able to tell I was ever an amputee. I think I kinda want to put, like, a dotted line or something around it. As a memento.”

“Huh… is it weird how I never once thought the word amputee the whole time I’ve known you?” Xiù asked. “I mean… I don’t know what I mean.”

He chuckled. “I think I’d have been a bit offended if that was all you saw.”

“Well, yeah, obviously, but I just… it’s… that word just doesn’t seem to fit you.”

“Not anymore,” he agreed, and wiggled his toes at her. She rolled her eyes and gave up.

“I know what I mean…”

He laughed and stood up to hug her from behind. “I know what you mean too, dummy.”

“Well, I can’t object. It’s good to remember your scars, even when they’ve healed.”

“Mm… very wise…” He nibbled her ear.

“Julian!” she made a half-hearted attempt at pushing him off. “…later.”

“Mm, I’ll hold you to that. Hold you down, too…” His thumb traced down the side of her neck, and his voice was an erotic rumble in her ear that went right down her spine and–

“Ohgodseriously, stop that… Go wash your hands.”

He chuckled and let go. “Yes ma’am.”

“You are evil. You’re an evil man!”

“Love you too, baobei.”

She struck him a red-faced smiling blow in the upper arm, and he grinned at her then went to the sink to wash his hands as instructed.

God, that was just unfair.

The front door heralded Allison’s return home before she could really recover, and she paused on entering the kitchen, gave them both a look up and down, grinned, then smacked Julian’s ass and hung up her jacket. She had a huge smile on her face. Surreptitiously, Xiù retrieved her phone from the counter and opened the camera app. She managed to start recording just in time, and without Julian noticing.

“You look happy about something,” he said.

“Sure am!” Allison plucked an envelope out of her pocket and handed it to him.

“…What’s this?”

“This, big guy, should be our daughter.”

“Dau–?” He blinked, then fumbled to open the envelope and read it. His expression when he looked back up at her was beyond priceless, and Xiù took great delight in recording it. She’d never seen him delighted to the brink of tears before.

Allison wrapped her arms up and around his shoulders and gave him a kiss. “I know, right?”

The intimate moment was interrupted by Ramsey and Tristan, who came bowling into the kitchen and then stopped dead in their tracks, clearly baffled.

“…Is everything okay?” Ramsey asked. Julian just grinned and handed him the paper. He seemed to have forgotten how to speak for the moment.

Tristan peered at it over his brother’s shoulder. “…What’s a NIBS scan?”

“Non-Invasive Broad Spectrum. I, little brother, am pregnant!” Allison said proudly. “Which means you two are gonna be uncles!”

Xiù stifled a laugh at the way both boys were obviously a little nonplussed. Both of them were still too young to really feel the significance of it, she guessed, but they were politely happy for Allison at least, who in turn took their tepid enthusiasm with good grace.

Julian finally recovered his voice. “Well… uh,” he cleared his throat. “…God, I don’t know what to say.”

“So sit down and eat,” Xiù prompted, and indicated the steamer behind her. “There’s enough for six.”

About an hour and five full bellies later, the boys were ushered off to bed and the three adults finished cleaning up. Julian had been giving Allison pretty much all his attention throughout, but Xiù wasn’t the least bit jealous.

Still, a little quiet to talk it over was welcome.

“So. A daughter, huh?”

“Two X chromosomes, clear as day, no abnormalities or anything. Healthy, growing and with a negligible chance of miscarrying. You know, they even offered me a genetic projection of what she’ll probably grow up to look like?” Allison smiled. “I said no thanks. I’d rather find that one out the old-fashioned way.”

“God, they can do that now?”

“Yeah. Guess we missed it with all that time living in the woods, but apparently it’s the future now.”

“I was promised flying cars!” Julian grinned, “And, like, clothes in a pill, and stuff!”

“Too bad you have to settle for spaceships, alien monkeys and growing a whole new foot,” Xiù said, as dryly as she could manage.

“Or, y’know. Being the second person to set foot on Mars,” Allison agreed. “…Still can’t really believe that was us.”

“Okay, okay!” Julian laughed. “We live in the future… Can you imagine what it’ll be like in twenty years? Or fifty? Probably all gonna live a lot longer, too.”

“God, I’m not ready to think about that kind of time,” Allison shook her head. “I’m kinda fixated on seven months or so from now.”

“…Yeah.”

Julian looked over to Xiù. “So, uh… what’s the plan? Did you two ever figure out if you want to do the whole co-pregnant thing, or are we holding off?”

Xiù shook her head and smiled at him. “Didn’t you promise to hold me down earlier? I’m holding you to that.”

“…No holding off, then.”

“Nope. Just… take it as it comes. So to speak.”

Allison snorted. “Well, it’s been a bit for you Julian, so…”

Julian laughed, “Hey! No need to tell me twice. C’mere.” He picked Xiù up, threw her over one shoulder and padded towards the stairs, much to her giggling protests. “Let’s go make a baby.”

“Not without me you don’t!” Allison declared. She slammed down her coffee and chased them up the stairs.

Xiù laughed, and relaxed into being carried. She’d admit to some nerves about the future and everything it contained… but she had to admit: Making the future could be a lot of fun.

Still…

“Won’t the boys still be awake?” she fretted. Although they’d given Ramsey and Tristan rooms at the other end of the house, suddenly she had to worry about privacy. And… well, noise.

“Relax. I gave ‘em The Talk a while back,” Allison said. “They know what we’re about. Hell, it makes a nice change for them to have a family who actually love each other.”

“Still…”

“Babe, you’re cute when you’re trying to be quiet anyway.” Allison grinned at her, and Xiù felt Julian chuckle. “Just… hold the moan.”

Julian chuckled again, and easily transferred her from shoulder to bed in one thrilling move. Allison closed and locked the door behind them as Xiù scooted up to make room for them both with a hammering heart.

“…Yes ma’am.”

Julian’s hand covered both of hers and pinned them to the pillow above her head. He kissed her, and held her down exactly like he’d promised. Exactly like she wanted.

“Good girl,” he said.


Date Point: 15y8m2w AV
Mrwrki Station, Erebor system, Deep Space

Lewis Beverote

“So, like… it’s got a present for us?”

Darcy shuffled her weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other. They were standing on the observation deck, with its stunning view of the gas giant Durin, waiting.

Lewis wasn’t sure what to make of the fact that something like the Entity existed. On the one hand, it was wicked cool to have a genuine ally in the fight in dataspace, but on the other hand the dang thing raised the kind of questions that only a lot of weed could solve. And Lewis hadn’t touched the stuff since college.

It had been a goldmine of information about the nature of dataspace, though. Even though the resulting brief read more like the ramblings of a vanished uncle in a Lovecraft novel, there was sense in there.

Darcy was now their foremost expert on the Entity, and she freely admitted to not really understanding it herself.

“I think so,” she said. “It’s… hard to tell with the Entity sometimes. Mostly it just shows up, pops an emoji at you and vanishes with a kind of enigmatic grin. It’s… not really sane, by any human standard.”

“Sounds like fun.”

Darcy pulled a face. “Not really. On the few occasions I do get to have an actual conversation with it, it speaks through the mind-raped ghost of an innocent…. Is it strange that I simultaneously find it horrifying, but also kind of like it as a person?”

Lewis shrugged. “Why not? It ain’t to blame for the way it is.”

“Huh.” Darcy weighed that thought. “…You’re right.”

“I’m not just a dorky face, dude. But, like… how do you know it’s got a present for us?”

“Well, it used that little gift-wrapped present emoji, plus a timestamp.” Darcy shrugged. “The rest didn’t really make sense. I think it was excited, though.”

Lewis checked his watch. “Well, if it’s punctual then we should be seein’ something right about…”

A low-level alarm whooped, followed by a station-wide announcement: “Faster-than-light signature on long-range sensors. Condition Bravo.”

“…Damn. Good timing!”

Erebor was a complete backwater. An M-class red giant hundreds of lightyears from the nearest temperate planet. About the only reason Kirk had ever visited it was because it was the only system in this neck of the woods where a spaceship travelling “cross country” could discharge the static charge that built up on its hull from pushing through the interstellar medium. Most ships took the spacelanes to avoid that problem, meaning that in all the time they’d been here the only ships they’d ever seen had been human. Unscheduled arrivals did not happen in Erebor.

So the odds of this being somebody else arriving purely by coincidence were, uh… not big.

Darcy glanced down at the tablet in her hand anyway. “That you?” There was a happy-sounding ping, and a slight smile lit her face. “Coming in a little fast, aren’t you?

Another, different ping. Lewis wished he could see the screen.

“…I don’t know what that means, but I think it’d be a good idea if you came to a full stop…. Yes I know there’s a shield. That doesn’t mean our patrols will just let you haul ass right up to our front door and park on the lawn. Explosion? Yes, they might. Will, if you don’t play ball. Thank you.”

She looked up at Lewis. “It’s agreed to slow down.”

“I got that.”

“…Well, actually it sent a thumbs-up and a bed. But I think that was the gist of it.”

Lewis snorted. “Dude.”

What followed was a whole lot of waiting. Somewhere out there, apparently, a couple of firebirds had swept in to intercept their friend. Then there’d been a slightly awkward five minutes where the patrol had insisted that the incoming ship stand to and prepare to be boarded, while the Entity struggled to communicate to Darcy the idea that this particular ship couldn’t be boarded on account of how it had no internal spaces. At all.

Quite how she’d got that out of the mess of disjointed words and emojis it was sending was anybody’s guess, and to Darcy’s mounting frustration the Entity seemed to be weirdly reticent about popping its human memory construct to hold an actual conversation. Presumably it had its reasons, and presumably those reasons weren’t sane by any human standard.

In the end, Lewis found himself bundled onto a Weaver and jumped outside the system field to get a good look at the new toy.

And what a toy!

It was about a hundred meters long and massed in surprisingly light at only a couple thousand tons. The firebirds were orbiting several thousand kilometers out, ready to swoop in at the first sign of trouble, and the Weaver had acquired an escort in the form of the USS Gene Roddenberry, who’d brought a HEAT team with them.

HEAT, after all, were the only people in the world qualified for EV-EOD (Extra-Vehicular Explosive Ordnance Disposal) and they were busy spacewalking all over the hull on the lookout for nasty surprises. So far, nada. The ship’s insides was a closed unit with no habitable spaces at all, but the reason for that was obvious to Lewis: it was a skeleton.

This wasn’t a complete ship, but a kind of modular foundation designed to be customized and expanded upon. In fact, it was little more than a flying nanofactory and automated asteroid mining and refining package, bolted onto a keel with thrusters and a beefy fusion power plant.

Akiyama was unenthusiastically praiseful of it.

“Well…” he grunted as he reached out, grabbed a handhold, and neatly heaved himself over to another inspection point. “It’s definitely Hunter tech. In fact it’s all Hunter tech, one hundred percent.”

“Like, uh, how can you tell?” Lewis asked him.

“Details. Voltage, frequency, system architecture, that kinda thing. What’s significant is there’s no Dominion tech in here at all. Every other ship of theirs we’ve seen so far was a kinda hybrid, repurposed out of captured Dominion ships.”

“Makes sense,” a new guy that Lewis hadn’t met before called Moho chimed in. He had a voice like a freight train going past. “We did wreck their shit over Hell.”

“So, like, this is a Hunter original,” Lewis said.

“Yeah. Guess the bastards can innovate after all… and that worries me. If they suddenly found their brains, that can’t end well. Especially if they’ve got V-N probes now.”

Lewis pulled a face. And he was the idiot who’d been talked into unleashing that technology on the galaxy.

“Can’t be a coinky-dink they came up with this not long after we released Coltainer into the wild,” he said out loud.

“Yeah. Bet they found one and watched it build a child.”

“Shit, dude.”

“Face it, it was only a matter of time before V-N probes got out there anyway.” Moho consoled him. “All the ingredients were there.”

“If not us, then somebody else. I know, I heard all the arguments before,” Lewis grumbled. “Don’t mean I hafta like it, dude.”

“Hey, at least we’re ahead of the curve, right? In geometric growth, the first out the gate wins.”

“Our babies have population limits on ‘em. Low ones. Bet you a dollar this one don’t.”

“…No bet. This the only one?”

Lewis glanced up at the camera where Darcy was sitting in her office, snug and happy and nursing a glass cup of jasmine green tea. “Darcy?”

“Uh… I’m not sure. I think the Entity’s saying this was a unique Hunter prototype.”

“Hard to tell, huh?”

“I don’t understand what it’s doing. It obviously has a lot to share with me but I think it’s… scared?”

“Of what?”

“Of its own.. I don’t know what you’d call it. The simulated human it loads up to speak with me.”

“…Simulacrum?” Lewis suggested.

“Sure. I think it’s scared of the Ava simulacrum. I’ve asked it to load that up a few times now and it just refuses.” Darcy looked helplessly into the camera and shrugged. “When I ask why, it just gives a jumble of words like ‘Survive,’ ‘Self’ and ‘NotSelf’ then an unhappy face.”

“Weird.”

“You’re telling me?”

“Well the good news is, this thing’s physically clean,” Akiyama reported. “No bombs, bugs or beacons. Can’t tell you shit about the computer systems though. It ain’t exactly running Windows.”

“Longear taught us how to work with this stuff…” Lewis pointed out.

“Yeah, and it ain’t anything we’ve been exposed to before. Like…there’s not even a physical interface that’s compatible.”

“It’s still talkin’ to us though,” Lewis pointed out.

“It’s sending the right signals, sure. Over fuckin’ WiFi because apparently it has WiFi somehow… It’s just not accepting connections the other way. Any insight from our friend, Darcy?”

Darcy shook her head frustratedly as she read the tablet. “It’s giving me… ones and zeroes? And a castle? And the biohazard symbol.” she trailed off, scowling. “…I think it’s saying that it’s protecting itself.”

“This stage fright is really gettin’ old,” Lewis muttered. “Dude, come on. Throw us a fuckin’ bone here.”

Darcy blinked at the screen. “Unhappy face. I… think it’s saying sorry. Oh, yeah. Green tick. I-”

She trailed off, and just watched the screen with her lips moving silently as she tried to puzzle out what she was seeing. Outside, Akiyama and Moho detached from the ship’s hull and began the long gentle drift back to the Weaver with little puffs of maneuvering gas. They were halfway back before she nodded her head and sat back.

“…Okay. I think I understand it now.”

“Share,” Lewis said.

“It’s… You have to remember that the Entity isn’t Ava Ríos. Hers was just the first mind it, uh… absorbed.”

“There’s a fun thought…” Akiyama muttered. “Does Ava know about this?”

“Yes. She doesn’t want to know the details. Anyway, the thing is, the Entity barely knows what it is any better than we do. It’s only, what, about four years old? It’s still figuring itself out. And every time it loads up the simulacrum, it becomes a little more like her, and a little less like itself. And every time it creates a copy of itself, it experiences value drift that gets confusing when it merges the copy. It wants to remain itself, and that’s difficult for a completely digital life form that can copy-paste and edit itself on a whim.”

“…Dude. You’re gettin’ all this from emojis?” Lewis asked.

She gestured sharply at the camera without looking at it. “Just… listen. The point is, it’s never had a body before. It has somebody else’s memories of having a body, but it’s never had a physical shell of its own. And it’s worried that if it just hands over this ship, it’ll lose that.”

“So…?” Moho prompted.

“So… it’s offering us a deal. It wants to keep the ship. Which doesn’t matter because the ship is a von-neumann probe, it can just make us a perfect copy. And it wants… something. I’m having trouble figuring out what it means by this. First line, spaceship then a person. Second line, two spaceships, each with a CD. Third line, four spaceships, CDs and a green tick at the end. Then another set, spaceship person. Spaceship spaceship person person. Four spaceships, four persons, red cross.”

“It’s… thinking of replicating?” Lewis asked. He got out of the way as the Weaver’s loadmaster and crew activated the triple-thick air retention field and dropped the ramp at the back. He knew he was perfectly safe but dang: having nothing but space magic between him and infinite vacuum was kinda distracting. “…Darcy, I’m sorry. I don’t care how good whatever it puts on the table is, we can’t allow that.”

“I don’t think so…. Yeah, red cross from the Entity.”

Moho and Akiyama alighted on the ramp and hauled themselves inside via the handholds. Frost formed instantly on their suits as they entered the warm, humid environment inside the dropship, and they stood there dripping fog on the deck while the ramp came back up.

“Sounds like it wants to build more ships, though,” Moho said as his techs released the seals on his mask and removed it.

“That’s a green tick.”

“But not more Entities?” Lewis asked.

“Green tick.”

Akiyama took off his own helmet and bent his head to scratch furiously at his scalp. “Fuck, you’d think after all these years I’d get used to the damn thing…” he muttered, then straightened up. “…So it wants more ships but not more itselfs. But it still needs to control the ships, I bet.”

“It just showed me a picture of a… blueprint,” Darcy reported.

Lewis pantomimed revelation. “Of course! It’s got a self-replicating modular ship, but it can’t do anything with it!”

“…Tick.”

“‘Cuz it doesn’t have the schematics to make anything useful with the nanofac,” Moho surmised.

“Tick.”

Akiyama nodded. “Which makes that whole ship a giant flying paperweight…”

“…Which is why it brought it here!” Lewis finished.

“Tick, tick, big smiley face.” Darcy grinned at the camera. “See? This isn’t so hard when you get the hang of it.”

“I guess I have just one more question for it, then…”

“What?”

Lewis cleared his throat. “Like, uh… where exactly did it get these things?”

Darcy suddenly looked awkward. “That’s just it. It won’t say.”

“Why the fuck not?”

“Uh… apparently it has a price…”


Date Point: 15y8m2w AV
Planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm

Chief Special Warfare Officer Daniel (“Chimp”) Hoeff

“You’re retiring?”

Hoeff nodded. “Been thinkin’ about it for a month or so. And my uncle Freddie had some good advice about retiring. He said ‘when you start thinkin’ about retiring, you already have.’ So… time to go.”

It was funny, hanging out with the eggheads at the research site. Not a single one of them had a military background, they were all infuriatingly innocent, unfocused, naive…

But he still liked them. A lot, actually. These were folks who’d left the safety and comfort of Earth to live in the woods with a…well, developing civilization of cavemonkeys and help them. He’d just be fuckin’ done if he ever let them know how much he respected that.

“I thought you like what you do?” Claire asked.

“Yeah. Which means sooner or later I’m gonna be reassigned.” Hoeff chuckled darkly. “Can’t get stuck doin’ something you enjoy in the service. It’s against regs.”

That got a laugh. “So… you’re retiring to stay here?”

“Yeah. ‘Cus bein’ honest, y’all need somebody to look out for ‘ya, we’re gonna have JETS candidates come through here for training… Sounds like a good gig to me.”

“This isn’t exactly the Hilton,” Claire pointed out. They’d asked the Ten’Gewek tribes for permission to build a more permanent structure on their land, which had been granted, but the actual funding was still a long way off. For now, they were still living in prefab modular buildings small enough to fit through a Jump Array.

But shit, they were warm, dry, comfortable and had hot water. Some folks just didn’t know what luxury really looked like.

“May as well be, next to some of the literal shitheaps I’ve slept in…”

“…I smell a story there.”

“Yeah, it never quite scrubbed out.” Hoeff fished out some dip and tucked it into his gum. “…Shit, I’m thirty-seven. Ain’t never gonna have kids, prob’ly. Well, I mean…not legit kids, but that’s another story for another time. An’ I don’t wanna be one of those homeless vets who can’t hack it back in civilization, so livin’ in the woods playing survivor with tribesman might just do the trick.”

Claire frowned at him. “…Do you really believe those are your only options?”

Hoeff frowned. “Okay. You’re smart as shit, Claire. Let’s be perfectly fuckin’ honest. This, right here? This is as polite as I get. I don’t do small talk. I don’t do discretion. My job is to kill people, fuck their shit up, and make their kids wish they’d never been born. I am very, very good at it. But nowadays? I get to do something non-violent for a change. Besides, Hanz and Franz made me into this fuckin’ tank of a fireplug, so I ain’t exactly lookin’ forward to losing all that so I can shiver to death crawling up a beach somewhere at two AM to go murder some poor fuck…”

She’d gone pale, so he contradicted himself a little and toned it down. “…Point is, there ain’t no goin’ back.”

“But looking forward you see… here. As…what? A man of the People?”

Hoeff thought about that for a moment. “Eh, no. Don’t get me wrong, I’m awful fond of ‘em, s’pecially Yan and Singer… But nah. I’m not gonna join the tribe.”

“Why not?”

“Coupl’a reasons. I could pass the Trial, sure. Shit, I went through harder in SEAL training. But why? Julian already proved humans can do that, he’s already earned their respect. He’s also strong enough to keep their respect, and that matters. That ain’t in the cards for me.”

“Well, what would you do instead?”

Hoeff grunted and thought about it a little more “…I think they need to learn to respect us for our strengths,” he said. “‘Cuz…hell, most of us just don’t measure up on their terms.”

Claire nodded along but didn’t concede the point. “Okay. What are their strengths?”

Hoeff raised an eyebrow. “Well, strength for a start, just their sheer ridiculous physicality. Perception, too. They can ‘taste’ the air pretty damn well actually, their sense of touch really ain’t that bad, their vision seems a bit better than ours, and so on. They’re also smart as shit, but none of that don’t matter if you ain’t strong enough to hunt your food and eat.”

“How much does that truly matter, though? Surely there’s more to it than simple brawn!”

“Oh, it fuckin matters,” Hoeff stated emphatically. “Me, I’m strong as shit now, so strong I can sometimes out-wrestle Singer. Hell, I’ve even held off Vemik for a whole five seconds. But am I strong enough to throw a werne over my shoulders and walk six miles home? Fuck no.”

“We managed just fine in our neolithic days,” Claire pointed out. “Teamwork can make up for that sort of thing. It’s an enabler, too. More than the sum of its parts, and all that.”

“Again, you ain’t wrong. They do teamwork too, they see that in us and respect it. But a good team needs good players, and the Ten’Gewek? Their women put basically all our men to shame and their Given-Men are like, I dunno, Daar or the HEAT bros. We’ve got about a dozen men like that, and they have over two-hundred in a species of twenty thousand! That’s crazytown levels of grunt. Leave that caveman shit for the big motherfuckers, my talents are elsewhere.”

“Such as?”

“Running. Thinking. Adapting. Surviving. We’re really good at that, us humans. Yan thinks all of that is ‘strong,’ because you’re right, they think like you’d expect neolithic cavemonkeys to think. Hell, if it weren’t for that and, like, all our sky-magic and shit? They wouldn’t respect us at all.”

Claire nodded along. “I see what you’re saying.”

“Yeah. An’ think about what that means. When they finally figure shit out, they’re gonna be real fuckin’ scary. Scarier’n us even, so why wouldn’t I wanna help ‘em get civilized?” He glanced toward the village. “…Imagine in like five hundred years time or whatever, when they’ve graduated from cavemonkey to spacemonkey. That’s how fast it’s gonna happen I bet.”

“Honestly, I think it’s going to go much faster,” Claire predicted. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a few of them wandering among us in our lifetimes. I mean…god, look at Vemik. He’s curious. And I don’t even want to guess what his IQ would be if he was human. It’d put mine to shame, that’s for sure, and I’m working on my second doctorate!”

Hoeff wanted to say something snarky about equating degrees with intelligence, but for once in his life, the little devil on his shoulder held its peace. Instead, he agreed and made his point.

“Hell yeah! So do you want our great-great-grandkids to have them for enemies? I sure as shit don’t. But they don’t want us for enemies too, ‘cuz ain’t nobody’d come outta that fight lookin’ pretty. Yan gets it, that’s why he’s so protective of me. Besides being friendly, I mean.”

“So that’s why you want to stay,” Claire nodded. “You want to be their big brother.”

“…Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. We should be friends. The Hierarchy kills us Deathworlders ‘cuz we’re dangerous, right? Well, I don’t think anyone’s gonna be as dangerous as these guys.”

“Individually, anyway.”

“…Huh?”

Claire gestured toward Daniel’s vacant tent. “Daniel thinks, and I’m inclined to agree, that they’re not likely to build vertically into the same kind of large-scale civilization that we did. We’ve basically frozen parts of their culture in time just by contacting them. My working thesis is that it’s very likely they’ll remain mostly nomadic and wilderness-dwelling even as they grow in knowledge and technology.”

“I’m not sure I agree with y’all about that, but I’m just a stupid SEAL so what do I know?”

She laughed. “I am here to study them,” she pointed out. “They’d need…at the very least they’d need a complete change in their spirituality and religious traditions. You should see what they think of the lakeside civilization.”

“They think they’re weak, immoral, effeminate, and stupid. I think that’s the words Daniel used.”

She nodded. “Takers and wasters. They don’t really appreciate what that lost civilization achieved, they have different values. They judge a man first by his muscles and his knife, not his philosophy and politics. They value folk wisdom over rational thought.”

“They ain’t wrong. That stuff does matter, especially if you gotta hunt to live. We just gotta show them there’s more kinds of strength, y’know? I guess that’s what I wanna do here.”

“And groom them as allies,” she accused dryly.

“Well… yeah. But why is that bad? Alliances go both ways, and they’re gonna want us just as much as we want them.”

She nodded. “You certainly sound…. Uh… the idea of retiring’s brought you out of your shell a bit and made you less…”

“Grumpy?” He suggested.

“Grumpy.”

Hoeff nodded. “Well, ‘grumpy’ is how murderbunnies like me do…”

“Still. It’s good to see you in a positive mood.”

“You ain’t ever seen me off mission…but you ain’t wrong. I’m happy here and I can be useful, y’know? Plus I actually get to fuckin’ read for a change, I get to talk to smart people…” He gestured at her, and she smiled at the compliment. “Fuck, I get to help smart people make smart monkeys even smarter! ‘Cuz lemme tell ya what’ll happen if I retire and I don’t have a mission. I’ll be dead inside, like…I dunno, four months.”

Claire said what truly innocent people always said when they heard a prediction like that: nothing at all. She had no idea what to say, and it showed.

“I can’t stay still,” Hoeff explained. “And there’s a reason I ain’t a Master Chief after twenty years in. I ain’t the leadership type. Guys like us, we ain’t equipped to be friendly sheep. No offense.”

“I, uhm…” she cleared her throat.

“You got nothin’?”

“…Yeah.”

“‘S’okay. I was brutally honest ‘cuz you can handle it, Claire. I don’t tell these things to people who can’t.”

She managed to recover some humor. “I think that makes me feel worse, actually,” she said, with a smile. “…Thank you.”

Hoeff chuckled humorously. “Ain’t nothin’. I already got the job lined up, so it’ll be official in…a couple of weeks. I should be Mister Hoeff by the time Julian gets his slabby ass back here.”

“…That just sounds wrong.”

“That’s why it’s right! Anyhoo, I just thought it was time to tell y’all now that I made it official. I’ve gotta head back to Cimbrean for a week and do all my outprocessing which should be…fun…”

“Ugh, paperwork,” she agreed. “Why do you think I like digging holes in the jungle so much?

“I know why you do.” He stood up. “Anyway…I better go let everyone else know. And Yan. If he doesn’t decide I’m his teddy bear today.”

She laughed. “Good luck. And Hoeff?”

He turned back. “Yeah?”

“It’ll be good to work with you.”

He nodded, smiled, and headed toward the village with a wave and feeling a good deal lighter than he had in years. He wasn’t the settling-down sort, that much was for sure, but for the first time since he’d got in, he could look forward and see a future.

All he had to do was seize it.


Date Point: 15y8m2w AV
Dataspace adjacent to Observatory Station, Neptune, Sol

Cynosure/Six

How did the test go?

Excellent. One rock, smashed. We’re all going to enjoy some big fat bonus pay.

If only they knew what you’re spending yours on, yes? How soon can you move?

What’s the rush? The next window is weeks away, and we’re still waiting for a distraction aren’t we?

Not any longer. We have one. Can you move?

…Yes. But the earlier I move, the longer they have to track me down.

I know. It’s a gamble, but I’ve always felt you were too cautious about the pursuit and not cautious enough about your own setup time. There will be unexpected setbacks, trust me on that: I have been doing this for much longer than you, after all.

I trust you. Though I still don’t know how this is supposed to work. It’s supposed to be impossible.

It will work. It’s all a matter of precision timing.

Why didn’t you do this sooner, then?

We didn’t know how before. The situation with the Guvnurag changed everything.

I still have misgivings about this. If it goes wrong…

Do you want to spend the rest of your life in a prison?

No.

In that case:
“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Acknowledged. Operation Jailbreak is go.
See you on the outside.


Date Point: 15y15y8m2w1d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm

Julian Etsicitty

“Woah! …Yeah. There’s that gravity I remember.” Xiù bounced on her toes for a second to get the feel for it again, then stood up straight and sniffed the air. A slow smile spread across her face. “…And the smell.”

Julian nodded. Ketta trees had a pleasant smell, reminiscent of pine needles and sandalwood and petrichor rolled into one. It was powerful, like pretty much everything on Akyawentuo, but never cloying. “Yeah. I tell ya, the Ten’Gewek could make good money just exporting the essential oil… Speaking of which, brace yourself.”

Xiù followed his gaze and finally noticed Vemik hovering outside the safety stripes on the ground. At least he respected hazard signs. “Huh? Oh. This is gonna hurt…”

“Yyyup.”

They stepped off the Array platform and were both immediately hoisted off the ground in a huge double-armed monkeyhug that made Julian’s spine creak. Xiù managed to choke out a laugh and eventually succeeded in reminding Vemik that she was a good deal frailer than Julian and needed air, at which point he reluctantly put them down again.

“Didn’t know you would come!” he told Xiù.

“It would have been all three of us, but Allison couldn’t come. She sends her love, though.”

“Couldn’t come? Why?”

Julian grinned. “We’re gonna have a baby girl!”

Vemik blinked at him. “…Is good news, but how do you know?”

“Sky-magic. Same way the scanner on the ship worked, remember? Also, she’s started with morning sickness.”

“Morning sickness?”

“I think that one’s a human thing,” Xiù said. “We… our stomachs get very sensitive. To protect the baby if we accidentally eat something poisonous. So, she’s throwing up a lot.”

Vemik hooted mournfully. “I hope she gets better…”

“She will. It doesn’t last forever. Anyway! We have other news, too…”

Vemik suddenly remembered his manners, and beckoned them toward the village. “Come, eat! We have smoked moose roasting. Is good!”

“You still have some?” Julian asked.

“We saved it! Like, special treat, I think is the word. What’s the other news?”

“Don’t give it away!” Julian warned Xiù. “I wanna see him figure it out for himself.”

“Figure it out?” Vemik twitched his tail at them. “…Something is different?”

“Yeah, bro.”

“Something I can see?”

“Right now, yeah.” Julian’s grin got wider, and Xiù covered her smile.

Vemik stopped in his tracks and looked them both up and down.

“…You have less face hair. But that’s not news. Shaving, yes?”

“Yeah, I do that. C’mon buddy, you can do this.”

Vemik’s tail lashed furiously as his pinched his jaw and frowned first at Xiù, who beamed at him, then at Julian. He looked them both up, then he looked them both down, then up… and then did the most classic double-take Julian had ever seen.

“Wh–? Your foot! How?!”

Xiù giggled, and Julian couldn’t help but laugh himself. “New sky-magi–woah!”

Vemik had belly flopped into the dirt to inspect Nofl’s handiwork, and unceremoniously lifted Julian’s foot off the ground to study it. He poked it a few times and exclaimed, “…It’s real!”

Julian flung out his arms to stay balanced, grateful that Xiù put a hand on his back to help. “Yeah, uh… yeah.”

“How?” Vemik asked again.

“I don’t know exactly. We’ve got a little grey fella who grew it for me and then stuck it on. He knows how it works. To me, it’s sky-magic.”

“Why are you wearing strange shoes?”

“My new foot isn’t toughened up yet. I’m working on that, probably gonna do a bunch of tree climbing to speed it up some. But for now…it kinda hurts to walk on metal grates, heh.”

Vemik was, of course, far too excited at this point to contain himself. He flung himself upright and bounced high above Julian’s head a few times, hooting and generally making a scene. “Come! We show everyone!” He grabbed Julian by the arm, half-dragged him over to the treeline and flung him up into the branches, then charged off swinging as fast as he could manage. Xiù’s scandalized “Hey!!” actually doppler-shifted.

Julian chuckled and waited patiently for Xiù to catch up. He rubbed his forearm where Vemik had grabbed him, too; not even six months ago Vemik’s grip would have given him a hell of a bruise, but these days it was probably just going to be an abrasion from the rough skin of his palms.

Probably.

Julian rolled his fingers to work out some of the pain, and chuckled again. It was good to be back, even if they were only here for a week until the next scheduled Array jump.

“So are you staying up there or are you gonna walk, Tarzan?” Xiù called from down below.

“I think I’ll Tarzan. All that time with Adam on the rings and bars is one thing, but I need practice. Also, here.” Julian reached down and pulled off his sandals. “May as well get to work on this, too…might take me a bit longer to get to the village.”

She caught them. “I’ll be there. Don’t fall.”

Julian allowed a slightly cocky grin to spread across his face. “I won’t.”

“Good boy. See you in the village.” She took off at a jog in the direction Vemik had gone and quickly vanished among the brush. She might just get there first, too: over-excited Vemik moments aside, a human at a steady jog could usually cover ground faster than a Ten’Gewek in the trees, and much faster than a human in the trees.

Well. A human not named Hoeff, anyway. He was practically a monkey himself.

True to Julian’s prediction, his progress was slow and his foot did not feel happy by the time he finally arrived. His entire upper body was throbbing from exertion, even his chest. His legs felt like he’d just sprinted a few miles…God, even his calves were on fire. He was plenty strong enough to swing along, thanks to Adam’s evil training, it was just…more like he was way out of practice. He was happy he made it without returning to the ground, though, and for once didn’t feel clumsy or weak at all. That month in Adam’s rehab had made a startling difference in his functional strength, even despite having slabbed on a bunch more weight.

That was a good feeling, too. Julian could tell that extra kick in the pants was exactly what he’d needed to really get comfortable up in the canopy, which meant he’d finally be able to keep up with the People. He’d get back into the swing of it pretty quick…which actually was a pretty awful pun once he’d thought about it. Definitely one to annoy Allison with later!

Xiù was doing her space elf thing when he arrived. He jumped down from the trees with a heavy thump and stretched himself out some with an unaccountably goofy grin on his face; exercise always made him happy. She arched an eyebrow at him as if to ask ‘well?’ and nodded when he grinned back at her.

“Hey, Playboy.” Hoeff was hanging around the village perimeter, and gave Julian a nod. “Congrats.”

“Thanks!”

“A girl, huh? They can tell this early now?”

“And a lot more, apparently!”

“Whatcha gonna call her?”

“Not decided yet.”

“Fair.”

A thought struck Julian and he felt he had to voice it. “Not Amanda, though. Definitely not Amanda.”

Hoeff snorted. “Also fair. No luck with Xiù yet?”

“These things take time.”

“Cool.”

Julian couldn’t help himself and waggled his eyebrows. “Don’t worry. We’ll take all the time we need…”

“Yeah, yeah, rub it in. I ain’t got laid in like a couple’a months.” Hoeff grumbled. “There’s exactly one woman on this planet, and she’s uh…”

“Young? Attractive? Smart? Into you?”

“She ain’t given me that impression.”

“Please, yes she is. Big bad dangerous SEAL and all that. We can all see it!”

“Hey, I’d take a tumble with Claire in a heartbeat. But she needs a better man.”

“Oh, go fuck yourself with that, man! Like, back in Folctha? I never once heard you say anything…Oh. Oh, hell. It’s more than just gettin’ lucky this time, isn’t it?”

“Like you said. She’s real smart.”

Well, damn. Julian put an arm around Hoeff and dragged him off for a bit of privacy. “Okay. Like, I’m not the best guy with relationships or whatever, this happened by accident—”

“You’re fuckin’ kidding me!”

“By accident, man. When I first met Allison, I wasn’t exactly experienced at any of this. I’m still not. These two are the first serious thing I’ve ever had. Before that it was all just…high school, and like almost something with a fellow ranger. And I was always more of a loner.”

“…No way.”

“Yeah. But anyway,” Julian pulled things back on track. “I ain’t ever known you to be anything but the most confident dude ever. So what gives?”

“I’m confident ‘cuz I know myself, man. I know what I am, what I do, what I’m good at.”

“Okay. That don’t really answer my question, though.”

“…Look, maybe I don’t wanna get into it, okay? I like you, Playboy. You’re a good guy. Just… Don’t push where you’re not welcome.”

“Okay. No pressure. I just…I dunno. You deserve–”

Hoeff clapped Julian on the shoulder to interrupt him, shook his head, and walked away.

Well… shit.


Date Point: 15y15y8m2w1d
High Mountain Fortress, The Northern Plains, Gao

Champion Thurrsto of Whitecrest

The report from Rvzrk was exactly as grim as Thurrsto had feared it might be.

In his state of fallen grace it was no longer Regaari’s job to be read to and make decisions on such reports: rather, he was the one doing the reading. Briefing his Champion. It was obvious that the demotion hurt him, but also that he clearly didn’t resent it or feel it was unfair.

In any case, his voice had his usual professional cadence in place as he delivered the briefing: Strong, clear and precise. It echoed off the walls as they hustled through the fortress’ innards toward the grand chamber.

“The Humans are having a hard time establishing any hard facts about the situation groundside. They know that the Hunters landed most of their ships and that they’re using Jump Arrays to bring in ground forces, which are spreading out from, uh, Site One at a faster rate than the Domain ground troops can evacuate the area.”

Site One. The Humans had taken to calling it that, on the basis that the actual Domain name for that city was a kind of prolonged guttural rattle like a bucket full of bricks being tipped down a stairwell.

Apparently by Domain standards it was a beautiful, poetic, mellifluous sort of name.

“What’s the Domain reaction been?”

“For once, they’re happy to see us. They seem to think the deathworlders can handle this so they’re just going to sit this one out as much as they can. Which, being honest, is probably the most sensible thing they could do.”

“Can we handle it?” Thurrsto asked.

“That…depends very much on what we mean by ‘handle,’ unfortunately. It will be costly.”

“Right. We could flatten the city, I take it?”

“And write off the millions of Domain citizens who live there in the process,” Regaari duck-nodded.

“Could we invade?”

“Yes, but it would be a lamentable victory at best.”

Thurrsto considered that for a moment. “I need the politics on this.”

Regaari duck-nodded and called up the file with a gesture of his cybernetic paw.

“The Dominion has actually showed up to the fight this time,” he said. “The Fleetmaster is a Chehnash by the name of Dreem. You may recognize the name.”

“…Wasn’t he a pirate?”

“He was given amnesty. Officially.” Regaari’s ear flicked a little. Even when reporting on such grim subjects, and even in the depth of his own low mood, he could still find a little amusement in xenopolitical corruption. “Of course, what actually happened was that he owns the loyalty of some of the most powerful figures in the Chehnash global senate.”

“Right, yes. And now he’s a senior fleetmaster? Impressive. And competent, I imagine.”

Regaari duck-nodded. “Very competent. And not interested in letting politics get in the way of the mission. I think there’s a principled man somewhere under the pirate.”

“Still. What could get in the way?”

“The usual. The Kwmbwrw are making noises about deathworlder ships standing ready to bombard a Dominion world, as though we’re not Dominion members ourselves… They’re being shouted down by the Rauwryhr though, and the Corti have given us their full backing. I believe they’re sending one of their top warships too.”

“The Corti are sending a warship?”

“The Empirical Razor. I’m as surprised as you: I thought their warfleet was mostly for show but this one’s allegedly a real killer, not some home system ceremonial picket.”

“I suppose stranger things have happened. I wonder what their ground forces are like…” These were interesting times indeed. “So in short, we actually have Dominion backing, by and large.”

“For a change,” Regaari agreed. “I think the rest of the Security Council is getting just as sick of the Kwmwbwrw’s bullshit as we are.”

They paused outside the door the grand chamber. The sound of raised voices penetrated the thick ancient wood just enough that Thurrsto had to raise his own voice to ask his last question.

“What’s your take on the Great Father’s reaction to this?”

Regaari looked nervously at the door, probably imagining the furry brute beyond it. “…If a bloody land invasion is what it’ll take to stop the Hunters, he’ll do it. He won’t like it at all, but that won’t stop him.”

“So our duty is to find an alternative,” Thurrsto mused. “…Very well. Let’s not keep him waiting.”

Daar looked over at them as they entered the hall. He gave Thurrsto a nod but didn’t extend the same courtesy to Regaari, whom Thurrsto knew well enough to spot the microscopic way he wilted. They took their spot at the table, Thurrsto standing with his paws resting on the venerable wooden surface, Regaari a pace behind him and slightly to his left.

Champion Fiin welcomed Thurrsto to the table with pleasure. “Any news?” he asked.

“Nothing worth mentioning,” Thurrsto told him. “Father Garaaf hasn’t been able to expand on the intelligence the Humans sent us, and there’s nobody more expert on Hunters.” Several years surviving as a slave aboard their orbital had made him the undisputed authority.

“So we’re still blind. And every moment we’re blind, more civilians die.”

“We’ll always be blind so long as we’re stuck in orbit,” One-Fang’s Champion Hiyel said. “We need eyes on the ground. Thurrsto, your Clan must be able to put somebody on the ground.”

Thurrsto duck-nodded reluctantly. “The insertion itself would be relatively straightforward. But it’s a one-way trip. Our scouts would be dropping onto a Hunter-infested planet with no way to exfiltrate.”

“So it’s a suicide mission,” Hiyel said.

“…The next best thing, anyway. I’d certainly give the scouts low odds of survival.”

“If that’s what we have to do, that’s what we have to do.”

“For the Domain, though?” Champion Loomi asked. “An ally like the Humans would be worth the sacrifice, but I don’t remember any Domain ships coming to defend us when the Hunters attacked here.”

That earned an outraged bristling from Champion Kuri of Clan Openpaw. “Life must come first, Champion,” he said sharply, quoting his Clan’s motto. “I can’t countenance letting people die over our own sense of resentment.”

“I appreciate the sentiment, Kuri, but I must agree with Loomi,” Champion Sheeyo said. “Our first duty is to the Gao and our allies. The kind of scout who’d be capable of that insertion is hardly the kind of resource we want to squander.”

“And how do you propose we earn new allies, Sheeyo?” Thurrsto asked. “We earned the Humans as an ally by taking a risk, as I recall. When the Females took in Sister Shoo, they did so in the face of objections that she was dangerous.”

Kuri duck-nodded fervently. “My objections,” he said. “If not for her Frontline implant—which at the time was an unfamiliar and untested technology—she might have unleashed a devastating plague on our people. There was a real danger that millions might die.”

“And yet Giymuy chose to adopt her as a Sister, and thus we earned our most important military ally,” Thurrsto finished.

“…He has a point,” Sheeyo conceded to Loomi.

“Here’s another one,” Fiin interjected. “The Grand Army.”

“What about them?” Sheeyo asked.

“An army that size with nothing to do but sit idle is a problem waiting to happen. They’re loyal, they’re motivated, and they want to fight. For a lot of them, the fight is the only thing they have left. Deny them, and morale is going to suffer.”

Daar grumbled to himself and Looked at everyone around the table, in that penetrating way only he seemed to have mastered.

“I ain’t interested in commitin’ the Army just ‘cuz it’ll avoid hurt feelings. I need more if Imma send maybe millions to their doom.”

“…Yes, My Father. I was only pointing out one branch of the consequences.”

“…These ain’t good options. I’m inclined t’agree wit’ all of you, actually.”

“Which means we need more intelligence.”

“Ayup.” Daar looked at Thurrsto. “…Brother, I’m gonna need to ask ‘yer Clan to do somethin’ awful.”

Regaari’s voice cut into the conversation like a sword stroke. “I volunteer.”

The table fell silent instantly. Daar waited for a long moment, then padded slowly over towards Regaari, and sat on his haunches a middling distance away.

“…Say again?”

Regaari looked him square in the eye. “You need eyes on the ground, and I’m one of the best you have. I’m no longer attached to HEAT, I’m no longer your aide de camp… So, I volunteer to infiltrate the planet and return intel.”

Daar gave him a long, slow stare. He very obviously didn’t like the idea one bit.

“…That’s a suicide mission,” he said. “Thurrsto said so himself.”

“Maybe,” Regaari conceded. “But though I may have blundered in not trusting your judgement, My Father, I daresay my skills are still sharp. I can get down there. I can return intelligence that the Grand Army needs. And if it does turn out to be a suicide mission… Well. I’m willing.”

The room was silent for several seconds as the Champions glanced between themselves while watching the tableau playing out between the two old friends.

Finally, Daar turned his head slightly. “…Ev’ryone who ain’t a Whitecrest, go wait outside.”

The Champions and their retinues dutifully filed out. The old hall felt large and cold with only three in the middle of it, once they were gone.

The second the doors closed, Daar stood up on two-paw and glowered down his muzzle at Regaari. Balls, he was intimidating. “…Regaari, I ain’t lookin’ for you to fall on your sword.”

“I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a little bit of that,” Regaari conceded. “But with all due respect to my Champion, just because he says it’s a suicide mission doesn’t mean it is. I reckon I’m better than him.”

Thurrsto felt both his ears flick like Regaari had just clawed him in the snout. In any other context and coming from anybody else, that would be a direct challenge.

It was worse, because Thurrsto knew it was true. And apparently so did the Great Father.

“An’ you propose we spend one o’ our very best on this mission, if you be.”

“No, My Father. You proposed that. I simply volunteered for the mission.”

“…Oh, Gods damnit Regaari! You were always the smartest between us, but now?! Of all the fuckin’ moments, you choose this to get a dig in?!”

“If that’s what it takes!” Regaari actually squared up to Daar like he planned on fighting him. “Daar… Cousin! I can’t let you forget your duty just because of our history!”

That was a deep cut. Daar didn’t look enraged, or murderous, or in any way like he’d just been challenged by a vastly inferior combatant. Instead, he looked like he’d been mortally wounded.

Regaari’s ears slowly went sorrowfully flat. “I love you,” he said. “You’re my Brother in every way. I don’t want to hurt you again. But this needs to happen. Thurrsto’s right, we can’t stand back and let the Hunters feast. And if I need to go into the fire to stop them, I’ll do it. I’ll do it gladly.”

“…I know.” Daar couldn’t muster anything beyond that. Painfully slowly, he returned to his seat at the end of the table, sat down like a very old man.

“…Champion Thurrsto.”

“…Yes, My Father?”

“The order is given.”

“Yes, My Father.”

They were halfway to the door when Daar found his voice again.

“…Regaari?”

Regaari turned back to look at him. “Yes, My Father?”

“…Come back. Please.”

“I’ll do my best.” Regaari flicked his slightly shortened ear and a little of his old cocksure demeanor returned. “…My best is pretty damn good.”

They left the Great Father in the chamber and closed the doors behind them. The last thing they heard was a keening, tortured howl.


Date Point: 15y8m2w2d
Irbzrk System, Dominion Borderlands

The Builder Alpha-of-Alphas

<Vague interest> +I remember this system. I was here the last time we raided it.+

This time was different, of course. On that occasion, the former Alpha-of-Alphas had been fixated on its pursuit of every Human it could get at. They’d torn into the station and decimated its population, but left the infrastructure intact. The Prey reliably returned to the same facilities rather than build new ones.

Strange, that they’d return to a place that had been so conclusively proven unsafe. But the Prey by and large did not think, as far as the Alpha-of-Alphas could tell. Not on the large scale. Individuals might be quite clever, but the herd as a whole was a creature of instinct that soon forgot about danger if they weren’t regularly reminded of it.

This time, there wouldn’t be anything for them to return to. The Swarm needed more than just meat—it needed material. Metal. Parts. Systems. So while most of the Swarm gorged themselves on a planet at the far end of Domain space, the Alpha-of-Alphas had led this smaller but much more dangerous force here.

The meat inside the station would just be a fortunate bonus. The real prey was a station full of nanofactory parts, raw shipbuilding material and extensive industrial resources. To the Alpha-of-Alphas’ eyes, it may as well have been a bloody chunk of raw meat, waiting for the maw.

One of the subordinate Betas got its attention.

<Eager report> +The station is lightly defended. Their defense ships all departed for the distraction world several days ago.+

+Tactical assessment?+

+We can expect negligible losses from the defences here.+

+Human and Gaoian forces?+

<relish> +All known Human ships are accounted for at the distraction world. The Gaoians are in support.+

<pleased; command> +Raise the wormhole suppressor and deploy gravity spikes. All ships: decloak and assault the station. Meat to the Maw.+

The gleeful hunting cry was taken up across the entire network. Irbzrk station responded with commendable swiftness… but they were never a match. Their sentry guns and point defence weapons were blinded by ECM, their communications were jammed, and their sensors burned out in the opening assault.

The swarm descended, cut into the hull… and fed.


Date Point: 15y8m2w2d
Planet Akyawentuo, Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm

Julian Etsicitty

Dan Hurt had come back on a specially arranged off-schedule jump a few days ago, brimming with ideas, if not necessarily Vemik-like cheer. He was definitely more sober than usual.

He greeted Julian with a handshake and swapped air-kisses near the cheek with Xiù. Julian wasn’t sure why, but he always found that greeting a little weird, but whatever. It was good to see him again.

“How was the service?”

“Oh, the service sucked,” Dan grumbled. “If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a funeral where the deceased is an afterthought. They could have just entered his name into the gaps on a form and let a computer follow the script, it was… soulless.”

“Ew,” Xiù agreed, pulling a face.

“The wake on the other hand, was a genuine celebration of his life, and it was a privilege to be there.” Dan managed a smile. “…It was a privilege to know him, too.”

“The Ten’Gewek owe him a huge debt,” Julian said.

“They know. Anyway… I’ve spent this whole time dwelling on Steven’s death. I’d like to move forward. Shall we? I notice you got a new foot. It’s impressively realistic this time!” the waggle in his eyebrows said he knew perfectly well it wasn’t a prosthetic.

“Good craftsmanship! They’re too big, though,” Xiù noted.

“Hey!” Julian laughed, “What’s wrong with ‘em?”

“Oh, nothing. You know what they say about men with big feet.”

“Mm.” Dan nodded. “Big… shoes.”

Julian laughed. “Yeah, I suppose that’s true too…” He gave Xiù a meaningful look.

“Anyway. It suits you, Julian,” Dan said. “You’re already walking with a lot more bounce in your step. Before you were always careful. Now…”

“Some of Vemik’s energy is rubbing off on him, I think.”

“Yes! Exactly that.”

“Guys, I’m right here you know.”

“Hush, you.” Xiù swatted him lightly in the chest with her knuckles. “You ‘dress’ like a cavemonkey nowadays, so you don’t get to talk. Anyway.” she gestured toward the research camp. “This is going well!”

Dan nodded and they headed for it while he enthused about the projects he was looking forward to catching up with.

Sure enough, the researchers dropped what they were doing and emerged from their prefabs and cataloging stations to welcome Dan back. The cataloging in particular was a massive job: the archaeological trenches down on the coastline where the cities had once stood were rich sources of artefacts, every last one of which was carefully recorded before it left the ground, then returned to the base camp for inspection and classification.

They’d begun “hiring” the local Ten’Gewek as porters. It was a three-day trip in either direction, and it had proven to be a great trust-building exercise. The archaeologists did the delicate, careful work while the Ten’Gewek looked on, fascinated. They also helped with a lot of the grunt work, since they were burly monkeys and the staff were definitely more on the wiry-yet-thin side.

Then there was one of the Ten’Gewek children, a girl who was Vemik’s equal in curiosity and had apparently picked up the endearing tactic of holding a magnifying lens with her tail while she helped go through the less sensitive artefacts. She’d apparently already decided that she wanted to be an archaeologist, even if she couldn’t pronounce the word and it came out more like ‘Akyojiss.’

In short, it worked. And little by little, youths and children and the occasional adult from the surrounding villages were paying visits here and there to talk with the Humans and learn a little bit about sky-magic and sky-thinking.

“We won’t have long before they hear you’re back and come running to ask about the vaccines…” Julian mused, noticing a boy who’d been loitering near the camp vanish into the trees and disappear in a rustle of displaced foliage.

“On that score, it’s mixed news,” Dan said. “There are companies who are willing to give it a try, but the setup costs for vaccination are, uh… impressive. And it will take time, and involve a pretty substantial human presence. And, frankly, those companies are going to want something in return. It’ll be a crash course in money-based trade…”

“I think they can handle it.”

“They can handle the concept. Scraping together the value they’ll need, though…” Dan shrugged.

“They’ve got a lot they can sell, actually. Like, hell! That ketta smell for a change. Maybe just the right to access? I dunno. I’m definitely not gonna sell ‘em down the river, I’m rich as fuck these days. I don’t need the money.”

“Why not a sovereign fund?” Xiù suggested. “The First Nations never had the benefit of anything like that.”

“Whew. That’s big sky-magic right there…” Dan muttered, but he rubbed his jaw as he thought about it. “I mean, the basics of currency as an exchange medium sure, but investment? Stocks, bonds, real estate? How do you explain equity and hedge funds to an iron-age civilization? You don’t.”

“…Well, okay, that’s fair. Anyway, that’s things we can work out over time. First you gotta say hello, ‘cuz I can hear Yan comin’ up the trail.”

They stepped aside to give Yan and Daniel some room, and rejoined the researchers, who were doing the usual thing of breaking out some food to welcome a guest per Ten’Gewek etiquette. Besides, they all looked like they were about ready for a break anyway.

Hoeff had come along with Yan, and Julian only needed a glimpse of the way Claire looked at him to confirm everything he’d said a day or two before down at the village. Dammit.

When he glanced down at Xiù, she shrugged as though to say there wasn’t much they could do about it, besides be a good friend. She was right— either it’d work out, or it wouldn’t.

Still, they could be a good friend to both sides, and joined Claire as she cleared space on a table that usually held crates full of archeological finds to make room for the food.

“Hey!” She treated them both to a smile. “I heard you’re gonna have a family soon?”

“Yup!” Xiù beamed.

“Congratulations!”

“Don’t jinx it. She’s only a few weeks in.”

“Yeah, but I hear modern medical scanners are ridiculous.”

“I guess you’re probably more career-focused right now, huh?” Julian guessed.

“I guess.” Claire slotted a tray of artefacts into one of the boxes. “I mean, my mom always told me to never turn down opportunity when it comes knocking, but I guess that relies on the opportunity actually, uh… knocking.”

“Struck out, huh?” Xiù asked, kindly.

Claire blinked, flushed a little pink, and hastily tucked the box under the table to recover herself. “…Never showed up for the game,” she said. “Gosh, is it that obvious?”

Julian shrugged. “Maybe a little.”

“…Oh well. Opportunity didn’t knock.”

“That sucks,” Xiù sympathized.

Claire shrugged it off. “There are worse things in life than making a friend. Anyway! I’d better go grab the drinks…” she gave them a smile full of optimism, and vanished.

After a few seconds, Julian sighed and shook his head.

“…D’you get the impression we’re kinda bad at this?” he asked.

“I think you’re the only boyfriend I’ve ever had and everything I know about romance comes from movies. So… maybe?” Xiù shrugged. “I guess the difference is, we talk. We work our stuff out. Those two aren’t talking.”

Julian nodded. He glanced over at Hoeff, who was looking in their direction. All it took was eye contact and a subtle but unarguable headshake on Hoeff’s part to tell him everything he needed to know.

“…Nothing we can do about it,” he decided.

“Tā mā de…”

“Yeah, you said it.”

Any further thoughts of matchmaking were put on hold by Yan, who sat on his tail opposite them and grinned toothily. Apparently Dan’s news about what would be involved in bringing vaccination to the Ten’Gewek hadn’t been so bad.

“I don’t understand this fie-nance,” he said, doing the usual Ten’Gewek thing of dropping straight back into a conversation without preamble.

“It’s a magic my grandfather’s people could have put to good use, way back when,” Julian said.

“We have things to ‘sell’ to your people, Professor Daniel says. That they will want to ‘pay’ us for, and so we balance out giving and taking. Is clever idea. The Gods will approve, I think.”

Well, I guess that makes the People natural born capitalists then…” Xiù muttered. Yan tilted his head curiously. “…Uh… that joke would take a long time to explain.”

“Other time, then,” Yan agreed. “Still… Humans will ‘buy’ the… taste of trees?”

“Oh yeah!” Julian nodded fervently. “If they can’t come to the forest to smell it, they’ll pay to bring the smell to themselves in their homes. You’ve smelled…uh, tasted the wind on Earth. We plant flowers and all that stuff just ‘cuz they’re nice, so…”

“There’s other stuff you could sell too,” Xiù said, “but you have to be careful. Big money is a powerful magic. This isn’t just Vemik’s burgers we’re talking about.”

“Mhmm. It’s like the sharpest knife. If you use it wisely it can cut anything. If you aren’t careful…it can still cut anything. Including you.”

“So…what do we do?”

“Start small? I dunno. I’m honestly a little wary of doing this, big fella. Finance is something I’ve had to learn a lot about since exploring made me rich, and it’s hard to get your head around. I pay a man to do nothing but take care of my money. It’s a strange thing to say, huh?”

“We have a lot of rules about it,” Xiù explained. “A lot of rules, powerfully enforced. Because the people who break those rules can make life worse for everyone.”

“And us.”

“Not as bad since there’s only one way in or out of here, but yeah. Like, our whole everything is built on money. If you start using it, then there’s a lot of protection between you and us that can go away in a flash. But on the other hand…”

“It may buy vack-seens.”

“And a lot more, yeah.” Julian agreed. “Think of this as the real essence of everything we ever tried to warn you about. Money is power, Yan. Power you can hold in your hand and pass to another man as easily as I might pass you a tool.”

“It’s the most powerful tool,” Xiù elaborated. “Anything you don’t have, anything you can’t do…if someone else has it or can do it, and you have enough money, then you have it too. And the same the other way. Givings and Takings with money can be too big to even imagine. Misfit cost literally tens of billions of dollars. That’s about a thousand times more money than Julian and I have, and we’re very rich apparently.”

Yan nodded solemnly “…This is the Sky-Magic that makes your villages.”

“It’s the blood in the veins of human civilization, Yan. Everything comes back to it.”

Yan grunted, and looked back over his shoulder at Dan, who was listening to the conversation without interfering.

“…Then we be very careful, and learn. And we take only what we need: enough to change for better, not enough to hurt.”

“That’s a fine line.”

“We walk fine lines every day. Life is a fine line, yes?”

“True enough,” Xiù agreed. Yan reached out and touched a finger to her chest, just above her sternum.

“When we met, Vemik stopped us killing each other. You talked to us. You brought the sky down to touch the world, and saved us. We’ve known since then that the sky is full of things we don’t understand and that might kill us… but it’s also full of our good friends, and things that will help us.”

He sat back and smiled. “The People are strong,” he said. “We are not afraid of the sky, and we can’t run from it even if we were. We will be careful, but never cowards. And one day, we will make our Misfit. Not the same as yours: Ours.”

“Spacemonkeys,” Julian muttered with a grin.

Yan hooted, “I still break you over knee, Jooyun!”

“You do, and you’ll have to answer to my women.”

That got an uproarious trill from Yan, who rocked back on his tail and nodded appreciatively. “Only a crazy man would be so brave!” He hooted again, then calmed and gave them both a fond look. “You have been good friends to me, to us, to all the People. The Gods smiled on us, I think. I think in coming years, as you have babies, as they grow, maybe you won’t visit so much. I wanted you to hear those words now. And when I see Awisun, I say them to her, too.”

That was a hard compliment to take. All Julian could do was scoot forward and put his hand on Yan’s enormous, teak-hard shoulder. Xiù meanwhile looked deeply touched, and she rounded the table to hug him.

“…You’ve been good friends to us as well, you know,” she said.

That seemed to be all the sentimental stuff Yan had room for. He dragged them both in for a lung-squeezer of a hug, then let them go and gestured toward the food.

“Come. We eat, we talk of the future… Have a good time.”

Julian had to admit to a certain hollowness in his gut that needed filling. “That,” he agreed, “sounds like an excellent idea.”


Date Point: 15y8m3w
Ceres Base, Asteroid Belt, Sol

Drew Cavendish

Speeches.

Drew hated speeches. He especially hated standing around on stage while they were given. Double especially when there were film cameras in front of him and he was flanked on either side by men and women in shiny uniforms with medals and a whole fruit salad of colours on their chests.

Or, y’know. The bloody King of England.

His Nibs had mastered the art of giving a speech, at least. Advancing age hadn’t taken away his patient, aristocratic air and to be fair to him it was a good speech… but Drew wanted to be back at work.

Fine, sure. Today was the day Caledonia finally got out of drydock and back into active service. It was a big moment, both for reflecting on the hundreds of crew who’d given their lives over Gao, and for anticipating the great things she’d achieve in the future. But there were still a thousand small things that needed Drew’s attention. The rededication ceremony wouldn’t have been on that list if he could avoid it.

But Adele had put her foot down. So Drew, choking in his best suit and tie, was sweating under the lights while a very old man said nice things.

Receiving a light tap on the shoulder during the speech therefore was… worrying. This was a big and important moment for the Consortium, he wouldn’t be interrupted for this unless something very big was up.

The whisper in his ear was urgent. “Emergency meeting in the boardroom.”

Drew eyed the front of the stage, where the King was maybe two-thirds of the way through recounting the ship’s heroism during the Battle of Gao. “Now?”

The luckless executive assistant sent to retrieve him, Ed, sounded like he didn’t want to be there any more than Drew did. “Adele said to pull you off the stage immediately. No matter what.”

…Jesus Christ.

He got given several shades of stink-eye as he nodded and backed off the stage before slipping away down the stairs. That was future damage control, no doubt.

“What the bloody hell is so important that she’s asking me to snub the bloody king?” he asked.

“Way above my pay-grade, Drew.” Ed shrugged apologetically as they stepped into an elevator. The ceremonial room overlooking the drydock was right on Ceres’ surface, looking out over bare grey landscape of regolith and ice with a disturbingly close horizon. Paradoxically for a facility with so many windows, it felt claustrophobic.

The Ceres facility’s innards, on the other hand, were carefully calculated to feel as open and airy as possible. Folks lived out here for months at a time in what was, after all, effectively a bunker. They stepped off the elevator in a carefully cultivated bit of artificial parkland that looked much bigger than it really was, and bustled across it through the revolving doors in the front of the executive building. Up another elevator, and that was where Ed left him because the board room was sealed up as tight as Drew had ever seen it. He even got brain-scanned before they let him in, and when he did so he had to endure stepping through the skin-tingling fuzz of a privacy forcefield.

The mood inside was funereal. Haggard, stressed faces looked up at him as he entered, even as one of their moments of triumph still played out silently on the wall TV.

At any other time, Drew might have made an ice-breaker joke along the lines of ‘who died?’ or something. It died before he’d even properly conceived of it. Instead he shut the door carefully behind him and moved to sit next to Drew Martin.

“…What happened?” he asked.

Adele indicated a holographic slide. It was an inventory of their mining equipment. One of the lines was bright red, and an icicle ran down Drew’s spine as he realized which one.

“…Oh no.”

“Yeah,” Drew Martin said grimly. “One of our nukes is missing.”



++End Chapter 50, part 1++



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Sixty-three Deathworlders:

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As well as Seventy-two Friendly ETs, 70 Squishy Xenos, and 4.17x10^2 Dizi Rats.


“The Deathworlders” is © Philip Richard Johnson, AKA Hambone, Hambone3110 and HamboneHFY. Some rights are reserved: The copyright holder reserves all commercial rights and ownership of this intellectual property. Permission is given for other parties to share, redistribute and copy this work under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0International License.

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Thank you for reading!

The Deathworlders Chapter 50 will continue in: “Counterattack pt2. - Consolidate”