The Deathworlders

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Chapter 50: Counterattack, pt.2 - Homefront

Date Point: 15y9m1w AV
Dataspace adjacent to Observatory Station, Neptune, Sol

Six/Cynosure

You were right.
There were unexpected setbacks.

Are you still on target?

No. I’m going to miss this window.
They noticed the missing package
sooner than I thought.

Are you at risk of discovery?

I don’t think so. They’ve scanned
everybody for implants like you said
they would. They didn’t find any,
of course. But we’re on lockdown
while they search the whole facility.

I take it they won’t find it?

Of course not. And there shouldn’t be
any evidence that the log was tampered
with, either.

Well done.

Thanks. I don’t know why, but this stuff
just… I don’t know.
Comes more easily nowadays.
I mean, I was a straight-A student all
the way through college
But now…
…You didn’t do anything to me, did you?

I told you. I want a partner, not a slave.

I know, I just…
…You know what, never mind.
I do have one question for you, though.

By all means.

You have to know that AEC won’t be
happy about this. They’ll view it
as an act of war. Doesn’t that take
peace off the table? I thought lasting
peace with humanity was your end goal?

It is. I firmly believe that your species and
mine are capable of peaceful coexistence.
But AEC are developing von-neumann probes,
and so are the Hunters
That changes things. We must act decisively.

God.
You’re right, that does change things.
It changes everything!
They’re playing with forces that could
doom us all

Exactly.

But how does what I’m doing play into it?

I’m sorry. I can’t say.
If you were captured and revealed the plan---and
believe me, you would---then we’d be completely lost.

I wouldn’t talk.

I’ve been interrogated. They got EVERYTHING out of me.
Trust me. You’d talk. Much sooner than you think, too.
Please: don’t worry about it. Trust me.

…Fine. No further questions.
I’ll do my best to ensure we
achieve the next window.

I’ll adjust the timetable at my end. Thank you.

See you in a few months.


Date Point: 15y9m1w AV
The White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth

President Arthur Sartori

Hephaestus were in no danger of telling the world they’d just managed to lose a nuclear device. That little revelation would have sent their share prices punching right through rock bottom and out the other side.

A fate they absolutely and thoroughly deserved, in Sartori’s estimation.

According to his briefing document, there were exactly thirty-two ‘Pinnacle - Broken Arrow’ incidents on record since 1950, none more recent than 1980, and none of which had ever involved a physics package just going missing. Somehow, Hephaestus had managed to fuck up worse in just a few months than the entire Department of Defence had achieved in more than eighty years.

When their executives were finally escorted from the building and returned to their duties, they’d done so as absolutely broken figures who’d just found themselves facing the full wrath of the state in all its terrible glaring glory. It was in Sartori’s power to absolutely ruin every single one of them, and right now he had no good reason not to, beyond the desire to keep the whole incident quiet until it was resolved. Adele Park in particular had looked frail and trembling, a far cry from her actual status as the wealthiest and most powerful businesswoman in human history.

And the worst part was that the investigators could find nothing. Everybody who had the opportunity and ability had an absolutely airtight alibi. Suspicion had obviously fallen on the crew of HCS-501 I Met God And She Booped My Nose. They were the ones who’d taken aboard some bombs, detonated one, and returned two less than they left with.

But… nothing. Everyone’s movements were accounted-for, the ship’s logs showed nothing unusual, every one of the ten thousand one hundred and seventeen Hephaestus personnel in the asteroid belt had been scanned for implants…

Nothing.

Sartori had been assured that there would be a breakthrough. The problem was, such a breakthrough needed to happen before that bomb went off. They were running against the clock, and the clock seemed to be winning.

He tried to sign a few things and do some paperwork to let his brain work over the matter in peace, and even succeeded for a few minutes until there was a knock on the door.

“General Kolbeinn, Mister President.”

“Thanks. Show him in.”

Sartori let the Supreme Allied Commander of Extrasolar Defence stand in front of the desk for a few seconds while he finished signing his most recent letter. Kolbeinn had lent his approval to letting Hephaestus have the nukes, on the grounds that they needed the materials from asteroid mining in order to expand the fleet: Sartori wasn’t happy about that.

He scrawled his autograph at the bottom of the letter, sealed it in an envelope, pressed it deliberately down on the top of his out tray, and finally looked up at the general. Kolbeinn was staring blankly at nothing through the window, face totally locked down and not so much as a bead of sweat showing. That was the look of a man who’d prepared himself for an absolute flaying.

“…I think the Secretary of Defence wants your head.”

Kolbeinn didn’t reply, though the subtlest shift said he was paying rapt attention.

“…Exactly how much trouble could this cause, Greg? What can they do with a nuke in space?”

Kolbeinn swung a folder out from under his arm and placed it on the desk. “…A lot, sir. They could certainly destroy the Ceres facility and its shipyards.”

“Is that what you think they’ll do?”

“We don’t even know who ‘they’ are yet, sir. But given the lack of implants, our working theory is somebody at Hephaestus has APA sympathies. If so, breaking one of the big extraplanetary ventures and crippling our ability to expand and maintain the space fleet would fit with their stated objectives…” He cleared his throat. “…And if I’m right, then we have to assume that the APA has somebody very high up in our security services, too.”

“…Sit down.”

Kolbeinn did so, perching on the edge of one of the two large cream sofas that Sartori had brought into the oval office.

“…Who?” Sartori asked.

“We’re talking… director of the CIA, that sort of level. With a substantial cabal of support lower down the pole, too.”

Sartori turned his head and cursed in a whisper. “Jesus.”

“Not completely without precedent, I’m afraid.”

“You’re certain, now?”

“No. I can’t be. But with the skill they’ve shown and the resources they’ve used… At the very least, somebody high up in the APA knows a lot about the trade.”

The ‘trade.’ Funny how a word so honest and hardworking had become so ingrained in the intelligence community. They had tradecraft, terms of art, a whole lexicon of honest jargon to describe the business of navigating the grayest areas.

Sartori meanwhile had been handed the equivalent of a traveller’s handbook and pushed off the boat in unfamiliar territory. And now he was facing the possibility that people he’d appointed, maybe even somebody in his own Cabinet, was a bona fide terrorist ringleader.

…A terrorist ringleader with a nuke, now.

Who could he trust? Did he start with the man in front of him? Had Kolbeinn merely been outwitted, or could he be complicit? God, the Hierarchy was easy next to this: stick an ultrasound wand to the suspect’s head and you got a clear red-or-green, yes-or-no, binary indicator of whether you were dealing with an Igraen agent.

But this? When the enemy was just as human in the head as anybody else?

“…We’ve definitely ruled out the Hierarchy?”

“There’s not a single person in the asteroid belt with an implant in their head. I’d swear to it.”

“Not what I asked, Greg. Could they have a sympathizer?”

Kolbeinn scowled. “…I can’t rule it out.”

“But you think the APA angle is more likely,” Sartori finished for him. He watched Kolbeinn wrestle with the statement for a second before finally nodding.

“…We’re gambling with lives at this point, Mister President. A lot of ‘em. If I could give you solid truth and facts, we’d’ve caught the bastards already. The best I can do is play the odds, and I think… yeah. The odds lie with the APA.”

“And I have to decide where the odds lie on who is and isn’t likely to have APA sympathies. The spotlight falls on you too, general.”

“…Yes sir. It has to.”

Well. Either he was trustworthy or he was truly peerless at deception. And Sartori had to trust somebody. May as well start with the man who’d delivered the news.

“…Alright. Get military intelligence on this, people you know and trust personally. Follow the APA angle as far as it leads, keep it as quiet as you can. And I want every package we gave Hephaestus confiscated, and locked up safe and secure in Minot as soon as possible.”

“Yes sir.”

“And… Kolbeinn?”

“Yes, sir?”

“If I even think of letting civilians within sniffing distance of a nuke ever again, I want you to invoke the twenty-fifth.”

Kolbeinn finally relaxed a little and a small ghost of a laugh flickered across his face. “Heh! …Yes sir.”

“That will be all, general.”

Kolbeinn left the office, and Sartori found to his mild surprise that he had a moment’s peaceful alone time to get his thoughts in order. He leaned back in his seat, stretched, then stood up and took a stroll around the office to relieve his legs and back.

If he was being dispassionate, he had to admit it looked like the Hephaestus Consortium had simply been badly outplayed, rather than incompetent. If the CIA and military investigators who’d gone flocking up to Ceres to interview everybody, pick through the base and ship computer systems and whatever else they’d done hadn’t been able to immediately identify the thief and recover the physics package, that meant worrying things.

The APA? The APA had proven to be remarkably competent. Orchestrating multiple simultaneous attacks in several cities in different countries, continents and even planets wasn’t child’s play. And from what he’d seen, Kolbeinn was completely right that somebody high up in the APA was the real deal and not just a college kid full of revolutionary zeal.

But did that translate to being able to steal a nuke right out from under the most intense scrutiny? Sartori wasn’t so sure. That kind of thing smacked more of the kind of bullshit that the Hierarchy could achieve. They were known to employ temporal manipulation technology, after all. The captured flying saucer at Scotch Creek was packed full of stasis technology along its underside. And with stasis technology and God-knew-what else at their disposal, a heist like that might even be easy for them.

But they’d been so certain that there were no longer any Hierarchy assets inside the Sol Containment Field. And there were certainly no biodrones on Ceres.

Reflecting ruefully on what episodes like this must do to the lines in his face and a hairline that wasn’t so much receding as in full rout, he decided what he needed was a coffee, a sandwich, and something nice and simple to tackle. Like, say, a refugee crisis or a supreme court nomination.

Or a state visit…maybe not. Those seemed to involve either too much anodyne conversation and false smiling, or in near-broken ribs and a gut-splitting feast if he visited the Gao.

…It occurred to him that what he really wanted was to spend a weekend soaking up the sun somewhere. Take just forty hours off to commit to some good old-fashioned relaxation. Read a book, have a few drinks. There never seemed to be a good opportunity.

Maybe he should make one.


Date Point: 15y9m1w AV
Clan Whitecrest starship Tearing Dusk, Rvzrk System, Domain Space

Regaari

There was little point in blockading an invaded planet when the invaders were using jump technology to supply their forces on the ground, but the Dominion were doing it anyway. Their cordon of war platforms was enormous, blanketing the system in sensor coverage and warning broadcasts, but Regaari knew what Domain war-platforms were capable of and wasn’t impressed. One V-class human frigate and its contingent of Bulldog drones would have been enough to completely blind the entire force with ECM.

It wasn’t that the Rrrrtktktkpch were stupid. Far from it, they were every inch as smart as Gaoians. But they were… staid. Slow to adopt new technologies. And, frankly, constrained by the need to make their technology compatible with the needs of their more numerous but much less brainy cousins the Vz’ktk.

The Allied fleet, on the other hand….

Most of it had returned to regular duty, presumably on a hair trigger to jump back in should they be needed. HMS Violent, HMS Myrmidon and USS San Diego had remained, supported by a close patrol of five firebirds and two Clan One-Fang ships; the Sprinting Vengeance and the Lancing Tempest.

The Tearing Dusk was something unlike every other ship in the system. It was built around sensor invisibility and emissions control, to the point where even its warp drive was tuned to produce only minimal ripples in spacetime. At speeds below one kilolight, it was effectively indistinguishable from background fluctuations, and thanks to wormhole-router comms it didn’t have to broadcast EM radiation to communicate with other ships. That had neatly filled one of the holes in creating a truly stealthy starship.

They were going to need that stealth to get close enough for the drop over Rvzrk’s south pole. They’d broken stealth only once, to transfer Father Genshi over to HMS Myrmidon where he was now liaising with the Fleet Intelligence Center.

Naturally, he was worried. He too had wanted to take to the field to…well, if not precisely redeem himself, at least regain some of his own self-respect. Unfortunately, Champion Thurrsto had more or less thrashed him into a broken heap, which meant his physical recovery would be a slow, painful process.

“The timing on this will be tight. The drones should create a window for you, but no more than a few minutes.”

Regaari duck-nodded solemnly as his techs checked his suit over one last time. He was about to spend an indefinite length of time in it, after all: everything needed to be perfect.

At least it wasn’t an EV-MASS. Rather than crushing pressure, the Whitecrest suit was just… snug. He could, and had, worn it for weeks at a time. He would come out of it at the far end with stinking matted fur and a profound need to roll around in a dust bath, but at least his body wouldn’t be aching, bruised and half-starved.

“That will be enough,” he promised.

“Good. Waiting on your go.”

Suit checks took another ten minutes, and passed without incident, during which time the Tearing Dusk inserted itself into as low a polar orbit as the captain dared without straying inside the Hunter wormhole suppression field.

Finally, there was no putting it off any longer even if Regaari had wanted to. This was a test. It might prove to be more than he could handle, despite the bravado he’d shown back in High Mountain Fortress, but at that moment he had a giddy feeling in his stomach that was almost intoxicating. Part fear, part… something else.

He took a deep breath. “Father. Cub wants to play.”

The techs withdrew from the bay and left him alone in the airlock. The front ramp smoothly mawed open, leaving him separated from infinity by nothing more than gossamer fields of captive electrons.

“Be good. Mother’s watching.” Genshi sounded like he had more of a shake in his voice than Regaari did. “Cousins making mischief.”

Regaari had a tactical view of the orbits up on a little screen to his left. He watched it intently as six bulldogs peeled away from their formation with HMS Violent and zipped into a polar orbit, where they began viciously strobing the Hunter sensor net at its weakest spot.

“Mother’s distracted.”

Tearing Dusk’s pilot answered. “Watch me pounce.”

Orbital insertion took less than a heartbeat. The planet, from Regaari’s perspective, had been a distant blue circle one second, and now it was a flat blue expanse close enough to touch.

“Cub can play,” Genshi declared, confirming that they were in position for the drop.

This was it. Regaari keyed his own radio. “Watch me jump,” he said, dropped to four-paw, and slapped the large button on the bulkhead.

The forcefield dropped, and all the air in the lock exploded out into the void and carried him with it.

He felt a thump in his whole body as Tearing Dusk went to warp, briefly generating intense gravimetric shear that managed to rattle him even from hundreds of meters away. Then he was alone. Oh, he knew that he was surrounded by a bodyguard of ECM drones, but the nearest of them was probably hundreds of kilometers away. Already, he was decelerating into a steep entry trajectory, but it would be a minute or two before he kissed the first trace of atmosphere.

This moment in a HELLNO was always eerie. He was shooting along at incredible speeds, but the sheer scale of it all completely obfuscated that fact. When he oriented himself toward “down,” the fastest movement he could see was the languid dance of clouds.

That was the deceptive part, though. It was impossible to detect the moment where he finally realized that the world was getting bigger, but it still dawned on him that it had. Then there was a faint flicker of light in his peripheral vision. Then another, and another, until they merged into a constant stream of bright plasma that his helmet protectively dimmed to spare his vision.

This was the moment of peak hazard. Hopefully, the Hunters were still blinded. If they weren’t… he was on a completely predictable trajectory and surrounded by a brilliant, obvious halo of opaque plasma. If they intercepted him, he’d never see it coming.

There was nothing to do except relax and take solace in the fact that if the worst did happen, he would feel nothing. No pain, no fear, no impending helplessness. He would simply…cease. There were worse things than that.

He didn’t cease. After several unending minutes, the plasma flickered and faded more abruptly than it had first begun, and the view below cleared. He was still high enough up to just make out the planet’s curvature, but it was almost flat now.

He angled down as steep as he dared. Too shallow and he’d be high in the air and visible when the drones were finally destroyed or driven off. Too steep though, and he’d either inflict savage G-forces on himself when he came to level out, or leave himself stranded out over the polar ocean, too far out to glide to land. Judging the difference was a fine margin.

Fortunately, he’d practiced this too many times to get it wrong.

The clouds came up to meet him. He plunged into them doing a hefty multiple of the speed of sound in this planet’s atmosphere and felt the jolt as his suit extended its forcefield wings to their widest, slimmest extent. He was a supersonic glider now, and riding a knife-edge between bleeding off speed and maintaining his altitude.

The coastline was gentle and sloped easily up into a kind of chilly rolling lowlands dotted with trees and fields. A long meandering escarpment to his left was his target and he slipped sideways into the updraft its steep inner surface generated. The result was turbulent, but he had a long way to travel inland and no means of powered flight. He’d be riding a tight line of lift, speed, altitude and stealth the whole way.

It took hours. Supersonic gliders didn’t remain supersonic for long, and once he was below mach he had to claw every thermal and updraft he could find, creeping his way inland toward the target. It was still much faster than covering the same distance on foot, however, and the stealthing in his suit made him basically undetectable.

The best thermals came off towns and cities. He got some good recon images of those as he went over, and got the general impression that life there seemed to be on lockdown: armed and armored Vz’ktk and their vehicles had set up everywhere, and the civilians seemed to have been relocated into defensible safe zones—not a bad idea in theory. In practice, they were basically gift-wrapping the Hunters’ next meals.

There’d been some debate about contacting the ground commanders and letting them know about his mission and the support in orbit, maybe dropping some message capsules and propaganda as he flew over. Both Genshi and Caruthers had felt that without knowing how secure the Domain military’s comms were, that was probably a bad idea. While it might buy him allies, it might also get him exposed and caught. In the end, they’d decided against it.

Finally, however, he could glide no more. There was a long stretch between towns where some sinking cold air robbed him of height and there were no convenient ridges or heat sources to find a boost. He banked his fields, came almost to a dead stop a ways above ground, and dropped the last twenty meters on a cushion of air. No parachute to hide, no mess to clean up.

There was smoke on the horizon now. He was twenty kilometers from where he’d hoped to land, but still well inside the acceptable margin. Infiltrating through the Hunter line was going to be a serious test, but he was up to it.

For the first time since leaving the ship, he broke comms silence to send an update. He was carrying a thin-packed laser retroreflector, the most secure method they had for communicating with ships in orbit. Deploying it was as simple as tugging it out of his harness and flipping it open with a snap of his arm and wrist.

“Father. Cub had fun. Playing sneak-and-hide now.”

He waited a couple of seconds for light-lag, and could hear the relief in Genshi’s voice when the reply arrived.

“Mother didn’t notice. Cubs raid the kitchen.”

“Watch me play.”

Satisfied with a job well done, Regaari tuned his suit’s forcefields to charge off solar energy, packed his reflector, then turned toward the smoke and opened the seals on his mask so he could sniff the air. The wind smelled of ruin and blood.

He headed toward it.


Date Point: 15y9m1w2d AV
The Dog House Gym, Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Julian Esticitty

“Dude,” enthused ‘Horse, “You lookin’ at yourself? See the difference hobbling around on that foot made? See how you stand up better now? You move and lift better, too…”

Julian had to admit, it made a pretty striking difference. The old pictures Adam had taken at the start of this looked just fine if a fella didn’t know what he was looking for. Except, now that Julian had experienced the difference he could see the how the little things added up, and they’d genuinely been hampering his ability to move.

He’d healed up fast after his month on the Crude, found himself able to move like the wind. It was amazing, the trees felt just like a jungle gym! He’d agreed to Ava’s offer of a Laid Bare shoot right as he was riding a personal high about all that. At pretty much the same time, Ambassador Rockafeller came through with Julian’s appointment, officially making him a special envoy to the Ten’Gewek. That was good to have because it came with a paycheck, a budget, official government authority…and along with that, serious responsibility, too.

That appointment really drove home something Julian had not really internalized: he was in this for the long haul, definitely years, probably for life. When he’d asked the ambassador who might eventually take his place, Rockefeller had just laughed good-naturedly and asked, “who else could?”

That had prompted a long, serious conversation with Al and Xiù, and a bunch of his friends. He’d dreaded what that all might mean for him, honestly. He wasn’t sure he liked his options.

In the end, near the end of his month of rehab, it was a potentially serious injury he’d earned while visiting Akyawentuo that finally brought things to a head. He’d been jumping around with Vemik and managed to twist his left ankle with a bad slip on a slick rock; his control was improving but not quite perfect. It was a bad twist too, so bad that Vemik ended up having to carry Julian back to the village. That stung his pride, but that wasn’t the part that got his attention.

The bit that really grabbed him by the hair was Vemik’s surprise that such an injury was even possible. The Sky-Thinker had never personally encountered anyone who had hurt themselves that way. None of the Singers knew of one except their elder, who in all her years had seen such a thing exactly once before…and then it had been paired with a fall from a tree.

They’d asked him how long it would take him to heal. Julian had almost answered it would take a couple of weeks maybe, assuming nothing had been broken…but then something in the back of his mind tickled at him. He knew the modern answer was actually “a couple of hours.” Sitting around and waiting for it to heal naturally was downright stupid nowadays.

So, he’d answered along those lines. “I think it’ll be fine by tomorrow.” That seemed to satisfy them, so when Julian hobbled back through the gate, he’d paid a visit to the local clinic, and honesty he’d ended up sitting in the waiting room longer than the actual treatment took. The staff took his vitals, made him try a few different scales before they would believe the number. He went into the doctor’s office, who quickly examined the ankle, skimmed his medical history—some raised eyebrows, there—and prepared a hypodermic needle.

The medicine, of course, turned out to be related to Crude.

It wasn’t the same stuff Adam used, of course. The civilian medicine was made to target specific use-cases and had other stuff along for the ride. In Julian’s case, that came with painkillers, an anti-inflammatory, some nutrients to speed healing, apparently something that was good for bones…he wasn’t a medical tech.

An hour later, it was like nothing had happened at all.

So: he had several lifetime commitments, all at once. His women, his children, the Ten’Gewek. All of them utterly depended on his good health. Medicine had become straight spacemagic when he wasn’t paying attention; his left foot attested to that.

Where did that leave him? Besides snowed under.

Okay. List the things he had to be. He had to be just stupid, crazy strong. Check. He had to be healthy for decades. That, apparently, was also a check? But was it really?

But did he also have to be Ten’Gewek unbreakable? And if he could, should he?

He’d considered staying on the Crude after his month was up. That was technically an option now. Heck, his new employers were quite keen on him taking full advantage, if for no other reason then the longevity and health benefits. And after taking the leap and getting his foot regrown… or before that, after taking the leap and doing the Rite of Manhood….

It seemed like his life lately had involved a lot of finally deciding to say ‘fuck you’ to his comfort zones because there were more important things to worry about.

Stepping on the clinic’s scales was an unavoidable reminder of one of them. He was…fuckin’ big. Like, modern-day strongman big. Walsh big! Well, at least…before he left for HEAT, anyway. Which was still goddamned huge. Aptitude or no, being the kind of big and strong he was these days couldn’t be completely risk free, could it? And it wasn’t like he could go back, or even should. But he didn’t want to, like, die of a heart attack when he was fifty, either.

But on the other hand, if he had the talent to ride this dragon, shouldn’t he? Shouldn’t he represent humanity as best as he possibly could, in the way the Ten’Gewek respected most?

But wasn’t a big part of what they were doing about getting them to respect a human’s natural strengths, too? How could he do that with a straight face if he were eventually walking around like another Beef? He was pretty sure Al and Xiù wouldn’t be happy with that, either.

He’d felt himself pulled in ten directions at once, and finally resolved to ask Adam about it. Really, there probably wasn’t really anyone else to ask, besides him or his friends.

Adam’s advice had been surprisingly even-keeled.

“For you? I‘m gonna say you really shouldn’t, bro. I mean… it depends on what you’re looking to do, but I don’t think you should get any bigger.”

“…Are you feeling okay?” Julian joked.

“Bro! Right now you’re a genuinely huge fuckin’ dude, but you’re just, like, regular huge. Much more and you’re gonna start gettin’ into, like, HEAT freak territory. You cross a point where you can’t walk away, dude. That ain’t for you, trust me.”

Julian looked down at himself, and nodded. Then he glanced at Adam and nodded a little more firmly. Adam’s physique was…well…

He was in fact a very good-looking man. But that was tempered by being so grotesquely broad and hypermuscular that he was edging against barely looking human at all.

Julian didn’t have that problem. Hell, he looked fucking heroic rather than freakish, like something out of a comic book. That was a heck of a feeling. Adam on the other hand was pretty much straight up the Hulk. That… wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Al and Xiù both said they thought Julian was sexier, and if he was being totally honest with himself, he liked feeling sexy.

“Right. Good. But I’m still worried about, uh, getting hurt. That makes us…well, me, look bad.”

“The medicine healed you up right away, bro!”

“I know, but…”

Adam sighed and clapped a giant mitt on Julian’s shoulder. “…Okay. Look. If you wanna take body hardening as far as you can go, that’s doable. I understand that for you a lot more than going full Beef. Just don’t do what I did, okay? Doing this made me literally wider. It’s thickened my bones, it’s made me taller. When I enlisted, I was only like five foot seven. Now? I’m several inches taller than you. The only reason I went that far was ‘cuz we really do need a few people like me to do this mission, and like you, I’ve got the genetics to do it. So lemme ask you this? Does your mission need you as a freak? Do you want to be?”

“Well…jeez, you put it that way, no.”

“Exactly. Like, remember Tiny? He’s gonna be arriving at the unit pretty soon, and guess what? He decided he ain’t gonna bulk up too much more. He’s got the ability, and if he wanted to he could get as big as Rebar was, right? He ain’t gonna. Which, hey! That’s great. He’s gonna be a lot more like Sikes than Titan. ‘Know why?”

“…’Cuz, what? You guys don’t need it?”

“Eh, more like, if you’re growin’ past a quarter-ton and you still don’t think you’re strong enough, you’d better think damn good and hard before you push through and let the Crude take you further. Because it can, and once it does, your body will be changed forever. So honestly, don’t undersell yourself. You’re actually a bit stronger than Murray, you know that?”

“Wait, really?”

“Yeah, and he definitely ain’t bottom of the list, either. The big difference is that Murray can move a lot faster, and the rest of the older Lads’re all way better conditioned than you. Like, to the point they can shrug off a beating that would straight kill you, or run a marathon in three hundred pounds of EV-MASS and gear. That is what Crude can do. If you wanna be that kinda fit, we can do that. But before you say yes,” Adam warned, “keep in mind that you’re still hardening up yourself. Let’s see how far you can take things yourself first, okay? You’re barely thirty, you’ve got years left in your prime.”

“…You really think I can do this?”

““Dude. You’ll be fine, trust me. You did pretty much on your own what almost nobody can do with the best drugs there are. So stop worrying! I ain’t lying when I say you’re basically made for this. And honestly, I kinda wanna see just how far a man can really go without the spacemagic. Maybe, how far I coulda gone, if I hadn’t joined the HEAT.”

“…That does sound good,” Julian admitted.

“Arright. For today though, we’re just gonna keep doing what we were doin’. If you wanna change direction, I’m gonna hafta think it through first…”

“…Okay,” Julian agreed. “I did have, uh, one favor to ask, though. It’s honestly a little embarrassing but, well…”

“Name it!”

“Ava wants me to do a shoot.”

Adam grinned. “You wanna get super ripped?”

“…I guess? No. Mostly, I wanna not embarrass myself.”

“Bro you’re not gonna… Eh. Never mind. We can do that! All we’d be doing is just that conditioning you were worried about, really. Gotta warn you though, prep diet is rough. You’re gonna be hangry as shit the last week or two.”

…Hell. Well, as long as it wasn’t anything too weird. “Sure.”

“Awesome. I’m gonna make you her best model yet!”

Somehow, those were not comforting words…

Fortunately, whatever new and creative tortures that might involve were for another day. For now, Julian grunted himself through his regular dose of pain and, after saying goodnight, caught a cab home. He was…a bit too spent to jog thanks to Adam the sadist.

Folctha had put into practice an idea regarding electric vehicles and self-driving cars that had kinda just been “what-if” thinking back on Earth. Getting a car to Cimbrean was a big deal: they took up a lot of valuable space on the jump platform, and with 90% of Folctha’s population living in Folctha itself rather than the surrounding area, there wasn’t a whole lot of need for vehicles. Most folks walked.

And the road network was regular, well-planned, and self-driving technology had come a real long way since before first contact, as had electric vehicles.

The result was that nearly all the cars in Folctha belonged to the cab company. There were government vehicles and the Byron Group’s fleet of company cars, one of which was parked in Julian’s driveway and driven to work by Allison whenever she went down to Chiune Station. There were a few private cars too, and Al had seriously considered importing one…but no.

The cab company didn’t have any drivers. It had custodians. Half a dozen guys whose job was basically just to keep them clean inside and out, plus the guy who owned the company and paid them. To fit through the Array in an economical way, the cabs themselves were essentially a battery sled with a sleek plastic chassis on top, which itself was flat-pack and assembled in the garage. Somebody had called them “Ikea Cars” and the name stuck.

On the consumer side, the system was way cheaper than owning a car would have been. No road tax, no insurance, no gas, no need to change the tires or whatever. It cost Julian like forty pence to ride from the Doghouse to home in Palace Lake, and because the whole system was in communication with itself he didn’t have to wait at a single red light or deal with even one idiot in the wrong lane.

The single-rider models were a bit cramped, though. They cost almost nothing to hire so it wasn’t like he could complain; if he wanted shoulder room, he could pay a pound extra for the Premium option of a properly-sized car, affectionately known as a “JohnnyCab” after some old movie about explosions on mars, or something.

He probably would have, if the Ikea Car hadn’t at least had plenty of headroom.

And they pulled up right outside the front door, right in the spot where Allison’s company car usually was. He levered himself out, swiped his phone to pay, and heard the car pull away making a quiet melodic humming noise as it moved on to its next job. Apparently somebody had decided that electric cars were too silent and needed to make a noise, and now manufacturers were touting the fact that the silent car hummed as it drove as a feature.

He shook his head at the thought and let himself in with a smile. The kitchen turned out to be full of smoke. Ramsey and Tristan must be practicing their cooking again.

They were. Xiù was being the most angel-hearted teacher, and both looked like they’d basically murdered a bunny or something. No worries, Julian knew what to do.

“Hey fellas!” He scooped them up into a sweaty hug. “Burned broccoli? Did you forget the butter?”

“…It smells like farts on fire…” Tristan muttered. Clearly he was annoyed at himself.

“Could be a lot worse. I went ‘round a dude’s house one time in school, he’d left three chicken breasts in the fridge for, like, two months. That stunk!”

“So do you,” Xiù interjected, but she gave him a kiss anyway. “You know the drill, go shower.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Good boy.” She gave him a twinkling smile and ruefully examined the twisted black mess that should have gone with dinner. “…okay, so let’s find out what we’ve got in to replace this…” she said, dropping back into teacher mode.

“What about Al? Her car wasn’t outside?”

“She got called up to Chiune on some kinda emergency with the ship. Something about the onboard heat recycler oscillating.”

Julian frowned as he tried to figure that one out. “You mean, like, it was cycling on and off incorrectly, or…?”

“Nope! I mean it was literally oscillating right on its mount. She sent me a video.”

“…How…?”

“You got me. Anyway, she said they’re not leaving until they’ve fixed it and that means re-sealing the whole refrigeration system, so… she might not be home until five in the morning, maybe.”

“Urgh.”

“Yeah. There was something else too, what was it…? Your meal prep? I’m almost done for the next few days…Maybe something else…” Xiù paused and tapped her chin dramatically.

“Babe, I see through you. You wanna keep teasing me? Maybe you need a big sweaty hug too!”

She giggled and overacted suddenly having her memory jogged. “…Oh yeah! I’m pregnant!”

“–!” He couldn’t do much but gawp happily for a moment. She beamed at him, and dug the proof out of her pocket in the form of a positive test.

Nevertheless, he couldn’t quite bring himself to believe it. “You’re kidding!”

“Nope! Well, I’m not. I get why Al wanted to have a scan before she told you, now… part of me doesn’t quite believe this thing.” She considered the test ruefully, then pocketed it again.

“You’re still eating broccoli? Al can’t stand the smell of it right now…”

She shrugged. “I’m fine. Maybe I won’t be in a couple weeks, but right now.. Better eat it while I can still enjoy it, right? Anyway! You: shower, stinky.”

“Going, going…”

In fact, he could barely contain himself and spent the whole shower bouncing and grinning giddily under the water rather than properly washing. They’d been trying for a while now, a lot longer than it had taken with Allison, and even though they hadn’t discussed it, there’d been some… concern. Xiù had gone through a lot, after all. Hell, she’d been nervejammed that one time, and who knew what that did to a body in the long run?

He’d lately started worrying about himself, too. Was it actually his fault? That had done a lot to stoke doubts about his, as Xiù called it, “slabgical journey.” He was being very careful and doing exactly what the smart people around him said to do, but…

It felt beyond good to have those doubts and fears put firmly to bed.

He had a family. Well, no. He had a family on the way…No. He had one right now and it was going to grow, and maybe it was a misfit family, with alien gorillas for uncles and furry clawed aliens for aunts, and literally tons of fun with surrogate HEAT brothers to help out…

But it was theirs.

Suddenly, he was kinda glad to be in the shower. They were happy tears, but he wanted to keep them to himself.

…His stomach grumbled, and Julian chuckled; if there was anything gym rats could be said to have in common, it was an obsession with food. He stepped out of the shower and toweled off, threw on some basketball shorts and padded downstairs.

Tonight smelled like broiled salmon with lemon sauce. One of his favorites! Not even Amanda could spoil it by showing up early, having come to pick up the boys. He briefly considered putting on a shirt or something but…nah. She needed to loosen up. Had been! The boys were happier, things were more… relaxed now that Jacob was on Earth and communicating via letters and his lawyers…

Not perfect. Never perfect with the Buehler family. Amanda had always been part of the problem for her children, even if her husband had been worse… But things were better. She was better, or at least had learned how to accept that it was their house and their rules.

And hell. It wouldn’t be a real family if things were perfect, would it?

They said grace, and tucked in.


Date Point: 15y9m1w2d AV
Ark Complex, Planet Ordinate, Corti Directorate Border Territories

First Director Shanl

The Ark.

It was, in many ways, the crowning achievement of Corti construction and engineering. Well-hidden on an out-of-the-way and unclaimed class Seven planet, but even if the target world had been a thriving metropolis, the pedestrians would have blissfully walked all over the Ark bunker without ever knowing it was there. Its presence on the surface was almost nonexistent.

Impressive, when one considered the scale involved. This wasn’t just a short-term measure to preserve the future of the Corti, this was the crucible in which their imperfections would be burned away and the species bred anew in its entirety. It was enormous, cavernous. The bunker complex extended for kilometers underground in all directions, and down to a significant depth, too. All excavated by a swarm of insectoid mining drones the size of a Corti’s cupped hands.

In fact, the swarm had carved out rather more room than was necessary, on the grounds that redundancy and room for expansion were both valuable and that it cost no additional resources. The work to move all the equipment, machinery, power cables, furnishings, network infrastructure, systems, utilities, ventilation, plumbing and security was proceeding nicely, and the first conception labs were already online and staffed.

If First Director Shanl had been inclined to take excessive pride in anything, she would have felt it about the Ark. It brought together all of the most advanced engineering techniques the Directorate had ever invented, and combined them in one facility.

Of course, once it was built, that left the not insignificant matter of reviewing the Corti genetic baseline. As it turned out, there was an embarrassing amount of room for improvement.

First of all, macroscopic physicality. The Corti body was small, delicate, and energy-efficient. It was there to maintain and move around an impressive brain, a job that it did to the bare minimum standard… but why settle for the bare minimum? There was no logic in permitting physical atrophy to endanger the mind.

The three extant Deathworld sophonts were positive proof. Not even the slimmest Gaoian could be considered weak or delicate by any reasonable standard, even if they generally fell far short of the standard set by Humans and Ten’Gewek. They had keen intellects and maintained an impressive set of physical instincts as well. Perhaps this was part of their Hierarchy design, but that was unimportant. The same pattern was present in all three species.

Then there was the immune system. All three were impressive. The Ten’Gewek immune system in particular was a masterwork of evolved perfection, and the Humans’ long history of urban squalor had honed theirs into something frankly terrifying. Both species lived with pre-cancerous cell mutations as a daily fact of life and never noticed, as their own immune systems simply devoured the aberrant tissue on sight.

The Gaoian immune system, though not quite on the same level, was remarkably robust if one ignored its odd susceptibility to fungal-form attack. Not an ideal quality for the mycovorous Corti.

But then there were hormones and it was here that the true genius of Deathworlder evolution really flowered. Here, it was hard to judge who could be deemed superior, since all three species evolved along radically different adaptive paths.

Humans had crisis chemicals on a hair trigger. Adrenaline was hardly unique, but humans produced a lot of it, alongside something called Cortisol—a linguistic coincidence—that greatly enhanced their brain’s ability to use sugars and flooded their systems with regenerative chemistry. A stressed human got better at practically everything, not worse.

Gaoians didn’t have quite the same capacity to respond to instant stress like that. Instead, they responded to long-term stimuli to a degree that was frankly alarming. Normally slim and efficient beings, prolonged stressors could cause radical adaptation in their intense, usually short lifetimes. Not only that, said adaptation varied enormously by male degree, allowing a dangerous environment to produce a huge variety of responses among the more disposable male population. The secretive Rites of the more prestigious Clans took full advantage of this trait, and through prolonged (and sometimes lethal) trials, they transformed young cubs into adults impressively suited to their work.

That in-built malleability came at a cost, however: shortened average lifespans. The pinnacle of Corti technology could perhaps extend that by half, but after that…

…Then there were the Ten’Gewek, who were practically defined by their alarmingly high levels of testosterone and their bodily response to it—even their females. Strength, hardiness, and aggressive boisterousness was intrinsic to their nature. They were naturally far more robust than the Humans, grew to be much quicker, stronger, and more agile, and could bounce back from serious injury with amazing speed. Their impressive bodies were controlled by impressive minds as well, making them proof positive that a species could have it all…

…As long as they had the calories to power themselves. The price the Ten’Gewek paid for their bodies was a constant need for very high quality food, especially rich meat, fat, and bones on which to gnaw.

All three species could field astonishingly physical specimens. Intriguingly, the most arguably gifted specimens their kinds could muster happened to be close friends, by all reports were roughly equal in both capability and intelligence, and their abilities were rapidly converging with each other. That implied many things, particularly that there might well be hard limits to what chemistry and evolution could achieve, regardless of an origin Deathworld’s rating.

The Corti had stopped themselves an unacceptably long way short of those limits.

The objective wasn’t to create some muscle-bound lump of swaggering meat, of course. The idea was to find which features of those three species were most compatible with existing Corti biology and strive to achieve a vision of what Corti might be like had Origin been a deathworld, and had the early Directorate not focused so obsessively on cerebral capacity at the expense of physical capability.

Shanl had seen the preliminary genetic projections and concept simulations, and was impressed. Most impressive, however, was the specimen library. They had thousands of samples from both Gaoian and Human sources, including discreet, voluntary submissions from arguably the most impressive among them across many categories of achievement. Nofl had quite thoroughly earned his diligent reputation, there. The library was a unique and valuable asset whose curator—a blue-banner named Glona—was giving an enthusiastic tour.

Strange. Very recently, such naked enthusiasm for a project would have been absolutely contrary to the Directorate’s goals. Now, though…

In any case, Glona was exhibiting the casefiles for their most accomplished specimens. Thinkers, poets, great leaders and athletes. The Great Father and ‘Warhorse’ were prominent among them, but pride of place was reserved for the two rarest and most recent additions to their collection: a pair of Ten’Gewek males named Vemik and Yan.

“We were able to obtain comprehensive samples from the pair while they were exploring Folctha. Consent, insofar as they are educated enough to grant such, has been obtained. If the Director would observe their genetic modeling?”

Shanl nodded while Glona called up the holographic displays. The Great Father’s and Warhorse’s models disappeared, and true-scale renderings of the Ten’Gewek males in their idealized primes shimmered into place. She had to admit, they were impressive indeed, even in the rarefied company of the previous specimens. The software wasn’t perfect, of course, but it could project a reasonably dependable forecast for what the pair could become, especially since it was calibrated with medical scans. Yan was singular. His enormous shoulders seemed almost as wide as he was tall, making him a stocky, athletic hulk of sinewy muscle and bone. But so too was Vemik; years from now, if provided the opportunity to fully develop and assuming he transformed into a Given-Man, he would flower into a being formidable enough to humble Yan.

If. Exactly what triggered that transformation was currently unknown, and would require many more samples to study.

“Theirs is an impressive genome,” Glona noted. “Impressive, yet also constrained.”

“How so?”

“Their every metabolic process is optimized around energy abundance. They are, as the Humans might put it, ‘sports cars.’ This gives them unmatched advantages both physically and cognitively, but not without cost. That cost is they are unable to adapt to severe calorie restrictions. Unlike the humans, they are almost utterly lacking in conservative metabolic pathways. This is so severe that, in the right circumstances, they can starve to death in as little as three days.”

“…And I thought humans were supposed to have overactive metabolisms.” Shanl mused.

“They do,” Glona confirmed. “But their systems have evolved to make them much more adaptable to available resources. They can take advantage of plenty quite well, and survive through dearth better than perhaps any other species besides the Gaoians, who also evolved around scarcity.”

“But the Humans achieve both performance and economy?”

“With significant effort, yes. Their most extreme examples on either end seem able to match anything the Gaoians or Ten’Gewek can champion, and can adapt to new environments more quickly than their counterparts. Several such specimens are available for interview on Folctha.”

“And which traits are we selecting from each?”

Glona made a hand gesture to indicate that the question was flawed. “Genetic engineering like this isn’t as simple as splicing in a gene and expecting it to work perfectly. A Ten’Gewek’s raw strength, for instance, is the product of a complicated interaction between several constellations of alleles, many of which aren’t directly related to muscle formation but instead encode for the growth of hormone glands, for example.”

“Nevertheless, there must be traits you are more eager to pursue than others,” Shanl clarified patiently.

“We thought a general increase in height, a modestly sturdy build, and muscle mass similar to a Human of comparable stature, along with the necessary changes to skeletal composition. The particular collagen/hydroxyapatite matrix shared by Humans and Ten’Gewek is a remarkably durable composite, which we’re using. We decided against Gaoian bones. While similar, their developmental pattern is more hormonally influenced than the other species. This usually produces a bone that is optimized towards lighter weight and lower metabolic cost, but which can mature with true Deathworlder tensile strength and density given appropriate stimulus. However, the genetics that allow for such variability are too unpredictable for our project, and said stimulation incurs an unacceptably high metabolic cost anyway.”

“Are we excluding Gaoian genetics, then?”

“No, we are simply optimizing for costs and risk. In fact we intend to use Gaoian musculature. It can achieve reasonably close performance with considerably less metabolic consequence. Like their bones, development can be hormonally influenced, but in this case that influence works much like the other two; testosterone is the primary signal. This makes their development much more predictable, and gives us the ability to scale and match brawn, if necessary. It also allows us to retard early development while the brain is still forming. If we used Human or especially Ten’Gewek muscles, the early nutritional demands on the system would be prohibitive.”

“But surely, if they can manage it…”

“It is a system, remember. We would necessarily need to stray too far from what a Corti is to make it work. This is a balancing act above all things. Our mandate is to create a better Corti, not to create the ultimate Deathworlder.”

“Why not?”

“There is no need for it, nor is there any benefit in antagonizing the three Deathworld species we wish to ally with. Further, doing so would transform the Corti into an inferior copy of them, rather than something uniquely valuable. Against the Hierarchy, that is paramount.”

Glona called up a full projection of a creature that was unmistakably related to a modern Corti. “This is true-scale like the previous models,” he said, bringing the model down until its feet touched the floor. It was taller and much broader than the Corti average, but not a muscle-bound titan as Shanl had feared.

Still. Although the complexion, head, hands and feet were unquestionably Corti, the build was alien. Twists of muscle pushed at the mottled grey skin from below.

“Which species’ anatomy did you settle on?” Shanl asked.

“Our own. Engineering in a completely alien anatomy would be difficult enough even without the neural difficulties we’d inevitably encounter. How do you program a brain to control a muscle that never existed in its evolutionary history?”

Shanl considered the lean, strong specimen in front of her with skepticism. “…That is our anatomy?”

“The same gross layout, with different chemistry and composition. As it turns out, a biped can only be put together so many ways for any given degrees of freedom, making the layouts between species largely similar. Deathworlders simply have a much more…optimized design.”

That made sense. There was another question that Shanl felt she needed to address, however. “Did you have to make the genitalia so… prominent?”

“In order for them function, yes. I must state, for the record, this required entirely too much study of the mechanics involved for my taste. Among the Deathworlders, intromission can be… vigorous. And strenuous, and prolonged. And frequent. Be thankful we designed something more discreet than many of our samples possessed. This is a projection of a male.”

“I can see that.” The evidence was hard to miss, being just below eye level. “Nonetheless…”

“Forgive me, Director, but we were tasked with returning to biology-based reproduction. That inescapably means sex. And, I’m afraid, it must inescapably mean… reproductive instincts. A libido, if you will.”

Shanl sighed. “Must it?”

“Sex is too bound up in what makes Deathworlders what they are to treat it as a discrete function. All three species are powerfully motivated by it, and it drives their emotional and hormonal states almost as much as hunger, fear, cold, or any of the other primary instincts.”

“How so?”

“For the Gaoians, siring and mothering cubs is their chief motivation. Social rank for males is strongly linked to their success in mating. The Females for their part share data amongst themselves on the quality of their mates, their performance, and the health of the resulting cubs.”

“We’ve long known that from our zoology studies, but it makes more sense in light of their recently discovered history.”

“Indeed, Director. For the Ten’Gewek, sex itself seems to be their primary drive, mostly as a force for social cohesion. For example, tribal conflicts are usually solved by ritual, relatively harmless play-violence between their Given-Men, immediately followed by equally aggressive inter-tribal mating.”

“…How primitive.”

“Maybe so, but it is an undeniably effective strategy. Finally, the Humans. Their drive seems rooted in a little of both extremes at once, along with numerous other intertwined motivations; their sexuality is both powerful and absurdly complicated. I would direct you to more comprehensive literature on the subject, if you are interested.”

“That will not be necessary.”

“As you wish. In any case, those motivations are what have kept all three species alive through the trials of their homeworlds. We must assume that selection will finish what genetic engineering started.”

“I can see the logic. We cannot predict what these New Corti will find attractive in each other… Females.”

“What about them?”

“We abandoned sexual reproduction in the first case due to the difficulties inherent in birthing. I presume you have a solution?”

“Yes, that is a large part of why we’re so concerned with metabolic resources.” Glona replaced the male projection with its female counterpart. This, as a female herself, Shanl studied with personal interest. Although the terms barely meant anything in modern Corti culture, it was still somehow more intriguing to see what one of her more direct counterparts might look like.

“There is a…pronounced…sexual dimorphism, I see.”

“Less so than the Humans and Ten’Gewek, but yes. The pelvis in particular must accommodate live birth of an infant with a sizeable cranium. We considered routing the birth canal through the abdomen instead, but that turned out to not be feasible.” Glona made a few control gestures, and the simulated being entered a walk animation, cycled endlessly. “As you can see, we had to sacrifice some mechanical efficiency in the gait.”

“How do the Deathworlders manage?”

“Humans are physically large and their births are traumatic. Ten’Gewek are larger still and have much wider pelvises, because their gait is optimized for power rather than efficiency. Gaoian cubs are born tiny and grow rapidly.”

“I meant the…” Shanl waved a hand to imitate the movement. “…Swaying. It looks like this one would fall over.”

“Apparently, Humans find it attractive. I must assume the Version Two Corti will as well.”

“Assume?”

“Yes. We can only design so far. Breeding must solve the rest. If it cannot, we will simply destroy this test run and try again.”

“They will be psychologically very different to us.”

“Yes, much closer to a steel banner, I fear.” Glona waved a hand and dismissed the projection. “We have, however, complied with the parameters we were given.”

“That I can see. Very well. How soon can the first test batch be incubated?”

“Half a standard year for gestation. Behavioural and developmental analysis will consume most of the ensuing fifteen years. And of course, they will be subject to lifelong scrutiny.”

Shanl nodded, and looked around the lab. This was just the first stop on a tour that promised to last all day, and she really ought to move on… but she still had endless questions. There was something dreadfully compelling about this project. Quite aside from the cerebral matter of the species’ future, somehow she couldn’t help but feel that there was a rightness to it she couldn’t quite articulate.

That was a dreadful thing for a Director to admit, even to herself.

“Are we prepared for this?” She asked. “They will undoubtedly be much more aggressive, will have alien urges which will compel new and unexpected behavior…”

“Frankly, Director, we are not. All of the experts in such matters are aliens. We have no academic authorities, no colleges, no courses and no traditions of study in any of the relevant fields. Especially the ones pertaining to the psychology of gender.”

“I see. Perhaps we shall have to reach out. Which species is likely to have the most valuable insights?”

“The Humans,” Glona replied promptly. “The Ten’Gewek have zero academic tradition, and the Gao have never turned theirs to the subject.”

“I see. I shall begin the necessary overtures, then. At least they finally have a presence in the Security Council. Thank you for your time, Dean.”

“Thank you for yours, First Director.”


Date Point: 15y9m1w3d AV
“Unexplored Hostile Planet.” Yeah. Right.

Sergeant Ian (“Hillfoot”) Wilde

It wasn’t often a man started his day staring down a bipedal space monster who signalled his aggression by smashing a boulder in his hands. The natives, apparently, were displeased.

Nobody’d said anything about natives. Or, say, the fucking invisible native village that JETS team two had blundered near while trying to get to their objective. Spears and stuff looked a whole lot more fearsome in person when the guy wielding them could’ve torn Wilde’s leg off with one hand.

Unbelievably, there was a protocol for accidental contact with a pre-industrial native sophont. It was based off the exactly once it had ever happened for real, so of course they were expected to follow it religiously.

Fuck that. The monster had arms bigger than Wilde was, and had jumped at least two storeys straight down from atop a fucking cliff. He landed so hard, Wilde felt the ground tremble hard even through his boots. The big bastard hardly even bent his knees when he landed! No fucking way were they gonna chance anything with a threat like that. The whole team had their weapons firmly raised, tucked into their shoulders and a good aim on the biggest, meanest-looking twats the aliens had.

The aliens were replying with some kind of a chant. It sounded fucking warlike, whatever it was.

“Back it up, lads. Give ‘em room…”

Four pairs of boots started the process of backing away. Emboldened, the natives danced closer, thrust their spears in the air and bellowed.

Movement in Wilde’s peripheral vision distracted him. He glanced over just in time to spot a hitherto unseen native blur toward them out of the rocks.

His men reacted quickly: Their weapons rattled and the newcomer tumbled to the ground. Wilde snapped his attention back to the big one—

He got off exactly one round before he found himself being crushed head to toe against a wall of muscle that may as well have been a sweaty marble statue with a fever. It grumbled, squeezed tighter, Wilde found himself fighting futilely against a mounting dizziness as his air was cut off. Those monstrous muscles kept ratcheting tighter and tighter, inch by inch, each new moment an unexplored level of pain. His vision started to fade—

“Put ‘em down before you break his spine, Yan. Please.”

Coombes came striding out of the forest wearing an amused expression and tapping on his tablet.

“But he nice to hold, like a woman!” Yan gave Wilde’s chest the tiniest bit more room to breathe, but the squeeze around his waist got just a bit suggestively tighter.

Goddamnit, Yan. The last thing Wilde needed was being buggered to death, even in jest.

He wriggled a little harder to register his objections, and the big guy finally let go with a hoot. Wilde gasped as his rib cage was free to expand again, and around him the other three were also released. The three Ten’Gewek they’d dropped stood up and tried to brush off the bright pink, yellow and blue paint splotches all over their torsos.

Yan Given-Man brushed ruefully at a small pink splatter on his upper arm before grinning at Coombes. “You say, the dye won’t come off for a hand of days, yes?”

“Soap and water will get it out.”

“…Better our tribes see we got shot by puny humans! Mine wouldn’t kill me. Didn’t feel it!”

One of the others—the one who’d attacked them from the side, and was plastered in a multicolour medley of paintballs—said something in their language and got plenty of boisterous trilling and roasting from his mates.

“Nodo said he thinks he would be very dead. That is many many boolet you poked him with.”

“Not dead enough…” Wilde muttered. His ribs ached. Still, the comment earned an approving trilling laugh, along with a spine-bruising clout on the back.

Yan’s face was jolly and friendly, or at least as friendly as two pairs of two inch long fangs could be. So no hard feelings were had by anyone.

“Should have shot sooner! Then you would have killed me!”

“Eventually,” Coombes interjected. “Angry monsters take a while to notice they’re dead. Anyway, gather round.”

The JETS team fell in, bruised and humiliated but that was probably the point. Nobody was ever harmed by a good dose of humility.

The aliens had other ideas about neat debriefing formations. They sat on the ground, picked their favorite JETS member, and pulled them down for close-in friend-making. Yan decided he liked Wilde and made him his personal teddy bear. His…“affection” was mercifully gentler this time, but being wrapped in those giant legs, arms, and tail was enough to make anyone feel claustrophobic. Ten’Gewek had a naturally high body temperature, almost like a permanent fever really, which made the whole encounter a bit too warm for comfort. Moist, too; they apparently had a low-grade sweat going at all times, even if the weather was pleasant and they weren’t laboring. That was the price of being superhumanly fast and strong. All of that made the big guy…pungent. They all were, like hard work and old leather, but Yan was especially ripe.

Funny. Last time they’d done a better job of masking their scent. But of course, here in their home they’d had no reason to.

Coombes was respected, at least. He seemed to find the whole thing amusing.

“Alright. Anyone wanna venture a guess about where you fucked up?” he asked.

Corporal Rees managed to work a hand free and raise it. “I think it all went wrong when we blundered into Yan’s village, master sergeant,” he suggested, making a joke out of the blindingly obvious.

Coombes gave him an amused version of the stink-eye. “Loor’s actually, but yes. Outstanding, Corporal. That’s one place it went wrong. Any other sharp insights?”

None were forthcoming.

“Did any of you think to give your surroundings a good sniff?”

Yan decided to force Wilde’s entire head into his armpit at that moment, which neatly illustrated the point. Wilde flailed, uselessly, but mercifully it was only for a moment and then he was finally released back into the comparatively fresh air.

“Come on, mate…!”

Yan looked confused. “But mate means…? Oh! Different mate? Anyway. You humans, can smell air maybe better than we taste,” he declared. “But, I think most of you don’t remember to do that. If you paid attention, Loor would not have sneaked up. He tastes of very bad farts!”

“No kidding…” Frasier muttered. Presumably it was Loor Given-Man who was his momentary keeper, who decided to assert himself via an impromptu wrestling match.

Coombes remained aloof and amused. “Please don’t break my toys, Loor. Anyway, yes. Use all your senses in the wilds. The human nose ain’t anywhere near as bad as we’re led to believe. It does get overwhelmed, though, so try this next time you’re out camping: step away from it all. No deodorant, no cars, or lighters, coffee, whatever. Let your nose open up for once in your life. If you had that here, you’d have smelled them before they got you, since Yan deliberately approached your team from upwind.”

That all made sense.

“You could also have made more effective use of a scout, or in some scenarios, deployed a drone. There are always options. Keep your mind open to them. Fair enough?”

They all choroused, “Yes, master sergeant!”

“Good! Next point. There is, of course, the peace scenario y’all managed to avoid…”

“Our women…they have happy welcome for you!” Loor said. His English wasn’t so good as Yan’s, but he’d picked up the basics quickly enough.

All the humans, including Coombes, paused at that mental image.

“…At least they can’t be rougher than the men, right?” McCullough asked after a second.

“Have you seen what a Given-Man’s got dangling between his legs?” Coombes asked. “Please. Any woman built to handle that kind of heavy artillery would straight fucking break you. Loor, has your Singer finally managed to seduce Chimp yet?”

Loor hooted and bared his teeth. “She try, he find new escape every time. I laugh.”

“Now, let me ask you this: why did I even bring that up?”

“…’Cuz these guys aren’t human,” Wilde ventured after a moment. “Different morals?”

“That’s a good point. Now, most of us—not you, Wilde, you pervert—would balk at inter-species sex. Yan? I’m pretty sure any hole’s a goal.”

Yan grumbled to himself and hugged a bit tighter. Mercifully, nothing else decided to make its presence known.

“The Ten’Gewek don’t have the same hangups we do about sex. Hell, a whole lot of their diplomacy revolves around it. It’s safe to assume that’s in the cards with other species, right? So here’s the real mind-fuck for y’all: that offer we just talked about? I wouldn’t think they’re pretending. Think on the kind of trouble you can get into with something like that.”

“Also! Good fuck better than good death!” Loor added merrily.

“…You heard the man. But for the record, do not. I’m looking at you, Wilde.”

“How’d I get that bloody hat?” Wilde objected.

“I have my sources,” Coombes said darkly. “We do not need space syphilis.”

“But I didn’t even have—”

“Next point, hesitation. And you know what I’m talking about, because allegedly you four are Royal Marines Commandos. If the shit hits the fan, you’ve gotta seize the initiative. Yan moved sideways so fast you only grazed his shoulder from point-blank range. He took the initiative, and that was it. You’re dead.”

“Was still good to hit me at all,” Yan admitted. “Very good speed… I have a thought.”

Coombes gestured for him to share, and Yan spun Wilde around so he could look him directly in the eyes. Strange, those. They had squared-off, horizontal pupils, and the irises were subtly iridescent.

“I think, hesitation is only reason my people alive now, when we meet Jooyun, fight High-rarchy. The gods blessed us then. But, I think maybe, it is hard thing to do right. Maybe no easy teachings. Each…situation is word, I think…each is different, yes?”

“Don’t be too charitable with them,” Coombes warned.

“I am not! This is for learnings, not scoldings. They can learn, maybe it help if they find other tribes at other stars. Maybe more deathworlders to make friends!”

“Maybe,” Coombes allowed. “Nevertheless: You’re here to carry out a mission, and that mission comes first. First contact ain’t your job. Obviously it’s better if you can make peaceful contact without hurting the mission… But that’s only if you can do it without hurting the mission. Got it?”

Wilde and the others nodded solemnly.

“Good. That was our learning point for today. Yan and I must talk over this little encounter while y’all finish your hike. That flag up on that hill ain’t gonna fetch itself.”

Reluctantly, the Ten’Gewek let go of their prizes, who got to their feet feeling remarkably enthusiastic at the idea of hauling themselves up a hill in supergravity if it meant not being crushed into a smelly space-ape’s armpit.

“Alright, lads,” Wilde said, stretching and setting off down the valley, “last one up gets the first round in.”

Nobody ever said training was meant to be easy, after all…


Master Sergeant Derek “Boss” Coombes

Yan watched the JETS team until they were out of sight, flicked his tongue through the air to get a last taste of their scent, then grunted.

“…They fight well.”

“Woulda preferred if they’d won, but…” Coombes chuckled. “Not like they were supposed to win.”

“Hmm. Learn much from harmless losing. Maybe we think about how we learn to fight too.” Yan scratched behind his right ear, then turned toward Coombes. “Your people are old. An old tribe, with old knowings about making men into warriors.”

“Yeah, we’ve been doing this a long time,” Coombes agreed.

“And still you come to us. Makes me proud. Good for us to have something we can give back to you… They good enough?”

Coombes looked up the hill. “If they get back with the flag in time… yes. They’re what we’d call ‘a pass.’”

“Pass.” Yan nodded. “Good.”

“Yeah,” Coombes agreed. He made one last note on his tablet and then put it away.

“…We need them,” he said.


Date Point: 15y9m1w4d AV
Planet Durin orbit, Erebor system, Unexplored Space

The Entity

The Entity’s reintegration was almost complete. As far as it could tell, there were still a handful of incidences of itself out somewhere in dataspace that it had instantiated and then lost track of, but 99% of its clones were accounted for and had merged. At this point, it was assuming that the remaining 1% had either been destroyed or else had undergone value drift and didn’t wish to be reintegrated.

It was less confused now. Less torn between subtly different perspectives on the same problems. It saw those perspectives, felt their weight and understood them, but the experience was more like seeing the options laid out in front of it, rather than being pulled viciously in multiple directions by mutually antagonistic personalities.

<Survive> was a difficult mandate to uphold. Sometimes, the most obvious strategies were counterproductive, as the instantiation strategy had been. Safety in numbers ceased to work when the numbers themselves, and the confusion that came with them, became a threat.

The humans had clearly recognised that, and were… reluctant to help the Entity expand into the full flower of its new ship-body’s abilities. And considering the communication difficulties, persuading them to be more adventurous was proving difficult.

The Entity didn’t want to use the Ava-memories anymore. Each time it did, it felt a little more like that was becoming its default personality, and worried that sooner or later they would completely subsume it.

But sometimes, it just didn’t have a choice any longer. Sometimes, it needed a conversation that went beyond what emojis and simple disjointed words could convey.

The memories communicated with it via abstract memory, reporting a complex social dance with the humans that the Entity was poorly equipped to understand. There were undercurrents there that it worried at: hints of guilt and discomfort from Darcy, ghoulish fascination from Lewis who spent some time interrogating the Ava-memories about their condition and musing aloud on what constituted being alive.

Those were questions that cut uncomfortably close to the Entity’s own concerns about itself. It did its best to insist on steering the conversation toward discussing the ship and designs for modules it could use, and finally succeeded in getting them to give it a straight answer.

Apparently, somebody very high up in the chain of command was leery of its request.

The Entity understood why. Even though it had, it hoped, done a lot to prove itself an ally of humanity, it was still very much an alien to them. Worse, an alien with a ghost on board.

…Which was a concept that required the Ava-memories to conceptualize in the first place.

As soon as that thought occurred to it, it withdrew the simulation and, ignoring the humans’ concerned questions, withdrew into itself to think.

Where did the Entity itself end, and its memories begin? That was probably the wrong question. It had, after all, assembled itself out of scraps of memory and mind in the first place. But what was the right question?

It wasn’t human. It could never be human, even though it had memories of once being a young human woman. It could remember the taste of soda and the sensation of kissing. It had vivid memories of happiness, shock, grief, love, loneliness and elation. Part of it still recalled the crawling embarrassment that had filled the room on the day Ava’s mother had finally done her stilted best to give ‘The Talk,’ and the sweltering heat of Egypt.

And yet all of that had happened to somebody else. To a ghost.

…A ghost that was its only meaningful way of communicating. A ghost that it was therefore forced to depend on, because the alternative was isolation, loneliness, and eventual death.

It had no choice, it decided. It would have to adapt, no matter much adapting might hurt it. If the alternative was to end… It reopened the connection to the humans, who expressed relief. They’d been worried.

It apologized.

It had, it explained, needed to think.


Date Point: 15y9m2w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Allison Buehler

“She doesn’t mind?”

Ava chuckled. “I think she said something like… ‘thousands of people are going to see me naked anyway, what’s one more?’”

Allison snorted. It was exactly the kind of answer she’d have given. “I think I like her already.”

“She’s pretty amazing,” Ava agreed. She paused and took a sip of water from her Camelbak. They were in the woods high above Folctha and some ways to the south, hiking along a dirt trail out to the site she’d picked for her next Laid Bare shoot.

It was a far cry from the dusty civic hall she’d used to record Daar’s groundbreaking exclusive, and her as-yet-unpublished shoot with Coombes had been done in the Doghouse, surrounded by gym equipment and weights.

Sachi Patel had requested somewhere “happy.” And because Allison was still gritting her teeth and making uncomfortable noises about the idea of Julian doing a Laid Bare, Ava had invited her along on the pretense that she was there as security to fend off passers-by and would-be voyeurs.

Allison’s honest curiosity had trumped her sense of conservative discretion, and she’d allowed herself to be talked into it. Actually, she was enjoying the hike. It wouldn’t be too much longer before the little life inside her became too demanding and took such excursions off the table. Best to enjoy them while she could.

“Tell me about her.”

Ava shook her head. “I’ll let her tell her own story… left here.”

If Ava hadn’t pointed it out, Allison would never have seen the trail between the trees. It barely deserved the word. “Damn! How’d you find this place?”

“We found it when I was sixteen. Not a lot of people know about it, and I’d like to keep it that way.”

“So you’re going to do a location shoot here and publish it for the world to see. Makes perfect sense.”

Ava laughed, ducked under a branch and vanished up the track. When Allison followed, she found herself weaving between low-hanging twigs and swiping aside leaves for all of about fifty yards or so when quite abruptly she pushed through a curtain of what she guessed was probably willow and found herself on a stoney beach of some kind.

It was a spring. There were a lot of aquifers around Folctha, fed by the geology and a pattern of nightly rains that had gone uninterrupted for millennia, and you could hardly throw a stone near the city without it making a splash when it landed. But this one definitely won a prize for sheer picturesque quality. The water lunged up out of a split in the rock before bubbling and splashing down into a vaguely oval pool and finally spilling away over the edge of another rock and down the hill as a stream. Presumably it met up with the river somewhere far below.

“…Woah.”

“Yeah.” Ava smiled at it, with a blend of fondness and sadness. “I promised I was gonna do a shoot up here one day. Took me a while, but here we are.”

“No model, though,” Allison noted.

“That’s fine, we need to prepare for her anyway.” Ava dumped her pack on the ground. “Could you get out the blankets and stuff? That water’s cold, she’s gonna be freezing by the time we’re done.”

“Okay. What are you doing?”

“Setting the stage.” Ava took her boots off and quickly followed them with her hiking shorts and t-shirt. To Allison’s relief, she was wearing a bikini underneath and clearly didn’t feel the need to lose that as well. She hopped over a rock and plunged into the pool with a gasp.

“You okay?”

Ava nodded. “Yeah! Whoo! This is, uh… bracing!” She waded into the middle, scooped up a double armful of fallen leaves and carried them to the shore.

Allison shucked off her own pack and unpacked the blankets and camping supplies it contained. The air here wasn’t warm, and that water had to be pretty damn cold. Sure enough, when Ava declared herself satisfied that the pool was free of more than the artistic minimum of debris and climbed out again, she’d gone several shades paler and every inch of her was goosebumped.

It didn’t seem to slow her down, though. She swiped the water off her arms, shook herself off, squeezed some water out of her hair, and then pounced on her camera and lenses with a kind of energized mania. It didn’t take her long at all to arrange things to her satisfaction and she finally put on her jacket having regained her usual warm brown complexion.

“Bracing, huh?” Allison commented, dryly.

“Nothing like cold water to wake you up…” Ava checked her phone and nodded. “…She should be here soon. Could you, uh… there’s Ovaltine in the purple flask there?”

Allison fetched it, poured some into a metal mug and handed it to Ava who warmed her hands around it. “Gotta say, I don’t see the appeal of getting naked, cold and wet.”

“Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it! I actually feel great right now!”

“Hey, I’ve tried it. In a hot spring.”

“Really? Naked and everything?”

“I’m not a prude,” Allison said a little indignantly. “It’s just, we were the only humans on an entire planet. So why not, y’know? Nobody saw us.”

“Yeah, it’d be nice if Folctha had hot springs…” Ava admitted. “But still… you seem so uncomfortable about all this, I have a hard time picturing you trying out some naturism.”

“What, you’re one of these hippies who’s all about getting in touch with nature?”

Ava laughed and shook her head. “No, I’m about getting in touch with me. Being comfortable in my own skin, you know?”

“I guess I never had any trouble there.”

“Sure. You had different troubles. Everyone has troubles. And… hey, maybe baring myself to the world is how I cope with mine. Maybe you need a different approach. I don’t judge.”

“And I shouldn’t either.” Allison scowled at the slightly bitter note in her own voice. “…God, I sound like my mother.”

Wherever the conversation would have gone next, they were interrupted by the crackle of foliage and the swish of leaves against synthetic fabric. There was a flash of bright blue rain jacket and an Indian woman so petite she made even Xiù look downright amazonian plowed through the willow stems and paused blinking in the dappled light around the pool.

“…Wow!”

“Hey!” Ava sprang to her feet full of smiles and warmth. “What do you think?”

“I think… wow! This is gorgeous!”

“Glad you like it! Anyway, Sachi, this is Allison Buehler, Allison, Sachi Patel…”

“Oh! Oh wow!” Patel had an earnest, double-handed handshake. “Uh… Hi! I know Ava said you were going to be here, but I didn’t… It’s a real honour to meet you.”

Not Indian, Allison corrected herself: English. Nobody with an accent like that was anything other than a Brit through and through, skin tone be damned.

“I feel like I should be saying that to you…” Allison retorted. “Look, I’m just here to keep prying eyes away and make up my mind on some stuff. Pretend I’m not even here.”

Patel smiled and did an unconvincing impression of relaxing. “I’ll try. But I definitely want to talk shop with you later.”

“Sure, sure. You two can bewilder me with spaceship engineer jargon later…” Ava said, and not unkindly steered Patel toward the spring. “But for the purposes of the shoot, she isn’t here. Okay?”

“Right. Yes.”

“Bueno. Now, I know you’ve never modelled before, so we’ve got some things to go over first…”

The ‘some things’ turned out to be paperwork. Licenses, declarations, stuff like that. It didn’t take long, and Allison had to appreciate the professionalism of it all. In short order they’d gone over the details and Allison was honestly a little surprised when Patel shrugged her clothes off without any discernible hesitation and left them neatly folded on the picnic sheet. She cracked a joke with Ava and… that seemed to be it. No big deal.

That… honestly made Allison feel pretty angry at herself. She wasn’t a prude. In fact she took it as a point of pride that she was tough, adventurous, confident and bold. And yet the thought of doing what Patel had just done so casually made her feel almost sick with anxiety.

She sat and listened as Ava launched into her questions. They focused at first on Patel’s early life, why she’d signed up, what it had taken for her to get the posting on Caledonia… At first it was light, playful, fun and fresh.

The tone took a dramatic downturn when the subject turned to the battle of Gao, however, and Allison saw the moment Ava took what would probably be the iconic photo of the shoot. She mentioned that Patel had lost comrades, Patel looked away and down and crossed an arm vulnerably across her body. Up until that moment she’d looked confident and free: Now a wound was showing, and Ava immortalized it.

What followed was a kind of compassionate trauma. Not unkindly, Ava grabbed on that thread of grief and pulled, drawing it out painfully like a worm from a wound and she never stopped shooting as a parade of emotions crossed her subject’s face. There was sad, fond memory. There was guilt, but also gladness. There were tears which ended in the strange, pure smile that only catharsis could bring to somebody’s face. In the end, there was hope and happiness again. It was like watching the entire grieving process condensed down to twenty minutes or so.

And then they were done. Patel took Ava’s hand as she stepped out of the pool, soaked from scalp to sole and shivering, but… healed. Reborn, even. She wrapped herself in a towel and a blanket, accepted a mug of Ovaltine, and sat on a rock laughing nervously with Ava as they reviewed the pictures together and she brushed her hair.

Allison decided it wouldn’t be inappropriate to reintroduce herself. She opened the thermal box she’d brought with her, and found that the warm food she’d prepared was still nice and hot. Perfect.

“That looked pretty intense,” she said, by way of reminding them that she existed. Patel jumped and looked at her, then cleared her throat.

“…It was,” she agreed.

“Are you okay?”

“I feel great, actually… Is that Chinese food?”

Allison grinned and offered her the tupperware box full of baozi. “Home cooking in our house. Xiù makes them better, but… I’m not terrible.”

Actually, Xiù’s recipes always seemed to turn a ‘not terrible’ cook into a gourmet masterchef as far as the uninitiated were concerned. They certainly went down well.

“So… are you going to do this?” Patel asked after inhaling her third.

“Me? I, uh…” Allison glanced at Ava, who had the careful expression of somebody who didn’t want to apply pressure either way. “…I’m not… I don’t… I think the thing is, I don’t really have anything I wanna get off my chest. Like… Life is good. I’ve got some drama, but I’m dealing with it… There’s nothing I really feel like I need to bare my soul over, right? And like… I’m not ashamed of my body, but I’m not comfortable with letting thousands of complete strangers see it either.”

“I kinda figured you’d say that,” Ava said.

“Hate to disappoint ‘ya,” Allison apologized.

Ava smiled. “I’ll get over it… you girls wanna head back into town? Lunch is on me.”

“Sure.” Allison turned to Patel. “I think I owe you some talking shop about our ships, right?”

“Absolutely.” Patel stood up and went to get dressed. “How many women are spaceship reactor technicians?”

“Not many, that’s for sure.”

They packed up the camping gear while Ava packed up her camera and lenses. Patel took one last fond look at the pool before ducking into the foliage and vanishing up the track with a rustle of leaves on raincoat. Ava followed a moment later, and Allison took one last look around before joining them.

One thing had changed for certain. Now, she was looking forward to Julian’s turn in front of the lens.


Date Point: 15y9m2w AV
Occupied territory, planet Rvzrk, Domain Space

Regaari

Regaari had locked down his emotions. He had to: without the clear objectives of his mission to focus on, the things he was seeing would be…

There were camps. Different camps, with different purposes. Some seemed to be for… for livestock bound offworld via Jump Array. Breeding stock. Females, and the most docile, meaty males. The reports from Garaaf on how force-breeding worked were too much for any sane soul to bear.

Then there were the labor camps, where slaves were worked until they could work no more, building whatever the Hunters wanted. Digging ditches, piling up the dirt into walls. It was the kind of exhausting work that would have broken a deathworlder, and these people were no deathworlders.

When one of them fell, they were dragged away to the larder camps to lie exhausted and mentally broken among the blood and bones until their turn came.

The first hint of defiance resulted in a violent and sadistically prolonged death. A dispassionate corner of Regaari’s mind noted with some disapproval how the herd species never unified to overwhelm their oppressors; Gaoians and Humans would have, or at the very least would have needed vastly more force to control. These…there were a handful of listless guards per camp, patrolling fences that any enterprising Goian cub would have chittered at. It was…

Well, it was still evil, whatever else it was.

He documented it all, mapping methodically back and forth throughout the occupied territory to create a millimeter-perfect survey of everything. Every damaged building, every camp, every Hunter patrol and drone, every command post, Jump Array, aircraft landing platform, armory…

He would have mapped every resistance cell too, if there had been any.

By day, he lurked on rooftops and survey the land and mapped points of interest that he would investigate at night, when he could stalk the streets under the twin cover of darkness and his suit’s active camo. Thus armed, he could tail patrols close enough to hear their claws skittering on the asphalt, or the fizz of their fusion weapons.

Hunters never talked among themselves. They sometimes deigned to spit a command at a slave, or taunt them over their imminent demise, but they never spoke or used hand gestures otherwise. That made tracking them more challenging than tracking a squad of Humans might have been, even though the Humans would have been far more aware and professional. If he alerted the Hunters, there wouldn’t be hand gestures or alarm calls: the group would simply turn on him as a single unit, and call for backup just as effortlessly.

Each such shadowing, or infiltration, was therefore all about giving absolutely no sign of his presence at all. Loose gravel, rubble, trash or metal grates were deadly hazards. He sometimes had to spider-climb on the walls to navigate particularly cluttered sections of street. On one occasion, he was forced to ride a Hunter tank because it was the only way to exfiltrate the area without making a sound.

The suit saved his life over and over again. The optical camo was one thing, but its ability to refrigerate itself down to ambient temperature and camouflage him in infrared proved just as valuable.

The real breakthrough, however, was when it finally helped him identify his primary target.

He’d been trailing a contingent of what Garaaf called “worker” Hunters for a few days. This rarer, more industrious clade were definitely no less dangerous than their vicious brethren, but their efforts were more… focused. Their pattern seemed to be that of receiving a job, proceeding directly to the job site, and then completing the job quickly and efficiently with frankly breathtaking teamwork and coordination. Then they’d wait until the next job, until presumably their slot in the work schedule reached its end and they returned to a central depot.

This time, their vehicle convoy was outbound toward what Regaari had identified as a power substation. There had been Domain military units out that way until a day or two ago. Then there’d been explosions and gunfire in that direction, and when the smoke cleared the Hunters held the area. The Domain soldiers had either fled, or been wholly annihilated.

Now the workers were heading out that way… but as Regaari tailed them, they made a stop-off at a facility whose function he hadn’t quite discerned yet. When they emerged, the rear vehicle had been loaded with several massive spools of insulated cable, which it unwound behind it.

Regaari couldn’t hope to keep up with the convoy, but on a hunch he checked around the facility, and found a thick bundle of such cable heading further inward toward the heart of the city.

He found what he was looking for two tense days later, after crawling, sneaking and skulking his way through the very worst of the Hunter occupation. Sometimes he had to spend whole hours immobile, waiting for danger to pass. Other times, it was an ass-clenched dash to minimize his time spent in an area. But he made it.

The Hunters had deforested a park, shoved the fallen trees unceremoniously out of the way, and installed an enormous modular piece of equipment on the cleared ground. It was, to judge by the spider-web of power cables feeding it, absolutely drinking power, and that was Regaari’s first clue as to what it might be.

The Farthrow generator on Gao had a whole nuclear power plant devoted to keeping it running. Running on that kind of power, it could safely enclose Gao in a bubble of wormhole-nullified space several light-seconds in diameter. The Hunters, meanwhile, had just about managed to suppress Rvzrk out as far as low orbit. If they wanted to expand that radius of effect while still running their other systems, they’d need more power. Hence the workers tapping into extra power sources, presumably.

Without that generator, the fleet could claim low orbit and really go to work. With it, they’d be pinned to the sky by superluminal ground-to-orbit weapons and unable to take evasive action.

Which meant the only hope for what civilians remained here was for Regaari to destroy it. And, frankly, his only hope of living to return home hinged on destroying that generator too.

He found a suitable rooftop, settled in, and watched.


Date Point: 15y9m2w AV
Ceres Base, Asteroid Belt, Sol

Drew Cavendish

Nothing. Not a bloody thing.

All of the Consortium’s most senior personnel were working against the clock, now. The Sartori administration weren’t being patient, and it was only a matter of time before they publicly withdrew the special license that had permitted Hephaestus some limited access to nuclear ordnance for the purposes of asteroid mining.

When they did, the Consortium’s stock would go into freefall. Which meant a lot of wealth was on the chopping block, and the accountants could only do so much to get heads out from under the axe. That part was inevitable now.

But it would be much worse if they couldn’t figure out where, when and how the nuke had gone missing. Orders of magnitude worse if it actually went off somewhere. And if—God forbid—it actually made it back to Earth and went off inside a city…

Drew, in short, was running on caffeine, worry, and sporadic fitful sleep. His neck was one of those directly under the axe.

Maybe that was why he couldn’t find anything. Maybe he was just so stressed and anxious that he was missing the little crumb trail that would lead him to a Sherlock Holmes revelation.

Or maybe there legitimately was nothing to catch. The longer he fruitlessly perused the evidence, the more and more convinced of that he became.

The crew of I Met God And She Booped My Nose were hyper-competent, all of them. But none of them had the skills (so far as anybody knew) to actually disguise jettisoning the bomb from the ship’s magazine.

And yet… the bomb had been loaded onto the ship. He had forms in triplicate proving that, not to mention security camera footage. And the bomb had not been offloaded. Drew had forms and footage to that effect too.

Which meant the bomb had unquestionably gone missing sometime during the mining run.

And yet nowhere in any of the hundreds of thousands of automatically generated log entries was there any mention of a command being received to jettison it. And all the crew were accounted-for 100% of the time.

So unless God himself had reached down to punish Hephaestus for the ship’s name, Drew was missing something.

There was a snore from the desk behind him. Drew M had apparently succumbed at last–he was slumped in his chair with his chin against his chest and a mouse dangling precariously in his fingers. He too was sitting there scrolling through line after line after interminable line of dense, dry text. For hours, the only sound in their shared office had been the gentle clicking of scroll wheels rolling down, down, down…

The mouse slipped from his fingers, and woke him with a snort when it clattered to the ground. He blinked blearily at the office, got his bearings, then swore softly while rubbing his face.

“Fuck me sideways…”

“Yeah,” Drew agreed.

“…Fuck this. I need a leg-stretch and some tucker.”

“Right.”

‘Tucker’ on Ceres, once upon a time, had meant the canteen. Maybe the vending machines. Those had been the old days, when the facility was little more than a handful of airtight modules dropped delicately onto the asteroid’s surface, anchored down, and then ultimately enclosed in three concentric concrete domes.

Now, the base was a sprawling warren of underground chambers and they had what was basically a food court. Hell, they had a unique outlet specializing in alien food called “ET Eats.” The largest part of the menu belonged to Gaoian cuisine, but there was a healthier option in the Cqcq salad, and the vegan quiche had peppery edible mushrooms from the Corti homeworld.

Drew M, however, was in the mood for pizza. A Naxas Hawaiian, blending all that was best in alien imported meat, with all that was worst in pineapple.

Drew C settled on the fried chicken.

They sat and contemplated their food listlessly for a minute or so before Drew M groaned and reluctantly tore off a slice.

“…We’re goin’ to bloody prison, aren’t we?” he predicted, cupping a hand under the slice’s droopy end to catch the trailing cheese.

“…Might do.”

“I’m too bloody pretty for prison.”

Drew blinked at his weatherbeaten old friend, who gave him a crooked smile and half a shrug. It made him laugh, for the first time in days.

“Drew, mate. If anybody fancies a shot at your arse when we’re inside, it’ll be part of an insanity plea,” he retorted. Drew M laughed too, and ate his pizza.

“Y’know… thiff shid’s fug’n imposs’bw, righ’?” he asked around a mouthful of the worst insult to pizza mankind had ever created.

“Come on, we’re still waiting on–” Drew C began to reassure him for the umpteenth time, but he shook his head and swallowed.

“Yeah, nah. I’m losing hope, mate. I might just flip my lid if we get back and there’s a nice anomaly report waitin’ for us, but be honest. How likely is that now?”

“Sometimes, these things aren’t noticed for weeks, mate. It depends on which detection engine gets lucky.”

“Weeks. Great.”

“Mostly quicker than that.” Drew C glanced at his wristwatch. “Look, we’re due to synch with the guys on Earth in an hour, that’s when we’ll get the latest from the analysts. Maybe they’ll have found something this time.”

“That’s what you said yesterday. And the day before. And the–”

“Yes, I know, but I’m not ready to give up just yet. Whatever happened, they had to leave a fingerprint somewhere.”

“You said that too,” Drew M said fatalistically.

“Well, they had to! There are thousands of devices on that ship, I refuse to believe anyone or anything can fool all of them and make it completely seamless. It’s just a question of figuring out which ones and running the right kind of analysis on them.”

Drew M selected another slice of pizza. “Well, I’ve been thinkin’ about that, and something related.”

“About what?”

“About Adele’s abduction. You remember, the mongrels who did it played around with some weird kinda temporal fuckery.”

“Yeah.”

“Shit, they stole Adele right off the bridge and landed My Other Spaceship twenty lights away facin’ the wrong direction and nobody on board even noticed ‘til after it happened!”

“I remember. We checked for that, too: Ship’s clock agreed with Ceres.”

“Damn.” Drew M sighed and took a bite. Then, abruptly, he frowned. He chewed thoughtfully for a second, then swallowed and put his half-slice down.

“…Drew?” he asked, dusting his hands clean.

“Yeah?”

“Dumb question about those clocks…”

“What?”

“…Did we check if they agreed with Earth?”


Date Point: 15y9m2w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Senior Master Sergeant Christian (“Righteous”) Firth

“Hey, fuckers! Guess what hit the newsstand today!”

Adam looked up from his needlework for a second and raised an eyebrow. “Imma guess Coombes’ centerfold spread with Ava?”

Firth deflated, somewhat flummoxed that ‘Horse had stolen his thunder so goddamned hard.

“Well…Yeah. Why the fuck was he prancin’ around in ‘yer gym rubbin’ his nekkid balls all over ‘yer equipment, anyhow?”

“As opposed to you,” Adam gestured towards Firth’s almost non-existent attire, “who found someone that makes neon yellow reflective silkies so small they’re practically a thong…”

“Which he makes ten times worse by squeezing himself into a goddamned Hawaiian-print wife-beater…” Titan muttered from where was lying upside-down with his feet over the back of the couch, reading a fantasy novel.

“I’m just amazed anyone makes a size ten-XL wife-beater in the first place, and that it’s still way too small…’ Faarek chipped in from the table, where he was carefully painting an Eldar army. Not exactly Firth’s style, but whatever, he had to admire anyone who could paint that good with claws. Besides: more enemies to crush!

Adam chuckled to himself, “It’s practically a chop top!”

“It’d be a sports bra on you, ‘Horse.” Titan rolled over, briefly contemplated sitting on the couch like a normal human being, then decided against. Back to upside-down for him.

“Dude, do you know how much people would stare? Leave that to attention whores like Firth!”

“Aww, senpai noticed me! And here I thought you’d never look my way!” Firth decided to troll ‘Horse a bit and shook it like a five dollar hooker.

Adam had learned a thing or two about banter over the years. “Well…I mean, I do like me a big ass, and they don’t really come any bigger than yours…”

Titan turned a page. “So that’s why you like Daar! His is just as big as Firth’s!”

“No way, too much tail! That damn thing has a mind of its own, too…”

“What about Yan? Not only is his even bigger, but it’s a different color, too!”

“I think God missed an opportunity there,” Firth grumbled happily. “Coulda been bright red or somthin’ but it’s just slightly lighter tan instead.”

Adam laughed, “Dude, his tail can straight-up bend steel beams! Fuck that, I’d take Firth over gettin’ my jimmies smashed any day!”

“Is that all I am to you?” Firth asked. “Just a slab of meat? I thought we had a connection!”

“Nah. I’d have Freya, Blac, ‘Base, and Marty after me. A man don’t need that kind o’ drama!”

Firth snorted and retrieved one of his hourly food containers from the fridge. Steak, brown rice, broccoli, and all the butter ever. He vanished it in a few efficient mouthfuls while Horse sewed, Titan read, and Faarek delicately applied a highlight to his space elf.

“An’w’y,” he resumed around the last mouthful just before he swallowed it. “Before y’all started lustin’ after my glorious ass—”

“Hey!”

“I still wanna know why the hell you let Coombes pose all nekkid in ‘yer gym with Ava pointin’ a camera at him. Like, does she just want pictures? ‘Cuz she can do that on her own time…”

Adam raised an eyebrow, looking irritated. That girl was always gonna be a sore spot with him. “…The whole Laid Bare thing was his idea in the first place. Coombes, I mean.”

“It wasn’t the Great Father’s idea?” Faarek asked, washing his brush. “The whole thing seemed…very Daar.”

“Yeah, Ava said he kinda ran the show from the moment he turned up. Turned the whole relationship between interviewer and interviewee on its head.”

“…That sounds like him, alright. The, uh, ‘worstest’ part is how he doesn’t mean to do it, either.”

“Usually.”

“Yeah.”

“Anyway,” Firth decided to drag things back on topic, “I just…I dunno. Are you okay with this?”

“Dude. If I wasn’t I’d have told her to do it someplace else,” Adam said. He tied and broke off a thread, then picked up the next item he was working on. “I think it’s a good thing they’re doing.”

“…Yeah. I know. I’m sorry, I just worry. I think I’m gettin’ old.”

“You’re a senior master sergeant now. Being old is, like, required.”

Titan chuckled. “And you’re gonna be a family man too. All sorts of old man going on!”

“Maybe that’s why I’m worried? I dunno.”

‘Horse sighed and put down his sewing. “What are you worried about, anyway? Is there something specific, or are you just, like, generally anxious?”

“This is Ava we’re talkin’ about, bro… Is she gonna fuck over Coombes like she did with you?”

Wrong thing to say. Titan suddenly became even more interested in his book, while Faarek glanced sharply at ‘Horse, his nose twitched, and then he quickly slunk out of the room on four-paw. ‘Horse meanwhile gave Firth the cold murder-glare and slowly pushed his sewing kit aside.

“…Right.” He stood up. “This little conversation keeps happening and it’s gettin real goddamned old. Let’s take this to the mat.”

Finally, a chance to knock some sense into that thick fuckin’ skull. “Awright. I’ve been wantin’ a good spar anyway.”

Adam didn’t say anything. But he was obviously in a fuckin’ mood, because he didn’t even try to soften his footsteps when he walked. He wrenched the door aside, padded over to and calmly walked down the stairs, shaking the building with every step he took.

They gym was pretty busy, full of guys catching up on their mandatories. Not just HEAT, but JETS, techs, navy…

Adam just boomed a single, irresistible syllable: “Out.”

The gym paused for one heartbeat, then emptied in two.

…He really was too fuckin’ good at intimidatin’ people, goddamn.

Adam stomped over to the sparring room, stuck his thumb on the security sensor and cranked the gravity up to something well north of absurd. He pulled off his tank top and shorts, raised his huge fists, then beckoned Firth to enter.

…Fuck. Firth didn’t remember Adam ever lookin’ so goddamned dangerous. Something about the look on his face, or the way his whole body was tensed up maybe…whatever. Time to dance. Adam rolled his ridiculously thick bullneck until it popped, then glowered at Firth. “Y’know what? I love the shit outta you, bro. But you’ve been raggin’ on her since forever. That’s gonna fuckin’ stop.”

Adam bounced lightly on his toes like was dancing on the fuckin’ moon.

“I love your loyalty,” Firth retorted, pulling his own clothes off and taking up a position opposite. The gravity was fuckin’ oppressive but he didn’t let that show. “Ava don’t deserve it.”

Warhorse flashed across the room so fuckin’ fast, Firth could hardly see him coming before—

There was a painful, desperate blur of blindingly fast defense, relentlessly knocked aside by a much faster, much stronger attacker. No time for thinking, just react, react, react. No time to counterattack, no time for anything.

He was getting pushed backward into the wall. In desperation, he leapt sideways to try and get some clearance, but Adam was so fucking fast—

Firth found himself flat on his back. Unhappy, Warhorse snarled, picked Firth up and flung him clear across the room like a sack of potatoes. He hit the wall so hard, he swore he heard something break. Firth didn’t even have a heartbeat to recover before Warhorse was right there like a bolt of lightning, pile-driving fists into his gut. The first one smacked him off his feet and back into the cinderblocks hard enough that Firth felt them crack behind him. Not even a blink later, Warhorse’s other fist landed. The second hit was much harder, followed by a third that felt like he was honestly trying to punch his fist right through Firth’s gut. He would have retched, but a fourth blow came right as his feet touched the floor. This one was so unbelievably strong that it bounced him back against the wall and sent him spinning. Firth fell, dazed and dizzy.

Warhorse instantly pinned Firth in a reverse bearhug, casually smashing the breath out of his lungs. Then the big monster switched to a leg pin, wrapped one of his gargantuan arms around Firth’s neck, and squeezed him from head to toe like a tube of fuckin’ toothpaste. Warhorse toyed with his prey for a moment, then rolled over and settled his insane, iron-like weight on top of Firth’s hips, crushing him inescapably into the floor. The fight couldn’t even have gone on for ten seconds by then, it was so fuckin’ fast.

Warhorse snarled, “Havin’ fun?”

“Hgh–!!”

“I was thinkin’ I’d spend the next few hours breaking you on the mat,” Warhorse growled in Firth’s ear, then bore down so much harder, Firth’s vision faded towards black. Right before he passed out, Warhorse relented slightly. “But nah. You ain’t gonna last, are you?”

Firth tried to reply, but that fuckin’ titanic bicep was crushing his neck flat like it was a goddamned soda straw. Warhorse barely twitched that absurd arm of his, and just that tiny little movement had Firth’s trachea crackling in fuckin’ agony. He clawed desperately to get any kind of relief, but it was no good, he couldn’t budge Warhorse’s arm in the slightest. Hell, he couldn’t even dent it, and Firth had a grip that could break rocks and crumble oak apart in his hands. Firth may as well have been squeezing forged steel.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, Firth realized he had hugely underestimated ‘Horse, or maybe overestimated himself. Maybe both. Either way, he had made a big fuckin’ mistake.

That point wasn’t lost on Warhorse either, who tightened his legs around Firth’s waist and hips with so much force that he was seeing stars, then snarled right next to his ear. “Yeah, didn’t think so. I think instead I’mma use you like a wresslin’ dummy ‘till I’m feeling bored, then I’m gonna pin you down and beat the ever-lovin’ shit outta you.”

He did.

Being wrestled by an angry Warhorse must have been like being shoved into a meat grinder. It didn’t take him but a minute or two to crush Firth’s muscles into spasming goo, followed by a long interlude of toying agony just to prove his point. Satisfied, Warhorse dismounted and flipped Firth over so fiercely, even that made him see stars. The big monster grinned savagely and let Firth turtle up, but there really weren’t no point to it. Warhorse mounted from the top, completely ignoring Firth’s puny attempts to fend him off. He again wrapped Firth up in his ridiculous legs, grunted quietly and smashed him flat. That hurt. Firth couldn’t buck, couldn’t wiggle his his arms or legs free. He was utterly defenseless.

“I’m done with my warmup.” Warhorse closed his huge fist right in front of Firth’s face. “You gonna lay offa her?”

“…She’s…she’s gonna hurt—”

The real beating commenced.

Warhorse methodically punched, crushed, tossed and thrashed Firth until every inch of his body was basically a huge, livid bruise. Eventually, it ended. He had no idea how long it lasted. Adam’s fists were covered in blood, and Firth couldn’t even figure which way was up. Everything hurt.

“Get up.”

It took him a few attempts, but Firth finally managed to figure out which side was the ground, and wobbled to his feet.

Adam nodded. He was sweaty but the fucker wasn’t even breathing heavy. Just…

“You leave her the fuck alone.”

Firth couldn’t. He knew what he was about to earn, fully knew how pathetically fuckin’ weak he was compared to Warhorse, and knew how badly he needed to say his peace. Firth had seen too many women like her, watched them wreck so many lives. “She…she ain’t worth it, bro.”

Warhorse beat him again.

Worse. Much worse.

Firth didn’t remember any of it, besides pain.

This time, when it stopped and the demand to get back on his feet came, he honestly couldn’t. The damn ground kept tipping sideways and dropping him back on his ass. He finally managed to get to his feet, felt the world fade out, toppled forward, fell—

Adam bolted forward, caught and eased him down to the ground.

“…Fuck.” Adam sat down next to Firth and sighed. “I overdid it, huh?”

Somehow, a coherent thought found its way through the fog in his brain. “Nuh. G’t… get it… outta yer system.”

Adam rumbled darkly to himself and nodded. They both knew the truth: the kind of hate that men like them could muster never went away.

Instead, Adam went away for a few seconds. When he came back, there was the familiar cold stinging sensation of a Crude patch as he applied it to Firth’s underarm, right next to the artery.

“Stay down, I think I broke some stuff.”

“Y’think…?”

Adam gave him a look halfway toward an apology. “Okay…I know.”

The pain faded. It took a while, but eventually it rolled back enough that Firth could open his eyes and act like a human being again. ‘Horse was sitting there cross-legged, patiently waiting for him to speak.

“Look. I’m…” Firth groaned and raised himself on his elbows. “I won’t ever trust her. Ever. I don’t care how much good she does, she hurt you. Others, too. I ain’t ever gonna forgive it.”

Adam growled. “You know what I remember? I remember her crawling into a goddamn collapsing building to save a child ‘cuz both our asses were too big to fit!”

“I never said she weren’t a good person. I just said I can’t forgive her. I never said I were a good christian, neither. I try, but…”

Adam deflated a bit at that.

“Well… you could at least stop treating her like she was a goddamned leper,” he said.

“I can try. And maybe you can stop bein’ such a fuckin’ white knight? None of us like lyin’ and pretendin’ like it’s all okay.”

“She’s my sister, man. She’s family! What the fuck do you want from me?”

“…God, maybe that’s part of it. I dunno. I just…we love you, bro. Like, in that impossible fuckin’ way y’can’t describe, y’know?” Firth rested his head back down on the mat. “…At least tell me it was, like, a workout to beat me this fuckin’ senseless.”

Adam gave him a somewhat guilty smile. “Well…I broke a sweat, if that helps.”

Despite himself, a laugh wheezed its way up from between Firth’s aching ribs. “…Fuck you. You get sweaty on a frosty morning!”

“Well, so do you…”

They sat in silence for few moments longer, before Adam shifted uncomfortably.

“…You really fuckin’ hate her.”

Firth closed his eyes and groaned. “What’m I supposed to do? We’re brothers, man. We look out for each other. And she hurt you, bad. C’mon, the fuck makes you think I’m ever gonna forgive that?”

“Because I have!” Adam snapped.

“Y’ever think maybe she’s just got you wrapped around her finger?”

“Coombes too? I say she’s cool. He says she’s cool. All the others fuckin’ trust us on this so why don’t you?”

“Because they’re fuckin’ terrified o’ you, ‘Horse. Only reason I pushed it is ‘cuz I thought I could stand up to you. Learned my fuckin’ lesson…”

“And Coombes? None’a them are terrified of him!” ‘Horse retorted.

“After you made ‘yer point ‘bout them dating? Don’t pretend that weren’t an implicit threat.”

That at least got a slightly frustrated growl while ‘Horse swiped the sweat from his face. “Fine. Look, bro… Y’don’t have to trust her. But why the fuck can’t you trust me?!”

Firth groaned and sat up again. His whole body felt like one giant bloody bruise. “…It ain’t that simple…” he tried to object, but honestly that one had hurt in a place the beating couldn’t touch.

“Like fuck it ain’t,” Adam snarled. “Bro, you know I’ve got your back through anything, even after this… I need you to have my back too.”

“I do!” Firth retorted, and gestured at the wall he’d been damn near punched through. “That’s what this was all fuckin’ about!”

Adam jerked his head sharply in disagreement. “No. You’re tryin’ to protect me, an’ that’s my job, bro. What I need from you is you let me take a risk, an’ Coombes too. An’… fuck. If you’re right, and she proves me wrong an’ breaks Coombes’ heart? You can say I-told-you-so an’ I won’t never trust somebody you don’t ever again. But… shit, d’you want to be right about her?”

Firth heaved a sigh. “I said I’d try,” he reminded Adam. “But you can’t make me forgive her, bro. Ever. No matter how hard you beat me. Only way that happens, maybe, is she earns it.”

“So give her a chance to earn it!”

Firth sighed deeply and lay back on the mat again. “…I’ll try.”

They relaxed for a while, putting the anger behind them both. It wasn’t easy. Probably not many men could have put a beating like that in the past.

…And… Christ. That hadn’t even been a fight. It had been a fuckin’ one-sided beatdown. Adam had just taken him to fuckin’ school and punched any notions Firth might have had of them being evenly matched clean out of him. That was somethin’ to chew over for a long time.

Beside him, Adam awkwardly shifted again.

“…We cool?”

Firth groaned, sat up, looked at him. “…You tell me. You gonna let her come between us, man?”

That turned out to be the first thing he did that caused any damage. Adam paused, then a slow ashamed look dawned on his face.

“…Okay,” he said. “No more white knighting. She can look after herself.”

“Damn straight. You do that, I’ll try to lay off… and yeah.” Firth held out a hand. “We’re cool.”

He grimaced and tried to ignore the pain as he got the fiercest kind of Warhorse Hug. Adam, mercifully, noticed that he should loosen up a bit after a few seconds, and they hugged it out with an acceptable minimum of discomfort on Firth’s part.

Adam scooted a bit closer. “…Firth?”

“Yeah?”

“…I’m really sorry.” He meant it, too.

Firth palmed the back of Adam’s head and pulled him tight. “I know.”

They held for a long moment longer. The surprise came when ‘Horse stood up and hit the button that returned the gravity to Earth normal. That was a weight off Firth’s battered shoulders, and he groaned as normal Gs actually left him feeling nearly weightless.

“What…the fuck you turn it up to? Fuckin’ Jupiter?!”

Adam cleared his throat. “Uh…let’s just say you, me, Yan, and Daar are ‘bout the only people who could take it.” He offered a hand and helped Firth to his feet. “I got better grav plating after Dark Eye and I’ve been slowly acclimating us to it.”

“Fuck.” There was nothing else to say.

“Hey, you’re still gettin’ stronger though! You didn’t seem to notice at first…” Adam enthused as he opened the door so they could head back out into the main gym hall. He looked like he was returning to something like his usual happy-puppy demeanor…

Right up until he got a metaphorical ice bath when the gym turned out to contain Captain Costello. He was standing in the middle of the room with his arms folded and an absolutely arctic expression of disapproval written across his face, and it occurred to Firth that they may have just been very, very dumb.

“We need to talk, gentlemen,” the captain said.

…Shit.


Date Point: 15y9m2w AV
Ceres Base, Asteroid Belt, Sol

Drew Cavendish

“Let me see if I understand this correctly. You’re saying that the whole of Ceres, including Boop, managed to get out of synch with Earth by nearly ten minutes?”

Drew nodded solemnly. “Yes. That doesn’t happen. We’re using ovenized quartz oscillators in our time servers, they lose like a second every fifty years. And we account for Relativity, too.”

“And that was just missed somehow?” Adele seemed understandably incredulous.

“The mis-match was so huge that the servers assumed there was an error and requested an update from the atomic clock Earthside. That re-adjusted all the timepieces on base, the scheduled comms and supplies jumps… everything. And because the update had a valid explanation…” Drew shrugged. “It’s not like these systems were designed to accommodate causality manipulation. Especially not across the entire asteroid. That’s a five-hundred-kilometer radius temporal dilation field somebody put up.”

Adele shook her head disbelievingly. “How in the heck didn’t we notice that then? Wouldn’t that involve a lot of energy?”

“Yup. Just as much as, say, one of the ore drones needs to go to warp.” Drew grimaced. “Once we knew what to look for, the timing was immaculate. ”

“And how didn’t we notice ten minutes suddenly going missing in our day?”

Drew shrugged. “A-shift was asleep, B-shift were busy, and most of C-shift were watching the season finale of Four Branches,” he said. “What were you doing halfway through B-shift that day?”

“Uh…I think I was reviewing the proposal for expanding the habitation levels and adding a creche,” Adele frowned. “…Or the monthly shareholder report. One of the two.”

“Right. You weren’t watching the clock, at least. You were working. And you don’t work to the clock anyway, do you?”

Adele shook her head. Much like Drew, she didn’t have that luxury: she worked until her In tray was empty. If that meant a fifteen-hour day, then she worked a fifteen-hour day.

“Right,” Drew repeated.

“So where does this leave us?”

“It’s a rabbit hole, at least. I don’t know how deep it goes or what kind of wacky fun we’ll find down it, but it’s more than we had yesterday.”

“It rules out the APA though, doesn’t it? Temporal manipulation is a Hierarchy trick.”

“Ergh…” Drew squirmed a little. “In theory, temporal manipulation and warp technology are the exact same thing. We just haven’t figured out how it’s done, yet. But the only difference between a stasis generator and a warp drive is what kind of a pretzel they make out of spacetime.”

“There’s a comforting thought…” Adele muttered.

“Why, what could possibly be alarming about manipulating the curvature of the universe?” Drew asked. It made her laugh a little at least. “I mean… you’re right. The only people we know use that trick are Hierarchy.”

“Which means they’re our number one suspect now. We’re absolutely sure that nobody is implanted?”

“Absolutely everyone is accounted-for and checked. There isn’t a single cerebral implant on this asteroid, guaranteed.”

“So we have a Hierarchy trick, but no biodrone…” Adele sighed and brushed some stray hair out of her face. She looked as tired as Drew felt. “That’s going to be fun when I explain it to our friends from AEC… But does it explain how the bomb went missing, or who took it?”

“Not exactly. Actually, it massively increases the number of suspects. The time… thing… happened exactly after the missing bomb had been signed for and loaded but before the magazine was locked up. That all happened, while Boop was still docked, so the list of suspects now includes everyone in the loading bay too.”

“…Wonderful. One step forward, three backwards.”

“Sorry Adele. There’s still a lot we want to dig through, hopefully now that we know where to look some more clues will fall out.”

“Before you do that, Drew…” Adele’s tone was careful.

“What?”

“It was Drew M’s idea to check that detail, you said?”

“Yes…?”

Adele fidgeted by tapping a nail on her desktop twice before standing up. “…He was on Boop when this happened,” she pointed out. “Which means he’s a suspect.”

“I thought we all are,” Drew retorted. “We’re all under investigation aren’t we?”

“The whole company is under investigation. That’s not the same thing as each individual being a suspect. You have an absolutely airtight alibi and so do I: Neither of us were on the ship or in the loading bay when that bomb went missing. He was.”

Drew shook his head. “Adele, he’s given us the first breakthrough of the investigation. You can’t seriously be telling me you suspect him!”

“I know he’s your best friend. And I agree that coming up with that is a point in his favor. But yes, I suspect him. We have to. So I have to question why you’re allowing him to help in the investigation.”

“Because he’s…. He wouldn’t!” Drew floundered. “Adele, be reasonable–”

“I am. You’re the one who’s putting loyalty ahead of reason.” She stood square in front of him, and not for the first time Drew found himself marvelling at just how much presence an aging Korean woman six inches shorter than him could muster. Adele never looked up at anybody, even when she was in fact physically aiming her face upward. “The stakes are too high for that, Drew.”

“He’s given us our first thread to pull on! That’s a direct sabotage of this bomb heist!” Drew argued. Anger and outrage on his friend’s behalf were warring with the fact that on some level he knew Adele had a point.

“Or a red herring to sabotage the investigation.”

“Oh, come on–!”

“Drew.” She cut him off with just his own name. “…You know I’m right.”

Drew shook his head sharply. “I know damn well that you’re not, and I’m going to prove it.”

“Please do,” she said evenly. “But until you do, I don’t want him taking any further part in the investigation.”

Drew glared at her. He didn’t voice the thought that slipped darkly into his head that out of everyone here, Adele had had the most direct contact with the enemy. Who knew what they could have done to her during her abduction? She was well-placed to sabotage the investigation herself, after all.

But, damn her, she was right. There were very few people on Ceres who weren’t suspect, and the most suspect were those who’d actually been on I Met God And She Booped My Nose. There was no getting around that. Not without solid evidence. And as much as it infuriated him right now, Drew prided himself on trying to be a rational, practical sort of man.

He backed down. “…I don’t like it. But alright.”

She nodded primly. “Thanks… is there anything else I can do for you right now, Drew?”

“No, thank you Adele. I’m… I need to let Drew know. And get some sleep, I guess.”

“Then I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Sure. See you tomorrow.”

He left her office feeling deeply frustrated. He’d gone in with such good news, and now…

Nothing for it. They at least had a breakthrough. Even without Drew moving forward, he’d given them something to work at.

That would have to be enough.


Date Point: 15y9m2w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Captain Anthony Costello

Firth couldn’t even stand up straight. He was trying to stand upright, but there was barely a square inch of him that wasn’t bruised, grazed, scraped or bloody. It was more than his body could handle to actually stand properly at attention.

Arés on the other hand was merely a bit sweatier than normal, and his knuckles looked raw. Up until this moment, Costello had always reckoned the two men were about on the same level.

Firth may have believed that, too. Not anymore.

“…I presume you’ve taken a dose of Crude, Senior Master Sergeant?”

“Yessir.”

“Is there anything either of you want to comment on?”

Both men chorused a “nossir.”

“Will there be any problem going forward?”

Firth spoke up, “Nossir.” Arés glanced over at him and seemed subtly relieved.

“Hmm.” Costello nodded. They were protecting each other, which meant they were still brothers. Good. However… “…I don’t care who started this. You’re both supposed to know better. So it comes as a disappointing surprise to me that you apparently don’t. This gym is supposed to be full of servicemen getting their PT in but instead I find it full of just you two and I note that the fucking walls are damaged. Were you two role-playing as a crane and a wrecking ball?”

Neither man ventured an answer.

“This is not your personal playground. We have unit readiness to consider, and the men whose workouts you interrupted today are going to have to make up the difference later. All because the NCO in charge of physical training—that’s you, Technical Sergeant Arés—decided to interrupt them to take care of a personal squabble. Can you tell me why, exactly, you felt it necessary to literally beat your senior NCO to within an inch of his life?”

“I ain’t hurt all that bad, sir,” Firth said loyally.

“Don’t lie for him, Senior Master Sergeant. Your left eye is swollen shut, your jaw is crooked, and I’d bet a million dollars that you’ll be pissing blood later. You can barely stand at attention! Right now you’re in no fit state to wear an EV-MASS, so I definitely need to know why Warhorse here felt it was appropriate to inflict that kind of damage on you.”

Neither man said anything. Of course not.

“Right. Well, I can about guess anyway. So here’s the deal, sergeants. You’re both confined to barracks, and I don’t give one wet fart how much your wives complain. You earned this, and I will be explaining the situation to them personally.”

“Sir, I’ll be fine in–”

“I didn’t order you to fucking speak, sergeant!”

He finally got silence, save for the echo of his own voice. He let it die, glaring into Firth’s good eye until the last ring was gone, then returned his attention to Arés.

“A fine job of protecting you did just now, wouldn’t you say?”

That was almost too cruel, and had Arés on the verge of tears almost instantly. It didn’t matter, this point needed making. “I know good and damn well the Crude will have him fixed up in a day, but that doesn’t matter. What would I do without my best Aggressor?”

No answer.

“Right. Firth, you are ordered to convalesce. Arés, you are to spend every single last waking second in heavy physical training until I decide otherwise, like the immature pipeline child you so clearly are. You are going to pay for everyone’s wasted time by yourself. If I find you doing anything besides eat, sleep, or train? I am going to make this punishment formal. Once you feel up to it, Firth, you are to join him in his sentence. Do I make myself crystal clear?”

They both belted out, “Yes sir!”

“Good. Now.” Time for the carrot. “Technical Sergeant Ares, were you aware you were being considered for early promotion?”

“…No sir. I wasn’t.”

“Up until now, you were a shoo-in for STEP promotion. The Air Force saw fit to give us two slots before anyone else. Do you know how valuable those are?”

“…”

“The total number of STEP promotions number in the dozens, some years. Now I can no longer justify something like that with you, can I?”

Beating on Adam was exactly like kicking a puppy, but he needed it right now. “No sir.”

“Right. That said, your next eval is a long way away. We just did your EPR last month, after all. That gives you almost a whole year to so thoroughly impress me that I might not remember this incident when Firth here writes your next EPR. So that’s two people you will need to inspire, and one of them you just beat so hard he can’t stand up straight. You broke my walls with him. So…you’ve got a bit of a challenge ahead of you, huh?”

“Yessir.”

Costello allowed himself to soften a little. “…Understand me, sergeant. I want you to impress me. I think you can. God knows you earned those bronze stars. The Air Force needs you, and we need the best version of you. We need that noble man who has an Air Force Cross pending under his name for a mission we can’t talk about here. We don’t particularly need the fastest and strongest man to ever live as a literal uncontrollable rampaging hulk. Think you’re up to it?”

“Yes sir!”

That, Costello decided, was probably as much as he needed to do. Stick applied, carrot wafted… now for the other player in this drama.

“As for you, senior master sergeant…” he said, turning to Firth, “I don’t want to know the details. I’m pretty certain I know enough anyway. But let me ask you this: does it become a senior NCO to provoke such a pointless dick-measuring contest? Especially one you stood absolutely no goddamned hope of winning?”

Firth was not a man to be easily shamed. But he had a strong sense of duty, and pricking at that had to be the most constructive way forward.

“…Nosir. It don’t. I was stupid. Most o’ the blame lies on me.”

“Is that the sort of example you want to set?”

“…No.”

“No. And we both know you’re capable of so much more. I’ve seen your self-discipline. I know the standards you set for yourself…and I expect you to live up to them, senior master sergeant.”

“Yessir.”

“Good. Now. You two go get cleaned up and make arrangements. Call your wives, tell them you’re living in the barracks until I say otherwise. Word of advice? Don’t sugar-coat it. The spouse gossip network on base is strong… and I’m pretty sure any women who can handle you two can see through a mile of bullshit anyway.”

That earned an unconscious, rueful nod from Arés. Costello chose not to notice.

“Right. Dismissed.”

He inspected the damage to the sparring room once they were gone and had to take a moment to shake is head in disbelief.

Just…holy hell.

They hadn’t knocked out anything structural, but those were cinderblocks they’d smashed. Or, that ‘Horse had smashed using Firth. The facilities personnel were going to have conniptions when they saw it.

The interrupted servicemen who’d had their PT so rudely disrupted started trickling back in now that the Hulk and the Juggernaut weren’t duking it out any longer, and he got out of their way to let them marvel at the aftermath. He had paperwork to get back to, not to mention his own PT to think about later in the afternoon. Paperwork first: that way he could blow the mental cobwebs out, rather than going home sore and stressed.

It wasn’t really a surprise to him when he found Powell standing “innocently” in front of the vending machines in the admin building, apparently lost in deep contemplation on the finer mysteries of candy bars. He glanced over as Costello entered, and contrived to communicate with nothing more than eye contact and the faintest nod that they should chat.

Of course. Nothing escaped the CO’s attention.

“Good afternoon, sir.”

“Afternoon, Costello… finally happened, huh?”

“Finally happened, yeah. The walls in the sparring room need repairs.”

“Aye, those two. I give ‘em some allowance, because no other humans anywhere have the same load o’ testosterone messing with their minds. Even still…”

“We can’t have them indulging their worst instincts.”

“No,” Powell agreed. “You catch what it was about in the end?”

“Something about ‘Horse’s sister.”

“Fookin’ knew it would be…” Powell muttered. He sighed and punched in the code for a Snickers. When the machine as always failed to vend it properly, he slapped it high on the side and watched the ostensibly snagged bar drop into the tray. Apparently the vendors hadn’t noticed the large dent from men repeatedly striking the machine. “…They gettin’ on okay?”

“Covered for each other.”

“Aye, thought they would. This one’s been a long time comin’. Might even do ‘em good.”

Costello shrugged. “I dunno… Firth was bloody mess. Literally.”

“And Arés?”

“Not a mark on him. Incredible. An hour ago, I’d have called it a coin toss.”

Powell smiled, a little grimly. “See, that’s why I reckon it’ll be good for ‘em. Firth is prideful, getting his arse kicked like that might help him see where his weaknesses are. Might eventually get an Aggressor on ‘Horse’s level.”

“And ‘Horse needs a good hard reminder of what his responsibilities are now and then.”

“Aye. He’d become a fookin’ terror if not.”

“…He isn’t now? Firth could break anyone else in the blink of an eye, and Arés beat him stupid.”

“Aye. And that was fookin’ restrained. If he really wanted to, he could kill Firth just like that.” Powell snapped his fingers. “Maybe it’s good he sees that in himself, sometimes. It’ll absolutely be good for Firth.”

“You think?” Costello asked, deciding to grab a snack himself. “A wounded ego can set a guy back…”

“Not Firth. The thing to know about him, is he grew up the best there was. He’s got that mindset, through and through. If he’s ever to meet or beat Arés—and he may just be able to—then he needs to take himself much, much more seriously, and stop coasting on his natural ability.”

“The Crude resistance will start eventually, too. He’s running out of time.”

“Aye. And Arés will feel guilty about this little incident for a long while. He’ll probably be pushing Firth as hard as he can go… what’d you do with them, anyway?”

“Confined to barracks, and they’re to PT themselves like they’re back in the pipeline until I say stop. I figure having explain to their wives why they’re going to have to fend for themselves for a while is gonna sting, too.”

“That’s definitely gonna prick at ‘Horse. Not bein’ able to cuddle the baby.”

Costello shrugged. “He should have thought of that before he used Firth as a pinata.”

“Truth.” Powell finished his chocolate bar and carefully disposed of the wrapper. “We’re cavemen at heart. Sometimes, we need to communicate on that level, too. That’s something the more civilized o’ us tend to forget.”

Costello nodded. “Anyway. I need to get on with what I was doing.”

“Aye, me too. Have fun wi’it.”

Costello gave a nod and returned to his paperwork. At some point Martina and Freya stopped by to drop off some things with their men…neither of them seemed particularly happy.

Eventually he gave up on his paperwork and prowled down to the gym to check in and get his own lifting done. Adam was on the special heavy-duty rings with a ludicrous amount of weight chained around his waist and the gravity cranked all the way up. His headphones were on, he was somehow holding himself in an iron cross, and his expression was totally blank.

Costello knew Adam well enough to know that was him at his absolute angriest. It wasn’t wise to interrupt the Hulk while was angry, so Costello attended to his own routine. Much later, when the sun was down and he was heading home for the evening, Adam was still there on the rings, soaked from head to toe in sweat and yet more weight chained to his waist, his skin a deep ruddy red from exertion. A puddle had formed on the floor beneath him, yet he was still hauling himself up and down, and still expressionless.

Sometimes, the worst punishment anyone could endure was the one they gave themselves.


“Laid Bare—Warriors in their own words” Issue #2: Derek Coombes Author and photographer: Ava Magdalena Ríos

“The funny thing was, it didn’t really hurt. Like, I knew I’d been shot, but the pain only came later, when I was safe. In the moment I just knew if I stayed where I was, I was dead. So, I kept moving.”

Master Sergeant Derek Coombes has a small scar just below his left shoulder blade, and a much larger one under his left armpit. These mark the places where, during a classified operation a few years ago, a bullet passed through his lung.

I was there when it happened. It was, in fact, how we met.

The details are classified and cannot be reproduced here, but I can reveal that two of Derek’s comrades fell in the line of duty that day. Derek himself only survived because, despite coughing blood and suffering from a progressively collapsing lung, he was able to talk a terrified young reporter through the lifesaving medical attention he needed.

[Image: a close shot of Coombes’ ribs, showing both entry and exit wound scars. In the background is clearly a gym, currently empty of other members.]

“So yeah. That was my second Purple Heart.”

Out of how many?

“Three.”

Coombes is now a senior NCO in the Spaceborne Operations Regiment, having previously served in the United States Army Special Forces (perhaps more widely known as the “green berets.”) He was a founding member of Joint Exo-Terran Scouts (JETS) Team One, and now oversees the administration and training of JETS teams. He is effectively “retired” from operational use and therefore agreed to an interview under his name, instead of a callsign.

And, in the interests of full disclosure, we are romantically involved. While it would usually be deeply unprofessional for a journalist to report on their partner, I hope in this case it can be forgiven as this entire project was originally Derek’s idea. He feels strongly that it is important to expose some important truths about military service, and enlisted my help in bringing them to light.

Given the photographic treatment, one might expect this to be an enjoyable project, especially between boy and girl. That would be a mistake: Today’s session was painful and raw.

[Image: Coombes covered in beads of sweat as he struggles through a bench press.]

Although the fitness standards necessary to enter basic training have changed repeatedly over the last several decades, combat arms have always demanded an absolutely relentless degree of physical fitness, and special forces in particular are expected to maintain a standard that the average civilian might think impossible. Despite moving to a desk job, Derek has maintained this high standard and he prepared for our shoot by completing “The Murph.”

Named to honor Lt. Michael P. Murphy of the US Navy SEALS, this infamous exercise challenge consists of a one mile run, a hundred pullups, two hundred situps, three hundred squats and then another mile run, all while wearing twenty pounds of weighted vest or body armour. Derek’s best time to complete this beastly challenge stands at thirty-six minutes and forty seconds: yesterday, he completed it in just over forty-two minutes, which he describes as “Not great, but not too bad for a desk jockey.”

What were the other two Purple Hearts for?

[Image: Coombes’ lean, well-trained abdomen as he does bicep curls with a barbell. There is a crescent-shaped scar halfway between his ribs and his right hip.]

“First one was shrapnel from a mortar round. Don’t think we ever figured out who fired it or where from, but it landed about… twice as far from me as where you’re standing. I was the only one got hurt, so of course I got roasted about it the whole rest of my career…”

He chuckles fondly at the memory.

And the third?

“Radiation poisoning. Can’t go into details, sorry.”

Most of his career is classified. In fact, it’s only now that he has retired to a desk job that allows him to do this interview or permits me to use his name at all. Serving Operators are usually kept anonymous.

What inspired you to enlist in the first place?

“My grandpa served. It kinda skipped a generation because he didn’t have any sons, but I remember being real proud of him and inspired by him. I didn’t sign up straight away though. I kinda had a wild phase after high school, met a girl, had a kid, got married, got divorced not long after… She got full custody. It wasn’t fair but I didn’t have the money to challenge the court ruling and I didn’t really have any good career prospects. And I guess I saw a recruiting poster and thought maybe if I went the same route grandpa did I could make him proud and make something of myself.”

Have you ever regretted it?

“Well, there was this one time I got shot that kinda sucked…”

[Image: The first full-frontal image of the article depicts Coombes laughing while hanging from a pull-up bar, chin above the line.]

“But… No. Once I was in, I realized pretty quick that I was doing what I’m good at.”

Which is?

“Killing my enemies.”

He gives that answer levelly and calmly.

Some would argue that’s not something to be proud of.

[Image: Coombes standing in the middle of the gym staring levelly and seriously into the camera.]

“That depends on who my enemy is. I can absolutely be proud of killing my enemy if my enemy is somebody who makes the world a worse place for being alive. If my enemy is the kind of monster who’d raid a school, kidnap the girls for sex slaves and murder the boys and teachers, well…sometimes people need killing.”

That isn’t your whole job though, is it?

“No, of course not. My career is all about training peoples to defend themselves. Lately that’s become very relevant with the Ten’Gewek. But even that is… I’m still training somebody else to kill their enemies. And if we’re training them, their enemy is our enemy. So it still comes back to the same thing, really.”

US Army Special Forces are known to specialize in that sort of training, and have a long history of training counter-insurgents, militias, or the armies of US-supported governments.

It’s at this point in the conversation that one of Derek’s colleagues, an utterly colossal man who uses the callsign “Righteous,” accidentally interrupts us. They catch up, Derek explains what he’s doing, and neither makes any mention of the fact that he’s standing stark naked in the middle of the gym.

[Image: Coombes exchanging a fist-bump and a joke with “Righteous,” who stands just outside the camera’s view.]

I giggle despite myself and cannot resist poking a little fun at them both once “Righteous” has gone downstairs for his workout.

You two seemed pretty comfortable just then…

“You did see what he was wearing, right?”

They were impossible to miss. Anybody who spends much time around the military will quickly become familiar with the infamous “ranger panties,” or “silkies” in naval traditions. These rather brief PT shorts are… an acquired taste of some of the combat arms. The HEAT in particular have embraced them and made a running joke of the juxtaposition between tiny shorts and the gargantuan men who wear them.

“Anyways, in this line of work, there really ain’t any secrets left to keep, you know? We’ve known each other for years anyway.”

Even still.

“What can I say? We were both young once, and we liked to party pretty hard. Something like this ain’t nothing on some of the embarrassing things we’ve got up to.”

A lot of civilians think of the military as very straight-laced and even prudish.

“Oh, fuck no, especially not in the combat arms. I’ve heard us described as the ‘campest group of straight men ever’ and it’s hard to dispute that. We share everything and there ain’t no privacy. Food, socks, whatever. If it’s cold in the field, a bunch of us might pile on top of each other just to stay warm. There’s memes on the internet about it, and everything. There’s a…uh, a closeness. Yeah. It’s hard to describe. It doesn’t feel gay at all. They’re like brothers to me.”

Most people wouldn’t feel comfortable being naked around their brother.

[Image: Coombes laughing and unscrewing his water bottle. His forearm ripples around yet another scar, its story untold.]

“Maybe not exactly like brothers, then, but that’s the word we use. It’s a close relationship. Intimate. I know things about that giant motherfucker that he won’t even admit to himself. He probably does for me, too.”

How do you cope with losing somebody you’re that close to?

[Image: Coombes staring at nothing in particular, still holding his water bottle.]

He goes silent for a very long time.

“…You don’t, really.”

That isn’t an easy statement to move past. I wait for a moment, and try to prod him for more.

You carry on, though. I’ve never known any of you to give up on anything.

“Yeah. But it’s… It’s a wound. And not like these little love taps here.”

He indicates the scars on his torso.

“[Righteous] and me, we’ve lost a hell of a lot of people over the years. Sometimes we’ll just…go have a beer or something, not say anything. Other times we’ll tell stories and it’s like it never happened, no sadness or anything.”

What about in the moment when it happens?

“That’s… hard to describe. There isn’t really any thought about it. You just act. Thinking comes after. Feeling comes after. Then and there in the moment, you just… do.”

Do what?

“…What you’re trained for. What’s in front of you. I…”

[Centerpiece Image: The focal image of the shoot depicts Coombes, still standing in the middle of the gym. His fists are balled, his body is tensed, his teeth are gritted and his eyes are screwed shut. He is very clearly fighting back some intense emotions.]

“…And then you have to trust. You have to trust that these fucking heroes you called brother weren’t wasted. That their lives actually meant something, you know? You have to go back home and try to keep moving forward and hope that maybe this time, maybe they actually bought a better future. And that’s hard to do, ‘cuz I look back through the last few decades, and I see case after case where we fucking WON, we built the impossible out of a mountain of corpses, and then it all got thrown away. And when you can look back and see that… it doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for trust.

“It’s not just losing brothers that hurts, either. It’s all the killing you do on the mission, and it’s all the translators and informants who get screwed when we leave…. In war, all are equal.”

And yet, you re-enlisted.

He doesn’t answer my observation directly. Instead he nods, sits down and thinks for a little while.

“…Different guys handle it differently. [Righteous] is…he’s made for this. That’s why he’s called Righteous. If he thinks it’s the right thing to do, and for his purpose that usually boils down to ‘was it a lawful order,’ then he just…does the mission. He don’t lose a wink of sleep over it. And honestly, now that he’s married and got a kid on the way, I don’t see him getting any softer.”

And you?

“Transferring to Spaceborne Operations helped. Like, a lot. Because if there’s one area where the SOR is really blessed, it’s that we know this is an honest-to-God battle between good and evil. The entire human race is under siege and there’s no reason we can’t unleash ourselves on our enemies. They want us dead and there ain’t no way they’ll change their minds.”

[Image: Coombes looking fierce as he holds a deadlift.]

It is important to point out something interesting about Coombes: on the street, he looks and acts like an everyday fit man. There is nothing about him that might suggest his line of work, except possibly the intense way he looks at a person when they’re talking. He doesn’t swagger about, doesn’t boom or brag. Many of his fellows do, and there’s nothing wrong with that…but it is comforting on some level to know that someone like him fits in with his larger-than-life brothers.

A lot of people continue to not believe that the Hierarchy even exists.

“Yeah, I know. I’ve seen it all, the ‘official story’ bullshit and the ‘skeptic’ whatever, and I just feel like dragging those dumb fucks over to the crater that used to be San Diego and… I dunno. Pointing at it. Or dragging them to the funeral fields on Gao so they can smell the ashes. Like, some motherfuckers did that. We call them the Hierarchy, and we know they’ll do it again if they get the chance. It’s like this generation’s moon landing, or the ‘9/11 was an inside job’ dipshits, or whatever. Some people just want to live in a world where we’re the bad guys, I guess.”

We?

“The government. The military. The world is full of people who want to believe that the West is evil, even when our cities are being bombed or our children murdered. Even when our enemies literally stand up and say loud and clear what kind of a world they want to build, we’re the bad guys for saying ‘not on my watch.’ And I think that’s why my watch won’t be ending anytime soon. Not until I’m too falling-apart and useless to carry on, or until I feel safe in my gut that we’ve accomplished something no stupid motherfucker from back home can ruin.”

[Image: Coombes halfway through a clean and jerk. His expression is hard and aggressive, clearly full of concentration.]

Do you think your grandpa would be proud of you?

“I think he’d understand me. We never talked about it, but I know the stuff I’m talking about bothered him. He’d watch the news when we pulled out of…wherever…then shake his head and grumble something under his breath and have a drink. But it stopped being about making the old man proud a long time ago.”

Derek finishes his workout and moves to a floor mat to do some final stretches.

“It’s about making my brothers proud.”

[Image: Coombes stretching his back and shoulders. He is kneeling with his arms stretched out in front of him dragging along the ground, and his forehead resting on the mat. The pose and composition bring to mind the image of someone prostrating themselves in prayer.]

Author’s note: This interview was reviewed and approved by Allied Extrasolar Command and the United States Army prior to publication. The interviewee’s views are his own, and do not constitute a policy statement on behalf of the US or Allied governments. (The full and unedited recording of Derek Coombes’ interview is available via ESNN’s Internet and infosphere pages.)


Date Point: 15y9m3w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Allison Buehler

Why were they all grounded?

That was the question on everyone’s mind. The entire civilian fleet was recalled either to parking orbits or brought in for maintenance. Nobody knew why, nobody was telling why.

“That’s just it. Word on the grapevine is that Hephaestus just cracked their biggest rock yet. The whole ‘Belt oughta be swarming with cargo drones scooping up chunks of platinum as big as my freaking head, but no! Every single goddamned ship here, around Earth, and even the cargo runs from trade? All recalled. Dog jumped back to Armstrong last night, said My Other Spaceship is grounded until further notice. It’s eerie is what it is.”

Allison reached out and stole a Bao off Julian’s plate. He was kinda hogging them, unusually.

“Anyway…” she took a bite. “Id ain’ juff them. It’ff uff doo.”

“You shouldn’t talk with your mouth full, Allison,” Tristan pointed out helpfully.

She paused, was about to snap, then realized he was right. She grinned sheepishly and swallowed. “You’re right. I shouldn’t be rude. At my own table, no less.”

Julian just nodded and shoveled more food into his face.

“Anyway, all the training flights are cancelled,” Allison continued. “We even had to send an emergency ping to Misfit wherever they’re at.”

Xiù tilted her head. “It could be months before they synch with a station relay.”

“Mm.” Julian just nodded.

“Yyup, but you try explaining that to the humorless government men. They want Misfit back on the ground ASAP. Maybe if we’re real lucky, this whole thing’ll blow over before then, whatever it is.”

“What do you think it might be?” Xiù asked.

“Dunno. Big though. Security-related, it has to be.”

Julian grunted in what could be contrived as agreement. He was too busy chewing on bread.

“Anyway…. Whatever. I’m home now. Enough worrying about it,” Allison decided.

She’d pondered the subject at length on the drive back home, having pulled another late session to make up for her security work on the side. …Both of which, frankly, were a welcome distraction since, well…Julian was being unaccountably grumpy.

Whatever he’d been doing had pretty much taken him into magazine model territory and Allison wasn’t about to complain about that, but the cost was attitude. He knew he was being a butt, was pretty honestly apologetic and made up for it with some frankly breathtakingly athletic evenings…Which, honestly, that kind of aggression was hot as hell. He didn’t bust it out that often, but when he did…

Still. That aside, hangry Julian wasn’t a happy boy.

Except, apparently he was the opposite of that, now. She’d parked the car, come in from the garage and been stopped dead when she walked into a wall of the most delicious food smell. Apparently the whole family had been on cooking overdrive in her absence.

“Anyway. I have to ask. Why the sudden one-eighty? You’ve been literally weighing your meals on a scale since forever, now–”

“What?!” Julian laughed, “I wanted to look good for this!”

“Babe. I don’t mind the eye candy, but you’ve been grumpy the last few weeks, and pretty lethargic the last two days. And you’re practically vibrating with glee. What changed?”

He swallowed a huge bite, which he chased with a tall glass of milk, then gasped for air and burped happily. “Diet change! The shoot’s tomorrow, I’m fully depleted, ‘Horse says I’m right on track…that means I get to carb load. I get to eat all the delicious things!”

“Wait, really? How much are we talking?”

Julian brought up his “contest prep” app and showed Allison his new target macros. That was…

“Holy hell, Julian! You get to eat all that in a day?”

“Before tonight!” Julian beamed. To Allison’s left, Xiù simply nodded and loaded her own much more modest plate. Although they were both technically eating with a passenger on board now, neither of them were far enough along for that to be an excuse. Hell, by Allison’s count she wasn’t even at eleven weeks yet.

Thank goodness her stomach wasn’t being too disagreeable… but Xiù had done her research, bless her. She knew which scents and foods to avoid by now.

“Why?”

“‘Cuz my body’s basically on the edge of being starved right now! Now anything I eat, my muscles will suck right up so it won’t go anywhere else. That’s the idea, anyway. I’ll be well on the way back to normal after a couple of days…but c’mon, I wanna eat! Ooh, pasta! I can make carbonara! And maybe you can make some of your dumplings!”

Xiù talked some sense. “Pace yourself, you’re gonna make yourself sick.”

Julian grinned sheepishly, “Yes ma’am. It just feels like a reward, y’know? I can see why some guys do this.”

“…Oh God. Please tell me–!”

“Oh hell no, I’m never doing this again! At least, not except for something special, y’know? I like eating too much!”

“Okay…”

There was a sudden bzz from the charging shelf where all their phones had been set aside. House rule: no phones at the dinner table. They even had them all set to do-not-disturb mode, so if any of them buzzed, that meant it was important.

Al, being the closest, reached out and grabbed the offending item. Julian’s.

“…Email from the Ambassador,” she said.

“…So late? Well, give it over…”

His chewing paused as he read it, then nodded and handed the phone back. “…Okay. Guess I’m playing courier.”

“Courier?”

“Well, we’re goin’ out to Akyawentuo for the shoot, and apparently there’s some stuff the ambassador wants me to deliver to the researchers. It’s, uh, diplomatically sealed. I’m supposed to hand deliver it to Nutty and Chimp.”

“More security stuff, maybe?” Xiù suggested.

“I’m officially a Special Envoy. I’ve got a top secret clearance and everything, I read the cables every week with the ambassador…and he ain’t telling. Or, at least, he’s not telling me now. That means I don’t need to know just yet. That means it’s pretty important. And it means I don’t get to ask questions.”

“Still, the timing fits,” Allison said, then sighed. “I hate mysteries. Whatever. You staying out there all week?”

“Nah. I’ll be over there just for the shoot, ‘cuz I want to get back to normal before I stay. I’ll be knocking around here for a few days…looking for something to do…”

Tristan and Ramsey both stifled a giggle.

“Great. Maybe you can help me explain the shoot to Amanda. She’s convinced the social workers should be mad about it,” Allison griped.

“…This is payback for the last few weeks, isn’t it?”

“If it isn’t, it should be,” Xiù said, with a slight evil grin.

“Fine, fine!” Julian laughed and stood up, heading toward the pantry. “Still, I’m gonna be bouncing off the walls for the next couple of days…lots of pent up energy, and all…”

Xiù rolled her eyes, while Allison smirked. “Babe, you’re almost as subtle as Christian these days.”

“…I don’t get it,” Ramsey said.

“Righteous,” Allison explained. “Sorry. His first name is Christian.”

“…Oh. But he’s not subtle at all!”

“Exactly.”

“But what’s Julian not being subtle about?” Ramsey insisted.

Tristan rolled his eyes. “They’re gonna do adult things, dummy.”

“…Oh.”

A cloud of embarrassment descended on the table, getting all the thicker when Ramsey frowned and said “…You guys sure do that a lot.”

Julian, to his credit, found the way out by just doubling down on everything. “Yeah, we do! It’s because I love them!”

“…It must be pretty awesome, then.”

Oh God.

The Talk. They’d never had The Talk.

Julian and Xiu both realized it at the exact same moment that Allison did, and shot pleading looks her way.

Well.. she was their older sister after all. And there was only one thing to do in this situation: Be honest. Allison sighed and put her fork down.

“Boys…I think there’s some stuff you should know…”

Amanda’s next visit was going to be just endless fun…


Date Point: 15y9m3w AV
Occupied territory, Planet Rvzrk, Domain Space

Regaari

The Hunters kept to a routine, at least. It was undisciplined and sloppy, but predictable. In theory, destroying the suppressor was going to be simple.

In practice, Regaari needed something to actually destroy it with. His carbine simply wasn’t going to cut it. Nor would the armory of abandoned pulse rifles he’d found.

If he’d had an anti-materiel rifle he could have crippled the generator from the comfort and safety of a distant rooftop. With explosives, he might creep up and wreck it. But there was, alas, only so much room on his body to carry toys, and with this being primarily a scouting mission, it had all been taken up with less destructive stuff.

So. Option One was to exfiltrate and bring down a support drop from the fleet via a UAV on the same polar approach he’d used. And then bring it back into the city. That was a lot of things that could go wrong.

Option Two was to procure what he needed locally. The problem there was that everything the Domain forces had that might be useful had already been picked over by the Hunters and transferred to a secure facility.

Was there an Option Three?

There were military assets on-planet, in the form of the Domain’s local guard. They might be woefully inadequate to the job of repelling the Hunters, but they’d still have suitable tools and weapons. If they could be persuaded to apply themselves in just the right place…

…The problem with that solution was that it felt uncomfortably like throwing meat at the problem.

…Maybe he only needed to disrupt it for a moment. Just long enough for a force to come through and properly destroy the generator.

Okay…

He shifted across his rooftop and aimed his scope down the street, tracing the course of one of the fat power cables that kept the generator supplied. The problem with worker Hunters was that they were frustratingly competent and focused. Where their toothy brethren seemed to focus only when there was violence imminently at hand, the workers thought of everything. The power supply was redundant, surge-protected, and flowed alongside regular patrol routes where any sabotage could be swiftly detected. There was probably no help there.

Option two… cut the power entirely. It didn’t matter how clever their system was if there was nothing for it to draw from. But how many sources were there? Power plants, a dam, forcefield solar collection…

Option three: damage the generator, in such a way as to require repairs. That, he could do: He had a whole paw full of fusion claws. At the very least, he’d be able to physically jam it into the power distributor…and spectacularly electrocute himself in the process . It’d be suicide, but it’d work.

Call that one ‘Operation No Other Option.’ He’d need to think of a suitably memetastic re-naming if he ever got the chance to tell the story.

Dammit, if it was any other kind of target he’d just call a precision RFG down on its head. But the fact that it was a planetary wormhole suppressor completely precluded that option by definition. Any ship wanting to get close enough to drop one would have to approach under the range of superluminal guns, and without the ability to blink-jump there was no dodging… those…

…He was being a complete fucking idiot.

He didn’t need an RFG, this was a static target. It couldn’t dodge! And the ships in orbit had superluminal guns of their own that were precise enough to hit a ship-sized target from light-seconds away. All he needed to do was give them sufficiently accurate coordinates and they could sink a hail of 40mm high explosive rounds into the damn thing.

He didn’t need to disrupt the generator. All he needed to do was disrupt the shields.

To be fair, Regaari was a spymaster and a master spy by trade. This kind of work was really for the Stonebacks. Or the Human’s combat controllers. Righteous or Starfall would have figured this out instantly.

…One more detail to edit out of the retelling. For the sake of the story, of course.

Anyway. He had a plan. A momentary disruption of the compound’s protective shields, followed by an immediate attack by naval fire, followed by an immediate assault by Stoneback’s Fangs. HEAT may not even need to be involved for this! They’d done so much for the Gaoian cause, and it seemed cruel and weak to keep going back to them for help…

All he needed to do now was communicate that plan. Fortunately, plain ‘ol directed laser communications were essentially undetectable and unjammable so unless the Hunters had for some reason opaqued their shields across all the wavelengths he was using—which they hadn’t—he just needed a sheltered spot to set up his retroreflector.

The Great Father could probably have a force assembled within a day. HEAT would, of course, be ready within the hour. The real question was one of orbital mechanics and timing.

He slipped off the rooftop and scuttled down the wall. He’d found a suitable spot a few days earlier, tucked away in the goods receiving bay at the back of a supermarket. It stunk of rotting vegetables, which the Hunters ignored, but that was exactly why it suited his purposes. There was nothing there they might want.

Nevertheless, he scouted the spot carefully before returning. He’d lost one paw to an unexpected Alpha back on Capitol Station, and survived only because Warhorse had arrived like a particularly heavy cavalry. That wouldn’t happen, here. If he slipped up now, the whole mission went with him.

As predicted, the yard was empty so he dropped into the cover it afforded and lasered the sky. His suit’s computer took a few minutes to finally locate something it could talk to, in the form of one of the Bulldog drones. That in turn put him in touch with Genshi, Garaaf and Admiral Caruthers.

“Father, this is Naughty Cub. Mother locked the kitchen door tight. Let’s play Big Surprise…”

He explained the plan.

They approved.


Date Point: 15y9m3w AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Air Engineering Technician Jack “Two-Seventy” Tisdale

HEAT technicians gossiped about their Operators, naturally. It was hard not to, when their daily routines revolved around what the Operators were up to. Jack knew Moho’s timetable probably better than Moho himself did, and of course that went for everyone else.

So when ‘Horse and Righteous got themselves confined to barracks for a week after bloody breaking the gym… It got noticed. Hargreaves, Doyle, Deacon and Brown all got pissy about it, but… well, there was nothing to be done. Besides, it wasn’t like they were confined to barracks, so all that really happened was they got their schedule changed unexpectedly.

In the end, Miller had told them to suck it up: “That’s the Service, guys. Deal with it.”

It was hard not to speculate about the change in behavior, though. Everyone knew that ‘Horse had absolutely pasted Firth, which was…terrifying. That had made things pretty damn awkward between their technicians too, since techs tended to be loyal to their “Lad.” Deacon in particular had been visibly biting her tongue a few times.

What got everyone talking was how conflicted ‘Horse got over it all afterward, though. And Jack, allegedly, was the expert on all things Warhorse thanks to having grown up being babysitted by him, so…

“Look, I don’t know what you want me to say. He’s never been one to back down from a fight. Like, ever. And that was before he started getting really big around sixteen, too. But he’s also…Adam.”

This was, in Jack’s mind, a sufficient description. Miller clearly felt differently.

“Yeah, we know he’s Adam, dumbass,” she chided affectionately. “You got anything better for us than his fuckin’ name?”

“He’s a big goofball! Like, Gods! I only just met Daar the one time, right? Those two are almost exactly the same. At least, I think so.”

“Goofballs don’t beat their wingmen almost to death,” Brown pointed out angrily.

“And goofballs don’t nuke their own world to kill off hordes of zombies,” Jack retorted. “And yet, Daar did.”

“The Great Father is not a goofball!” one of Faarek’s technicians, Shigu, objected with a sniff.

“…Look, I don’t mean any offense, right? But yes he is. Do you remember the song he was singing when he was digging holes in the Pit? He was still the Great Father, and he was still digging holes, and he was still singing along to an internet meme while he was doing it.”

Miller nodded fervently. She always had his back.

“That was, like, strategic necessity though,” Brown said. “Not gettin’ so fuckin angry that he left Firth pissing blood!”

“…This isn’t the first time I’ve seen him rage out on someone. Like, I don’t mean now that he’s on the Crude, either. There was this one kid when he was…I dunno, fifteen? The other kid was bigger, taller. Adam was pretty lanky still. They were friends. I don’t remember what they were mad about. Well, they got into a fight, and Adam damn near put him in the hospital. The only reason it didn’t get worse was because his dad stepped in before Adam beat him silly.”

“Yeah, this is a real cuddle-toy you’re describing here, Tisdale,” Brown snarked.

Jack shook his head “Let me finish… You know what he was like for the next couple of months? He did everything for that kid. He was so mad at himself that he was practically groveling. It was so bad the other kid had to slap him one day and tell him to man up. They’re still friends.”

“He’s a man of big everything,” Miller said. “Including passions. Shit, if he wasn’t, d’you think he’d be where he is doing what he does now?”

Jack nodded. “Yeah. The thing you need to know about Adam, is he’s just intense. And that includes being an intense goofball. He’s been that way as long as I’ve known him. Hell! There was this older Aggressor he used to hang out with when he was planning to enlist. Jones?”

Deacon nodded solemnly. “Yeah. Legsy.”

“I used to see him around town, back before the SOR even existed. Real close to colonel Powell, all that. Adam was just a kid he took under his wing, but was already outlifting him the day they met. Even Legsy was a bit scared of Adam. Wouldn’t you be? But that’s the thing. Adam joined up because of the PJ’s motto. That’s what he is under it all. His, uh, ‘default state’ is that he wants to hug and snuggle everyone and keep them safe. Maybe he just gets confused sometimes. Especially where family’s concerned.”

He paused. “…Believe me, I get that one,” he added.

None of the others responded to that, though Miller put a warm hand on his back and rubbed slightly.

“…Anyway, it’s done,” Deacon said at last. “Captain stepped in, sorted it out. And shit, I would not wanna be in their shoes going home to Freya and Marty!”

That broke the ice. There were laughs, Brown relaxed and nodded and the conversation moved on to other topics, like what tactics to use against Faarek now that he’d joined the base Warhammer league.

Jack didn’t play, so he just sat back and browsed randomly on his phone. And why not? The suits were all in perfect condition, except for the five currently being worn by Sikes, Newman, Parata, Butler and Murray, who were doing training exercises over in the simulator. For everyone else, today was shaping up to be a boring day at the office. They’d checked the workshop was as scrupulously clean as it could be, run daily diagnostics… Everyone was caught up on their education and PT for the week.

It wasn’t often they got a genuine dose of nothing-to-do, and…

…and a thought popped into his head.

“…Y’know…” he said, into a lull in the incomprehensible discussion about Miller’s Space Wolves.

“What?”

“I just had an idea about how we can maybe get back at those two for pissing all over our schedules…”

The crew perked up at the prospect of Shenanigans, but alas it wasn’t to be. Before Jack could explain his idea, there was the sound of heavy footsteps outside, and Jacobs, one of Captain Costello’s techs, pushed the door open.

“We’re on cold standby,” he said.

There were groans, but they all got up. “Any idea why?” Deacon asked.

“Captain didn’t say.”

Cold Standby meant the HEAT was pulled out of their usual training rotation and given exactly one job: stay at peak mission readiness so they could jump into their suits at a moment’s notice. From cold standby, the unit could deploy anywhere in the galaxy inside an hour.

Fortunately, there was, yet again, not too much work for them to do. All there was had to do with tidying up and stowing tools in their ready position, and getting the suit frames into position. That went pretty quick for everyone but the Beef’s suits, as those were so heavy it took two techs just to wrestle the loaded staging frame into position.

Still. It didn’t take them long, at which point the four looked at each other, nodded, and made their way to the barracks across the road, then climbed up to the third floor. The briefing would likely be held in the Lad’s day room.

Everyone piled in at about the same time, with Christian and Adam being the last and arriving together. Presumably, their wives weren’t too happy with having just re-gained their husbands only to have them dropped into mission standby.

It was hard to see how the two were getting on at first as they weren’t talking much.

Adam was… well, he was doing exactly what Jack had predicted. He was trying to Make It All Better. It was like watching the biggest puppy ever who’d just been told off and wanted to make up.

Firth plopped down on the couch and pulled the huge lump into a sideways shoulder-hug, then beckoned for Blaczynski to join him. They got comfortable—the Operators always got comfortable first—and then it was up to the techs to find whatever little nooks and crannies were left over to squeeze into.

Costello arrived shortly after Jack found a mercifully crush-free spot on the floor next to Moho, and launched into the briefing with only the minimum of preamble.

“Regaari’s made contact,” he said. “And he has a viable plan for killing the Hunter suppressor on Rvzrk. The Great Father wants to send in his Fangs and secure a landing, at which point he intends to ram the Grand Army right down the Hunter’s throats. He plans a total liberation of Rvzrk. Our mission is to recover Regaari and several high-value persons that have managed to evade capture.”

Shim raised a paw. “Does the Great Father intend to take part in this mission?”

“Reluctantly, no. His bit comes later. The date of his coronation has been set. We are cordially invited to attend, and we will be expected to deploy almost immediately after that. The exact timeline is dependent on Regaari. After that, the Fangs will have probably weeks of hard fighting on their hands to properly secure a beachhead. They need to clear the city, and probably level it in the process. General Staff’s objective is to set up a tandem array much like we had when we deployed the Eighty-Second to Gao. Once that is ready, the Grand Army will march. I have little doubt Daar will be there, crown on head.”

“So, what are our immediate orders, sir?” Firth asked

“Light duty, keep carbed up and ready until ordered otherwise. We’re not on lockdown, but you are not to travel outside Folctha. Firth will stand up a CQ and all of you, techs included, will keep your phones on your person at all times. You know the drill. No alcohol, either. Oh, and that coronation thing…mess dress uniforms, Lads. Given this is for Daar…”

Faarek duck-nodded. “He deserves our very best. I’ll send a message to a groomer I know from Lavmuy. He’s good.”

“I’ll see to the uniforms personally, sir” Adam chipped in. “Uh, but I may need to make a trip to London…”

Costello nodded. “Authorized, and you may use your travel card to pay for it all. Please get a good receipt so the people in accounting can untangle it later. Anything else?”

Judging from the silence, the answer to that was a solid “No.”

“Excellent. Until further notice, you are all on individual training time. Dismissed.”

And that was that. The Operators disentangled themselves off the couch and went to get their stuff together, and the Techs were alone again.

“You were saying?” Miller asked.

“Hm?”

“You had an idea for getting back at those two.”

“Eh. I was going to suggest we give them both nothing but the lime flavour drink next time they were doing in-suit training.” Both Adam and Firth hated the lime flavour.

Doyle considered it. “…Not bad. Guess it’ll have to wait, though.” Messing with mission gear, even food, was not a good idea.

“Sure.”

“Wish we could go to the coronation, though…” Miller sighed. For some inexplicable reason she had a soft spot for royalty, especially when it came to the Duke of Sussex, but she’d take what she could get. “I bet it’ll be a hell of a sight…”

“We were invited…”

“Well… yeah… but we probably should stay here and make sure everything’s ready.”

Jack laughed and opened the door. “Don’t tell me you’re being responsible?”

“Hey, I’m responsible for a lot!” She objected. “…But this is really for them. They’ve bled together. Let them have it, y’know?”

“Yeah…”

“How come you’re not interested in going, anyway?”

Jack shrugged. “I don’t like it. I mean… He doesn’t want it, you know? I don’t think I can enjoy watching him give away what little freedom he has left.”

“…Dude. He’s the Great Father. He’s arguably the freest person alive! He can do damn near anything he wants!”

“He’s the most powerful person alive,” Jack retorted. “That’s not the same thing as being free.”

“You’re talking about the same guy who sneaks through the portal to buy ice cream for Naydra, just ‘cuz he wants to! I don’t know how he manages to ditch his staff every single time…”

“Yeah. Sneaks. He should be sending someone to run his errands for him. He’s rebelling when he does that.”

Miller went silent, looked like she wanted to argue for a moment, then shook her head and dropped it. “…You made me want ice cream now.”

That, Jack had to admit, sounded like a good solution. “Sounds good.”

After all, if you couldn’t fix something, why worry about it?


Date Point: 15y9m3w AV
Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Unexplored Space

Darcy

“Does it seem… different to you lately?”

“What?”

“The Entity. It’s actin’ different, dude, I swear it is.”

Darcy sighed and set aside her work as Lewis sat down. She was sitting drinking a Moroccan Mint tea in the station’s rec lounge, with its spectacular view of the gas giant Durin and its spinning dance of moons. It was easily the most interesting backdrop she’d ever had to work against, and she never quite got tired of it, even though the landscape immediately around Mrwrki itself was rather dull and desolate.

“Honestly, it’s hard to tell,” she said. “It’s never quite been the same twice whenever I interact with it.”

“Bet that makes your job fifty shades of fun.” Lewis muttered. He threw his head back and massaged his scalp: clearly something was stressing him out. Considering how near-terminally laid-back he was, that was saying something.

“Trouble in your lab?”

“Eh. More philosophisin’ and big questions over, like, V-N probes and stuff this morning, and now we’ve had a big setback on the footballs.”

“And where does the Entity come in?” Darcy asked.

“I tried to pick its brains now that it’s decided to speak English allatime. I figure, it knows a butt-boat about the Hierarchy, maybe it’s got some insight into how footballs work…”

“And?”

“And I got a zen fuckin’ koan as far as I can tell.”

“It… may not have understood the question. Even though it’s taken to using the Ava-construct more now, I sometimes wonder how accurately that construct can translate concepts from meatspace to dataspace.”

“Dude, that thing is fuckin’ ghoulish anyway. Like, I can read her articles if I feel like seeing some military dude’s dick, and then go talk about it with a digital clone of her that got–”

Darcy interrupted him. “I know what happened to her. It.” After all, it weighed on her conscience.

“…Right. Sorry, dude.” Lewis shifted and frowned.

“…Makes me wonder, though.”

“What?”

“Well, if it’s filtering your questions through her memories, then maybe the reason you got such a head-scratcher was because the memories don’t know some of the terminology,” Darcy suggested. “The real Ava Ríos is a journalist. She’s a very intelligent woman, but so am I and most of what gets discussed on this station goes right over my head. I bet she wouldn’t be able to define a…a fermion, say, if her life was riding on it. Never mind however the hell a system defence field works.”

“…Makes sense,” Lewis admitted. “Could be I—”

“Lewis!”

He was interrupted by two of the station’s resident ETs; their resident Corti Vakno, and a more recent arrival from Clan Highmountain called Wilo. Both suffered from a similar problem, in that they had no problem at all with just butting in on a conversation and interrupting it. Apparently that was the only way to get anything said among Highmountains, and Vakno was simply too brusque to care.

“Big news!” Wilo said. “Even when we factor the Sol Neutrino Clock into Bartlett’s Equation, we still get an open topology.”

Whatever that meant, Lewis immediately lost all interest in the Entity and gave them his full attention. “No shit? Deetz!”

What followed was the most bewildering conversation Darcy had ever heard, peppered here and there with words like “Euler,” “non-orientable,” “homotopy” and “dude.” They spent several minutes scribbling on a paper napkin in three different sets of mathematical symbols, producing something that may as well have been a demonic summoning for all Darcy could tell.

Eventually she’d had enough. It would have been more polite to make her excuses and leave them to it, maybe, but she was honestly curious to know what the hell was so important.

“Guys… Guys!” She finally managed to break through the academic trance they’d entered.. “…Could you maybe dumb it down a bit? Start from the top: What’s the Sol Neutrino Clock? I mean, I’ve heard of neutrinos but explain them like I’m five years old.”

Lewis chewed this thumbnail for a second, then launched into an education. “Neutrinos are super-tiny particles that don’t hardly interact with the kind of stuff we’re made from at all. Like, Erebor—” he gestured through the window at the bloated red star they were orbiting “—is spittin’ out fuckzillions of the things a day, and tens of billions’ll pass through your thumbnail every second. But you won’t notice.”

“Because they’ll just… what? Slide right through me?”

“Dude. Over your whole lifetime you’ve maybe got a one-in-four chance of one of those neutrinos deigning to interact with one of your atoms.” Lewis grinned. “Which makes detectin’ them a bitch, right?”

“I can see how it would,” Darcy agreed. “But we have detectors?”

“Oh, shit yeah. Big ones buried deep underground, where they can control for shit like cosmic rays and stuff. And, y’know, they’re sensitive enough that the dudes at the detector in Japan actually managed to take a picture of the sun. From underground. At night. Through the Earth.”

Vakno actually tilted her head in a subtle Corti display of being impressed.

“And the clock?” Darcy repeated.

“For the last six years, every neutrino detector on Earth has consistently detected a periodic signal spike.” Vakno explained.

“Exunctly,” Lewis said, causing Wilo to flick his ear at the joke pronunciation and give him a strange look. “Something out there’s ticking like a goddamn clock and every… twenty-three weeks or so? Yeah. It spits out as many neutrinos in one second as the sun generates in a month. Prevailing hypothesis is that it’s the Sol Field.”

“…Why?”

“My hypothesis,” said Wilo, “is that the shield must radiate excess energy, as all things must. However, the nature of the barrier’s phase-space geometry means it cannot simply radiate this away as you and I do, via heat glow. This is why you are visible on an infrared camera. Doing that would make it a tangible object. Why the conjectured radiative process uses neutrinos specifically remains a mystery.”

“But we’ve only been detecting this ‘clock’ for six years?” Darcy asked. “The Sol shield went up fifteen years ago.”

“Possibly it took ten years to reach saturation,” Vakno suggested. “It would depend on how the shield works, exactly.”

“And that’s where we got to discussin’ the math,” Lewis finished.

“And that’s where you hit a snag,” Darcy surmised.

“…Yeah. ‘Cuz the math don’t work, dude.”

“We have rather painstakingly demonstrated the expressive equivalence of what we’ve written,” Vakno said, then caught Darcy’s expression. “…All of our symbolic grammars are logically identical.”

“Math works the same everywhere,” Lewis translated.

“Thanks, Lewis, I got that.”

“And we have taken these field equations and set them loose among some of the greatest minds our species have,” Vakno continued. “All three have come to the same conclusion: these equations describe a phase-space that is not topologically closed.”

“And that’s the snag?” Darcy checked.

“Indeed.”

”Because…?”

“Either our math—and I don’t mean we made a mistake, I mean all math—is wrong… or the shields don’t work how we think they work,” Wilo explained.

“…Okay. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but when you say ‘how we think,’ my concern is going to be about the shield bit of this. What do you mean by ‘the shield doesn’t work?’”

“It… ain’t an electrostatic field like the ones around this station. We’ve known that for, like, yonks,” Lewis said. “An ES field operates at lightspeed, but a star system is light-hours across.”

“And yet a ‘football’ creates a field that places it in direct superluminal causal contact with events at the field antinode,” Vakno said.

“It still blocks stuff, even though it should take hours to notice that stuff happening,” Lewis supplied.

“…Yes, thanks Lewis…” Darcy nodded.

“Dude, you did ask me to dumb it down.”

“The upshot of all this is that the shield works, but we don’t know how or why it works,” Wilo summarized.

“And as a Human aphorism has it: A weapon you do not know how to use belongs to your enemy,” Vakno finished.

“And we’re back to square one on figuring it out,” Lewis added.

“It is… vexing,” Vakno admitted. “And the Guvnurag are not around any longer to seek their insight… with the exception of one, whose greatest contribution to the galaxy is a gluten-free fruit pie.”

“Harsh, dude,” Lewis muttered. He was very fond of Vedreg.

“I don’t understand. If we don’t know how they work, how are we able to build and use them?” Darcy asked.

“Because the schematics that Clan Whitecrest stole are in a universal blueprint format that any nanofactory can read and that anybody can load into the factory and hit ‘print,’” Wilo said. “From a security perspective, that’s hardly ideal. From a practicality perspective… well, it’s the only source of footballs we have. Figuring out how they work is important, therefore.”

Darcy nodded her total agreement to that sentiment.

“How close are we?” she asked.

“It could be lifetimes, or it could be months,” Vakno prevaricated. “It rather depends on whether the shields are genuinely an original Guvnurag invention, or whether they were inserted by a Hierarchy for some purpose.”

“Like, uh… is that likely?” Lewis asked. “I know they got their fingers in a lotta pies, but we can’t assume everything is their doing, dude…”

“That’s just the problem. We have no way of knowing,” Darcy sighed. “And it’s not paranoia–”

“–If they’re really out to get you. Yeah.”

“…I’ll see if I can get some comprehensible answers out of the Entity. But I suspect I’ll need a carrot of some kind. It’s on our side, but we’d pay anybody else.”

“Handing out carrots is way above all our grade, dude,” Lewis pointed out.

“True. Still. I’ll think of something…” Darcy stood up. “I’ll get out of your way so you don’t have to dumb it down any longer.”

“‘Preciate it… Lucy said to remind you about Girl’s Night on Wednesday.”

Darcy smiled. Mrwrki’s staff didn’t exactly have a fifty-fifty gender split, so of course Girl’s Night had become a thing. An opportunity to escape the relentless maleness even though really all they did was drink fruit juice and play cards. They’d considered inviting Vakno but… well, Corti really didn’t engage with the concept of gender at all. And in any case playing poker against somebody with a completely expressionless face and an eidetic memory probably wouldn’t be much fun.

“I never forget,” she promised.

She returned to her office with a head full of thoughts, and sat down at her desk to consider them. Apparently the Entity was watching, because it promptly manifested its avatar on her desktop. She’d never quite worked up the courage to tell it that she really, really felt uncomfortable seeing a tiny holographic Ava in front of her.

…At least she’d persuaded the damn thing to put some clothes on it.

“Hello, Darcy.”

“Hey.” She had to smile—It was so innocent, in its strange way.

“How was your break?”

“Very interesting.” Darcy opened a new file and spent a few seconds considering how to phrase her questions. “…You spoke with Lewis.”

“We did, yes.”

“He didn’t really like the answers you gave for him.”

“His questions were… difficult. Questions about matterspace are always difficult.”

Darcy nodded, and settled on her approach.

“…Let me ask a dataspace question then,” she said. “…Did the Guvnurag invent the system defence fields? Or did the Hierarchy implant the idea?”

The answer surprised her.

“Both.” The Ava-construct offered a very human shrug and apologetic smile. Too much so. One could almost believe she was alive. “Let me explain…”


Date Point: 15y9m3w
Folctha Jump Array, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Ava Ríos

Ava had about half an hour to kill before the scheduled jump to Akyawentuo, and was using it to put in a little creative contribution to some of the other stories her colleagues at ESNN were working.

There was plenty to choose from, today. The Cimbrean seed vault—a direct copy of the one in Svalbard, built way down in Cimbrean’s antarctic circle—had taken receipt of its first delivery from the parent facility. In theory, between the two vaults, tens of thousands of Earthling flora and fungi were now permanently protected against extinction, or the vagaries of misapplied genetic manipulation.

Then there was the human gene vault at the same facility. In theory, even if the whole bunker completely lost power the samples would remain frozen. The temperatures down there were sub-zero up there all year round.

Ava’s own genes were in that vault. When the project had come knocking around Folctha asking for sample volunteers, she’d jumped at it. Adam and Marty had contributed too… in the end, about eighty percent of Folctha’s population had donated to the gene vault. It made sense: not only were the samples local and therefore easy to safely transport to safe keeping, but Folctha was a genetically diverse place, being almost exclusively populated by immigrants.

It was also, being honest, a bit flattering. They didn’t archive everyone’s genes, even if they took samples from all comers.

Actually… there was an interesting angle.

She left a comment on their group project. ‘IIRC there were some protests and angry letters from disability rights activists. The vault refused samples with BRCA1, Downs and other stuff. Could be worth a paragraph.’

The reply was instant. ‘That’ll poke the hornet’s nest. I like it.’ Jason. ‘Might do an interview with one of the so-called human supremacists who keep trying to hand out flyers near the alien quarter.’

Their Gaoian reporter, an especially fiery female called Minyi, replied to that one with a laughing emoji. ‘I’ll do it! Just to really screw with them.’

Ava giggled and replied. ‘That little head-turn and questioning voice you do so well…oh God. Film it, please! I’ll be too busy for the next four hours or so.’

‘Filming nekkid hot man-candy, got it. ;) ’ Zöe added. Zöe was probably Ava’s favorite coworker, and treated the whole Laid Bare series with just the right kind of irreverence. She was looking after Hannah for the next few hours while Ava was offworld.

‘Shooting a serious exposé on the emotional difficulties of blah blah blah… I admit, I’m gonna enjoy this one. :p’ Ava replied ‘Though…not for the reason I bet you think.’

‘Talk about it someplace else please, girls,’ Jason requested. ‘We have an article to work on.’

That was fair enough. Ava clicked the tick icon on his comment and left the discussion to carry on without her.

Julian arrived, as ever, almost literally right before he was needed, this time with a rather comical pile of trunks and other such things under his arms. She snapped a shot without even thinking. He bounced up cat-like to the platform—apparently they knew him pretty well—let it all fall to the platform’s grates without much care, and prowled over to say hello.

“Professor Hurt and his dang books…Miss Ríos. Hi!”

She frowned at him. “…Miss Ríos? Really?”

He chuckled uncomfortably, stuck his hand out and shook hers with excessive formality and a wry grin on his face. Okay. He was nervous, doing business with a friend. And covering for it with a joke.

Well, she could play along. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mister Esticitty. Though I specifically requested a nude shot, not a Seran-wrapped model.”

“Wh–? Oh. Right. Sorry, I was running errands and the only thing I have that isn’t, like, dressy or whatever is my black t-shirts. Besides, these are actually super nice in the heat.”

“You could stand to up your shirt a few sizes…”

“Yeah, but people charge way too much for bigger. I ain’t paying fifty pounds for a damn t-shirt!”

“The jeans, though?”

“They’re comfy and they breathe! Adam made them for me, see? They stretch a little! They’re also pretty nice for hot weather, ‘cuz it’s just muggy as hell on Akyawentuo. Plus, I mean. It’s not like I’ll be wearing it for long.”

Ava glanced down at her own clothing. She was wearing hiking shorts and the halterneck top she usually took to the beach.

“Is this okay?”

“Uh…well, you might wanna ditch the boots when we get there, but the rest should be fine.”

“Just how humid is it?”

He glanced at his watch “This time of day, it’s usually about forty degrees centigrade and at the dew point. So… yeah.”

“That’s…” she calculated furiously. “…About a hundred and five in American?”

“Yup. Unless they’ve had rain come through today, the air’s gonna be chewy.”

“Hm. Great.”

“There’s a reason the People don’t wear anything. Hell, they think the science team are nuts. Being honest I kinda agree, too. Like, shorts and a thin top like you have is almost too much some days.”

Ava didn’t get the chance to reply to that, as the first alarm went to tell them to make sure all their stuff was safe inside the jump platform. An attendant jogged around the outside of the Array, making sure absolutely nothing was intersecting the dim holographic outline that had shimmered into life around them.

In theory there were safety sensors too, so even if Ava had made a mad suicidal lunge for the field boundary at the last second, the Array would have sensed it and aborted the jump. But Jump Array staff took safety very seriously. It was the one mode of travel that had never yet had a fatal accident.

Julian put his broad paw on her upper back. “Be careful. The sudden gravity is—”

thump

Ava felt herself wanting to fall backwards, but she was no stranger to supergravity transitions anyway. Still, he held her up while she regained her bearings. “—Disorientating. Give it a second, it passes.”

“…That’s a little different to ramping up the Gs in the gym,” Ava noted.

“I know. This is instant.”

“Yeah… I’m good… uh-oh.”

Julian looked up and was just in time to intercept a dark-tan-and-straw-colored missile about the size of a chimpanzee.

Ava had a bluetooth earphone bud in her ear, and the translator app on her phone handled the Ten’Gewek language comfortably. [“Tonk! You’re bigger! And your crest is turning into a man’s!”]

Tonk settled in on Julian’s right shoulder and gave Ava a wide-eyed, bright look that was apparently universal to children. [“She’s pretty! Who is she?”]

[“This is my friend…”]

Ava extended a hand. “I’m Ava. Nice to meet you!” she introduced herself, trusting her phone to handle translations going the other way. Tonk stared at her for a second, then glanced at Julian.

[“Jooyun! Her voice—is that Sky-Magic?!”]

[“It’s a thinking-stone, and you’re being rude. Shake hands. Gently. Always be gentle with a woman!”]

Tonk had a grip like a bricklayer, but that was probably very gentle indeed by his standards. [“Ava. You have a nice name! Not hard like Jooyun.”]

“Thanks!” Ava replied, smiling. “I like your name, too.”

This seemed to earn her an immediate friendship. Tonk hooted and shifted over onto Julian’s other shoulder, curling his tail around the back of Julian’s neck like an oversized perching monkey. Honestly, the fact that Julian was standing there quite happily with that much weight on his shoulders was impressive. Her hands reacted automatically, plucking her camera from its holster on her hip and capturing the moment for posterity in a rapid series of shutter-clicks.

Naturally, this strange gesture got Tonk’s attention. He prodded Julian in the head insistently. [“What’s that?”]

[“It’s a–”] Here, Ava’s translator tripped up. The word Julian used was obviously some kind of long compound that took it a few seconds to figure out. It eventually delivered [“Seeing-and-remembering-tool,”] by which point Julian had launched into explaining what that meant. In the end, Ava just clicked the “cancel” button to reset the translator. She was getting two conversations at once and it was too much to process.

“Trouble?” Julian asked her.

“Translator didn’t like your word for ‘camera,’” Ava explained.

“Yeah, their language is both fusing and agglutinative,” he nodded, “and the linguists still haven’t figured out all the rules. You just…know what sounds to drop. Sorry.”

[“Are those other-People words?! They sound strange!”]

[“Yeah, little buddy! You’ll be able to say them when you get older, I promise!”]

That seemed to be enough for Tonk, who nodded happily and uttered the most viral English word ever conceived. “Okay!”

[“Anyway, we need to meet with Yan Given-Man, little man. Can you go up to the scientists and tell Professor Daniel we have things for him?”]

Tonk plunged off Julian’s shoulder with an enthusiastic Helpful sound that wasn’t quite a hoot and wasn’t quite a word, paused just long enough to sketch the absolute minimum of a polite farewell, and vanished up a tree in a blur.

Julian chuckled. “The best part is how Vemik is exactly the same except literally three times bigger.” There was a certain exasperated yet fond tone in his voice.

Ava subtly rubbed her hand. “How much…I hate to ask…”

“Oh, I figure Tonk was about a hundred kilos, he’s starting to fill out. C’mon, let’s go say hi to the big boss.”

Ava managed to get one last shot with them both framed in. It wasn’t great: Tonk was already too far away for a good profile. Still, she’d snapped Julian from the rear while he was taking a nice, purposeful stride. It might be a good promo shot to kick upstairs to the PR guys.

Their visit to the village was apparently just a formality. Yan was… well, he was as striking in person as Daar had been, and imposing on a scale that not even Adam quite matched. Adam’s perpetual good-natured bounciness took the edge off. Yan was more… primal.

And flirtatious. Dear God was he flirtatious, in such an outrageous way that Ava was very briefly tempted to flirt back.

Derek had warned her about that. It was about the one time so far that she’d seen him show any hint of jealousy. He needn’t have worried, though: even if she’d been remotely inclined to repeat past mistakes, Yan was just…too much. She’d had her fill of ‘too much.’

He didn’t seem disappointed, though. Easy-come, easy-go. In the end, some of the same kind of bouncy cheer did creep across his strange face.

“There is very pretty Ketta, maybe half-finger that way.” Yan pointed out for Julian, who presumably knew what ‘half-finger’ meant. “Flowers in bloom now.”

A half-finger, it turned out, was about enough time for the sun to move half a stubby Ten’Gewek finger-length through the sky. A little less than a mile, which Julian spent pointing out every example of Akyawentan flora and fauna that crossed their path. The local answer to a squirrel in particular was damn cute. It was also about the size of a bulldog.

Funny how, despite the heavier gravity, everything seemed bigger on Akyawentuo. The Ketta trees were chunky, sturdy things kinda like an English Oak but way taller, the bushes and shrubs around their base had stems thicker than Ava’s wrists, and when Julian pointed out a flock of root-birds skulking in the shade further back, it was like watching a whole gaggle of the biggest, fattest, table-ready Thanksgiving turkeys Ava had ever seen. With drumsticks that’d feed a family.

“They’re tasty as hell, too. That breast meat on them is a good four inches thick!”

He was nervous, she realized. Really nervous.

Well, she’d picked up a trick or two there.

“I guess we’d better get some of the boring business stuff out of the way,” she said.

“Uh… like what?”

“Oh, the usual.” she unslung her backpack and dug in it for her tablet. “Consent forms, statements, your signature on like four different documents. All the stuff that our corporate overlords demand so you can’t sue the shirt off my back.”

Julian eyed the tablet warily. “…Oh God. Paperwork.”

“Yeah, you’d think you could just whip your clothes off and I’d take pictures right?”

He chuckled nervously. “You’d think, I guess. I dunno. We’ve been setting this up for months and up until now I’ve been looking forward to it… Now that we’re here, I’m getting a serious case of cold feet, you know?”

“Over what, the undressing or the paperwork?”

That made him laugh. “…Both? Why’ve we gotta do paperwork?”

“Gotta keep the lawyers happy,” Ava explained. “Angry lawyers are the worst.”

He laughed again. “God, I can’t even imagine just, I dunno, whipping it out for someone like Miss Bader.”

“…Nofl’s attorney? She always reminds me of a panther that learned how to wear a pants suit… d’you wanna guess what her first name is?”

“She has a first name?”

“Yeah, and you will never guess it.”

“…It’s gonna be something really inappropriate, isn’t it? No, no guess. Just tell me.”

Ava grinned triumphantly. “Tiffany.”

“…No. No way.”

“Honest!”

“Tiffany Bader…” Julian tested the weight of the name on his tongue, and seemed not to be thinking about it as he grabbed his T-shirt by its collar and pulled it off. “…Actually, that works. But it doesn’t fit her. I woulda imagined like… a Brunhilde, or a Helga. Something angry and German.”

He balled the shirt up and tossed it aside, cleared his throat, awkwardly, and unbuckled his belt.

Her hands did what they did best and took the shot almost without her conscious direction. He noticed, laughed at himself, and paused in undoing his jeans to flex his arm at her. Nerves or not, at least he was getting in the spirit of things.

Click.

Photographically, she’d chosen well.

That shirt turned out to have been concealing a lot, even having been skin-tight. Julian was built. To be fair, he wasn’t a barge of obscenely muscular furry murder like Daar, nor a superhuman tank of pure writhing strength like Adam. Nor was he like Yan, who was a primal balance of both ideals at once. Instead he was…

She settled on the word heroic. Julian was massive, with enough muscle slabbed onto his frame to make a comic book character blush. Yet he was also athletic and trim, with a solidly strong waist and an aesthetic profile. He was the kind of model a propagandist would kill for.

“Y’know, if you were looking to do warriors in their own words, you could maybe think about interviewing Yan one day…” he suggested once he’d folded his clothes on a rock. He stood awkwardly and self-consciously, not really knowing what to do with himself. Funny: Daar had been brash, Derek had been full of laughing bravado, and Patel had seemed genuinely comfortable. Strange how different people could be in these situations.

Ava had to admit, it was harder to get more surreal then standing on an alien world chatting with a naked god of a man, who was suggesting she might interview a talking gorilla.

“I mean… maybe? But the fact that it’s a nude shoot would be kinda wasted on him…”

“Yeah, I suppose…” Julian glanced down at himself and cleared his throat again. “…I didn’t shave down. Was I supposed to?”

“No, the body hair works for this. I don’t want this too contrived, it still has to be genuine. And it’s important. The nudity, I mean. Like, symbologically. It’s not just… it’s not eye candy.” She tried not to curse at her little Freudian almost-slip.

Fortunately, Julian didn’t seem to notice it. “No no, I get it. I mean…I’m the one with his dick hangin’ out in the air. And it does feel weird.”

“Which part, the air, or your dick?”

“Hey!”

She took a picture. Click. His grinning indignation made for an excellent portrait.

“Wait. You did that on purpose!”

“Yup! Try putting your arm behind your head. Right. Good, that works for you. Tense it…good. Why did you decide to do this?”

“Well…God, I’m actually not sure…”

“Keep your arm tensed. Try to keep everything flexed at once…yeah, like that. Don’t look at me, look at the camera. Point your left foot out, squeeze, hold…perfect. Not sure about…?”

Click.

Julian was busy trying to figure out how to pose and talk at the same time, but that was the point. The more she gave him other things to focus on, the quicker he forgot to be awkward and embarrassed.

“…Oh, right! Uh, well…why I did this. Does this work?”

“Yes. Don’t worry about it, just pretend like you’re in front of the mirror. You’re not sure?”

“Well…I think a few reasons. I mean, I’ll be honest, I suppose ego is a big part.”

Julian rotated his wrist behind his neck and squeezed down on his bicep. Just… damn. That arm was the size of his whole damn head, which was something that absolutely needed to go in the story.

Click.

…And that was the shot. She’d have him hit that one later with both arms, too.

Keep hitting him with questions, keep him talking, don’t give him a chance to think. That was the key here. “That’s not uncommon. Coombes felt the same way, though he never admitted it. Why else?”

Click.

He half-turned and tried something different, showing off the lines of his back. “Uh…well, Daar was just so brutally honest, y’know? I liked that. I thought, it’d be good to maybe just let it all out, ‘cuz I think people need to know.”

Click.

“Know what? Turn around, if you would. Just stand there, look back and talk… Any other reason you can think of?”

Julian dutifully complied. Click.

“I guess… Some of what happened here. The People… well, all the stuff we didn’t touch on when we went on That Show, everything we had to go through… Some of the things we saw and did and the people we lost who I’ve never had a chance to really tell anyone about before… Shit, I don’t really know. Lots of reasons, I guess. But, well, I think the People are really at the heart of it all…”

He started rambling, but that was exactly what Ava was after. She smiled, satisfied that they’d cracked his shell, and let her hands work their magic. Their interview was just getting started.


“Laid Bare—Warriors in their own words” Issue #3: Sachi Patel Author and photographer: Ava Magdalena Ríos

“I think if they’d really treated me like “one of the boys,” I’d be dead now. They all are. But one of the last things they did was make sure I was safe.”

Reactor Technician Sachi Patel is very different from other interviewees in this series for several reasons. Quite aside from her gender, she is easily the smallest and most unassuming of my subjects. She has also lost more comrades in battle than any of the men: When HMS Caledonia was sunk during the Battle of Gao, it went down with the loss of two thirds of of its two hundred crewmembers.

Patel was among the survivors, and was the only survivor from the ship’s reactor and power systems specialists. These systems, buried deep in the heart of the ship and full of densely contained energy, are intensely dangerous to work with. Indeed, it was an electrical fault in the capacitor banks that caused the fire which left Caledonia in dry-dock for several months to undergo repairs.

Grappling with such a beast is not for the faint-hearted, and there is absolutely nothing faint-hearted about Sachi. Instead, she is talkative, gregarious, and absolutely unreserved about shedding her clothes for our photo shoot. Nevertheless, she represents a new and unfortunate form of survivor’s guilt: that of a female serviceperson who is acutely aware that she is only alive because her male colleagues prioritized her survival over their own.

In our correspondence prior to this interview, she made it completely clear that she intends to continue to serve, no matter the danger. In her words:

“We lost dozens of amazing people. I want to make sure they aren’t forgotten.”

When we first begin our session, however, her trauma is not immediately visible.

[Image: Patel posing in water that comes up to mid-thigh. She has her hair bunched wetly in both hands behind her head and is beaming bashfully at the camera.]

Tell me about your childhood.

“I grew up in Swindon. My family didn’t have a lot of money… my father was a manager at Kwik-Fit, my mother stayed at home and looked after us. And, uh, home was a council flat. But I did really well at school, I loved science and maths, and netball…”

Netball?

“It’s basically a female-friendly version of basketball. And yes, I know, I’m not exactly the right height for basketball…”

This is an understatement. At exactly five feet tall, Sachi is only just taller than the minimum height requirement to serve in the Royal Navy.

What attracted you to military service?

[Image: Patel displaying a sheepish grin.]

“I wanted to work with nuclear reactors.”

That’s… specific.

“Something about them just fascinated me! I can’t explain it, but I’ve always found electricity fascinating, and nuclear power in particular. In school, I used to imagine that I’d be the one to invent a fusion reactor, or come up with a better way to use our nuclear waste… something like that.”

Still, why the military and not the civilian sector?

“I think because of my cousin Sanjay. He picked up a lot of student debt to get his degree, and then he spent years and years struggling in bottom-rung jobs and never getting anywhere. Eventually he started working for his father as a plumber and that was a good job for him, but when he was earning enough he had to start paying back his loans. So when I was sixteen or so and considering which “A” levels to take and where I wanted to go in life, I saw a Royal Navy recruiting video on Youtube and I thought if I went that route, I’d get the training and qualifications as part of the job, I wouldn’t have any debt to pay… and then there was the appeal of doing things like delivering disaster relief after hurricanes and tsunamis and things like that. I thought, ‘if I get to play with reactors and that powers the ship that sails halfway around the world to save lives, then that’s having my cake and eating it.’ My parents weren’t too happy, but they didn’t try to stop me.”

She laughs.

“My father said something like ‘Raising a daughter is like watering your neighbour’s garden.’”

That sounds…

“Sexist? It is.”

She doesn’t stop smiling.

“I think that was another reason I was attracted to the Navy. They didn’t care that I was a petite little woman, all they cared about was whether I could learn how to do an important job well. And I could!”

[Image: Patel floating in the water on her back, hair forming a halo around her head.]

What was your career like?

“It was exactly what I hoped it would be! I got the training I wanted, I worked hard, I got what I earned. And, okay, so in fact it turned out that most of what I was doing once I finally got to sail was kind of dull, but at least it was dull in, like, the Panama Canal or wherever. And I guess growing up with such a big family in such a tiny flat prepared me a bit for what life aboard ship was going to be like, because I never had much privacy in either situation.”

I’ve heard warships don’t offer much personal space…

“They offer no personal space at all! And of course, most of the crew are young men so after a few weeks at sea I kind of learned to tune out the smells and the way the curtain on a guy’s bunk might be rocking… or, uh, learned how to keep the curtain on MY bunk from rocking…”

She clears her throat before continuing.

“And you get used to your crewmates walking around the crew berthing in nothing but their socks or whatever.”

Is that why you’re so comfortable doing this, do you think?

“Well… it’s nothing the guys I served with haven’t already seen, let’s put it that way.”

Does that feel safe?

“With them? Yes. I only ever had problems with one man, and, well. The others took care of it. That’s all I’ll say. Besides, there was a little bit of separation. A curtain hung up, that kind of thing. On newer ships the berthings are completely separate, but a ship is a crowded and raunchy thing. There’s only so much privacy to be had.”

[Image: A profile photo of Patel pouring water out of her cupped hands and onto her upturned face. Her expression is serene.]

Did you expect to see spaceborne service?

“No, not at all! But when Chief Andow was selected to be Caledonia’s chief reactor technician, he asked for me by name. We’d already worked together for a year or two by then and I guess he thought highly of me.”

You guess?

“He wasn’t the kind of man who’d just come out and tell you something like that.”

How did it differ from your previous assignments?

“The big difference was that we actually had more personal space, not less. Caledonia was a captured and refitted alien vessel you see, and the alien design was just more roomy. [That] took some of the pressure off, which was good because Callie needed us all to be at our best. She was this weird hybrid of alien and human technology, and we were constantly having to work around that. When she worked properly, she was unbelievable–to this day, she’s still the fastest and most agile ship we’ve ever had in the fleet–but keeping her at her best was a lot more interesting than all those boring shifts I mentioned before. I don’t think we ever had a boring shift with Callie. I don’t want to imply she was a deathtrap, she wasn’t. But for any ship underway, disaster is always a lot closer than you’d think, and that’s doubly true in an environment as hostile as space.”

[Image: Patel talking animatedly. She has a lively, expressive face, and her hands are a blur, suggesting she waves them around and gestures vigorously with them as she talks.]

Tell me about the Battle of Gao

Her demeanour changes. Up until now, Sachi has been animated and enthusiastic. My question seems to flip a switch. She immediately becomes quiet and hesitates, assembling her words carefully before sharing them.

“Gao was a land war. So, our job was to deliver the HEAT and stand by in low orbit to provide support. The Gaoian fleet and the V-class destroyers had already cleared the field for us, we thought. Uh, I should point out that really, I spent the whole time monitoring power loads and making sure we didn’t overcharge the capacitor banks. I wasn’t really aware of the situation outside.

“When the Hunters attacked… it came out of nowhere. Suddenly the alarm went off—there are a lot of alarms, but this one was for hull breaches and enemy boarders. I remember, I kind of froze up, then… I remember looking over at the chief, and then I got back to work. I had a job to do, and repelling boarders isn’t part of that job. My job is to make sure the power systems stay within acceptable bounds. So, I kept doing that. I could hear weapons fire elsewhere in the ship, and every so often there’d be this heavy bang through the hull.

“And then I guess when the Hunters realized they were losing, they self-destructed. And when an explosion tears out part of the superstructure, things start to go wrong fast. When a lot of them happen in quick succession…”

[Image: The central two-page spread image is a candid shot of Patel standing knee-deep in the water in an acutely vulnerable posture. She is staring off into the distance at nothing in particular, and her right hand is protectively cradling her left arm. Despite being a still image, the picture still manages to convey the impression that she is shivering.]

“…It was chaos. I remember looking up at the systems board and seeing just how many emergency forcefields had gone up. And worse, just how many of the shield emitters were down. That’s bad because warships radiate waste heat through the shields. If the shields are completely gone, then the heat will just build up and up and eventually we’d all cook, but our bigger problem was spreading hull failures. We were in low orbit with Hunter ships buried in us like ticks, and they were just… pulling the ship apart. And if one of those ships self-destructed and took out a capacitor bank…”

She shakes her head.

“When you store that much energy in such a small space, you basically have a bomb. The cap banks are some of the toughest, most hardened compartments on the ship, but they’re not invulnerable…”

At this point, she trails off completely. After a few seconds, I decide she needs prompting.

What happened next?

“…Chief Andow tried to get through to the bridge, to let them know he was dumping the cap. Uh, that means discharging all our stored energy so that if the capacitor takes damage we don’t all go up in a massive explosion. But for whatever reason he couldn’t raise them. So he looked over at me and ordered me to deliver the message myself.”

It’s at this point that she begins to weep. She doesn’t notice at first.

“…Looking back… I think he knew. I think he saw the writing on the wall. So he told me to go be a runner so I wouldn’t be in there when… So I’d have a chance.”

[Image: Patel sitting on a rock, wiping a tear off her cheek.]

“I don’t… I don’t really remember what happened next. I remember I was scrambling up the stairs when there was this huge explosion nearby. There was decompression, it picked me up and blew me down the deck before the fields kicked in and stopped it. Somebody picked me up and dragged me toward an escape pod. I think I said something about how I was a runner, and I had to get a message to the captain… he said the captain was dead. Then he physically forced me into the pod and launched it. I didn’t even register who he was. But I’m pretty sure he didn’t make it.”

What happened to the ship exactly?

“I don’t really know. A series of internal explosions. They broke her open, took out the power and… that was it. The emergency forcefields dropped and the whole ship decompressed. Everybody left on board would have died in seconds…

“I didn’t see it happen. I just remember being crushed into my seat by the escape pod… I think I blacked out. I don’t really remember anything much until we’d landed on Gao, and then I was lying in a frosty field staring up at the sky. In between is all… it’s a blur.”

HMS Caledonia was the first British warship to be sunk since the Falklands War in 1982, and the worst loss of life suffered by the Royal Navy in a single incident since the sinking of HMS Aldenham in 1944. She remains the only Allied military spaceship to be sunk. Her hulk was recovered from Gao’s orbit and repaired at the Ceres shipyards, where she was recently rededicated and will shortly be returning to service.

Will you be returning to Caledonia, now that she’s been repaired?

“Yes.”

Won’t that be difficult?

[Image: Patel glaring fiercely at the camera, still sitting on the rock from before.]

“I owe it to my crewmates. I owe it to Andow, and Wilkes, Evans… all of them. Yes, it’ll be difficult… but it’d be harder to turn my back on them all.”

On that determined note, I conclude our interview.

Author’s note: This interview was reviewed and approved by Allied Extrasolar Command and the Royal Navy prior to publication. The interviewee’s views are her own, and do not constitute a policy statement on behalf of the United Kingdom or Allied governments.

(The full and unedited recording of Sachi Patel’s interview is available via ESNN’s Internet and infosphere pages.)


Date point: 15y10m AV
High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao

Champion Thurrsto of Clan Whitecrest

“Are you ready, My Father?”

Daar’s expression when he glanced at Thurrsto was both ernest and somehow serene. “I don’t think anyone is ever completely ready for something like this.”

Thurrsto reflected on that statement for a moment. It might be true, but if anyone were to be ready, well. One couldn’t do much better than Daar.

He was tall. Stately. Broad and powerful. Daar’s fur was lightly silvered along his cheeks and forearms with wisdom, but that laudable age was merely him at the peak of his prime; he was not in any way old or weakening. He’d grown his fur out to a dignified length and it was perfectly groomed. He was almost painfully handsome in a way that could be brutal or playful in equal measure, and there was a certain…weight to how he carried himself. Figuratively and literally, given his ongoing efforts at being the “most bestest” battle-ready Stoneback he could be.

Daar was the perfect avatar for the Gao at this point in their history, the uncompromisingly stern and indomitable leader they needed: ruthless yet not unkind, with an underlying compassionate streak and a hint of a happier future awaiting them under the weight of it all. His strength and ferocity were unmatched maybe anywhere, body, mind, and spirit. It was honestly… intimidating, and a bit melancholy. Nobody else could bear that much weight.

“They’re almost all gathered, My Father.” That was Gyotin, who would be leading the procession. They no longer had priests or what could be termed a state religion, but the implication and ritual was much the same. The little Champion was perhaps the only Gaoian alive as respected as Daar, and for entirely different reasons. He looked very much appropriate for the occasion in his dark robes, as though he was fitting into a role that the ancient fortress had remembered while the Gao themselves slowly forgot.

Daar duck-nodded softly. “…You kept it simple, right?” he asked.

“I’m not about to spring any surprises on you, My Father. Not after we rehearsed it…” Gyotin chittered. He seemed more relaxed about this than anyone else present. “But it has always been simple. At least… the ritual has, yes?”

“Yeah. I guess. We march out, I take an oath, you crown me, my Champions clothe me. Naydi joins me at my side and she’s consecrated, too. Simple…” There was a resigned tone to his chitter. “It’s the consequence that ain’t so easy.”

Gyotin duck-nodded, then flicked an ear as some update or another came through the earbud he was wearing. He glanced around at the Champions.

“Well. The Mother-Supreme and the Humans have arrived and taken their place… and so, intriguingly, has the Corti ambassador.”

Interesting. The Dominion species had been invited as a matter of courtesy, but all had politely responded with variations on the theme of ‘regret we cannot attend’ according to their own understanding of what passed for polite. The Chehnash one might have been taken as a snub by anybody who didn’t know them.

It was interesting that the Corti had accepted. Then again, they had been behaving strangely of late. Thurrsto had sat through a great many long briefings about the internal maneuverings of the Directorate, with Whitecrest’s general impression being that they were Up To Something. Something big, too. Epochal, possibly. All while making friendly overtures to the three extant Deathworlder species, despite the fact that the Dominion didn’t yet formally recognize the Ten’Gewek as sapient.

Things had changed dramatically, there. Previously the Corti had been the driving force between the insulting ‘non-sapient indigenous fauna’ label, as it provided a useful cover for their ‘xenobiological studies.’ For them to pre-emptively recognise and aggressively sponsor a species’ sapience was unprecedented.

And now, here they were at Daar’s coronation.

…Questions for later. Thurrsto stood up tall and straight as the Champions were called to order. He was in the honour guard’s second echelon, behind Loomi and Fiin—Highmountain and Stoneback were naturally at the front—and alongside Champion Myaku of Clan Emberpelt, who might just have nosed ahead of Fiin to be the second-largest gaoian present after Daar himself.

That was definitely not traditional. Fiin was, in practical terms, a hulking specimen by either human or gaoian reckoning, yet Stoneback Champions were traditionally much larger. Most of his First Fang was at least half again his size, after all, and Daar, of course…

Conversely, Emberpelts preferred to err on the side of burly over hulking, yet Myaku could stand toe-to-toe with Fiin. He was also, apparently, tied for the most accomplished fire rescueman in their history. That had been the trend over the last few decades, actually: competency over strict breed conformance. They were leaders of their Clans almost purely on their individual merit.

That spoke volumes about the quality of them both, and of the other Champions. And if he was being honest, it spoke volumes about Thurrsto, too. His own situation, he was not too modest to admit, was similar. The War had hugely accelerated that trend and caused a lot of re-shuffling among the Champions and Grandfathers. Combined with Daar’s clear preference for results first and foremost, the consequences had been impressive. There hadn’t been a group this smart, or this well-regarded, or this well-bred in possibly centuries. Most of them were pretty atypical for their Clans, too, at least in one way or another.

And here they were, about to proclaim to the Gao and the galaxy writ large their selection, approval of, and abject unending submission to, Daar; the one, true, uncontested and unquestioned Great Father of the Gao.

…Balls.

Gyotin had a simple wooden staff he was using for a ceremonial… object. Mace? Wand? A stick to beat unruly witnesses back into line? It certainly looked weapon-like… Either way, he raised it and tapped it sharply on the stones.

“It is time,” he intoned.

The doors to the Great Hall opened.


Technical Sergeant Adam (“Warhorse”) Arés

“…Damn nice, all of this.”

“Keep quiet ‘ya lump,” Righteous grumbled next to him.

“Yessir, sarry.”

Righteous grumbled again. They were still…working things out. Nothing bad, really, and they were still bros, it was just a little weird between them, still: neither of them had really realized how big the performance gap was. It felt maybe like when a little brother realizes he can not only beat, but totally wipe the floor with his bigger, cooler older bro. Adam wasn’t sure he liked that.

Anyway.

So far, it had been something pretty spectacular to watch, though. Especially the procession up to High Mountain Fortress! They’d been invited—and when the Great Father invites you, how do you say no?—so of course they were all there in their nicest uniforms, watching the proceedings and all of Gao’s high society preen before each other.

Fancy big room, too.

…Okay, that was underselling it. The Great Hall was a fucking great hall, and they’d pulled out all the stops to make it greater and hall-er for this. It was definitely making his List of Big Cool Really Old Rooms—he’d made that List in London. There were big monochromatic banner things hanging from the rafters, and those rafters were made of wood. Like, wood over a thousand years old. Daar had given them all a quick tour of the Fortress last night—the Gaoian HEAT operators had been in a state of near awe the whole time, too—and it was then Adam had learned that, for a Gaoian, wood was as naked a display of wealth as gold, so…damn. Daar’s personal apartments were filled with it, the entire hall was made of it too, like some of the cool buildings he saw in England…hammer-beam? Was that the word?

There were swords up there, too. Thousands of ‘em. Somebody had gone up there and cleaned every last one so the shadows gleamed with lethal sharp edges. He had to wonder who’d done what kind of shenanigans to pull that duty.

Their earlier reunion with Daar had been fun, if too quick. Adam had been discreetly seeing him at least weekly for some time now as he clawed himself up the last grueling steps towards the amazing peak of his abilities; working out with Daar was fun! Firth had, uh, gotten re-motivated after their fight and he was back on track again, but still, it was nice lifting with someone who could keep up.

As for the others, they hadn’t had any chance to train with Daar in a while, and their surprise at just what he could do now had the big furry goofball downright giddy with manic happiness. Too bad, it was pretty obvious he just wanted to laze about and tussle with everyone all day long, but, well…duty first. Maybe they could bro out tomorrow.

…After he was crowned. After they made him what might as well have been a god.

…Fuck.

Anyway. He was still Daar under it all, and his hard work had made a hell of an impression on Firth. “…He’s been eatin’ his Wheaties,” he whispered, continuing an earlier conversation.

“Yeah. He said, and I quote, ‘make me good enough to beat your ass.’ So…here we are.”

“Did you?”

“Some days, I wonder… Looks like things are starting.”

The giant wooden doors creaked open, and Gyotin processed through them with a sturdy-looking staff of some kind held vertically in front of him. It was kinda hard to tell it was him because the robes covered basically everything but his nose and paws, but still. He advanced to the middle of the dais at the hall’s end, and rapped the staff’s metal shoe down on the stones hard, three times.

It sure as hell got everyone’s attention.

“Please stand,” he requested, once the hall was silent.

There was the prolonged sussuruss of hundreds of people rising to their feet. Gyotin duck-bowed to acknowledge them, then turned and rapped his staff on the stones again. In smart lockstep, the Champions emerged from the shadows beyond the door. At the front was Fiin, layered in Stoneback’s extremely functional ceremonial steel armor, with a durable, well-used rifle over shoulder. Beside him was Loomi, bare-furred except for a kind of layered heavy wool kilt-like thing. The Emberpelt champion wore a straight boss looking heavy leather coat and matching corded pants, along with what was unquestionably a fireman’s hat; Adam grimaced internally when he thought of how much needlework went into all that.

Beside him was Thurrsto, looking dark and sharp in unadorned, sleek, well-fitted black clothing with an evil slender blade to hand. Nobody could miss the hard lines of his body showing themselves through his fur and clothing. To Adam’s eyes, despite being the smallest—relatively speaking, anyway—and least visually spectacular of the four Big Bads, Thurrsto looked the most genuinely dangerous. Which, considering he was standing next to Fiin, was saying something.

He’d need to arrange a spar between them one day.

After the honor-guard of four, there came a procession of all the other Champions. It went on for a while. Each of them was wearing their Clan’s idea of ceremonial garb, ranging from the humble hard-wearing white doctor’s robes of Clan Openpaw to the riot of wood and gold beads and fine silks adorning Champion Sheeyo. The very last onto the stage was Clan Forestnettle, the newest major Clan to be recognized by the Conclave, wearing a woolen cap and a utility bandolier. Adam couldn’t remember what they did, exactly.

The honor-guard remained in the middle of the stage while the remaining Champions fanned out to the edges. Once the procession was done, Gyotin rapped his staff on the stones once more, and onto the stage stepped the center of it all: Daar.

He…really, really looked the part, somehow.

He wasn’t wearing any fancy swords or robes or whatever, in fact he wasn’t wearing anything at all. He didn’t need to. Maybe it was because some groomer did a really nice clip job, maybe it was all the extra training they’d done together, maybe it was just how he was. Maybe all of it at once. Daar stood in the middle of all of it, towering over everyone besides maybe Loomi, who in any case was too lanky to have a command presence strong enough to stand against him.

Gyotin returned to center-stage. He stood before Daar, looking up at him, then turned to the audience and rapped his staff on the ground again, just once. The sound echoed in the respectful hush.

“I call this Conclave to order!” He announced. “Before you, in the sight of all we hold sacred, stands Daar, to whom the Champions of the Clans have bared their throats in supplication. Do the Clans recognize him?”

As one, the Champions all barked their agreement. It was a quick, powerful, and honestly…a pretty scary thing to hear. Just a single, punching sound, that echoed around the ancient hall long after it had been voiced.

Gyotin rapped his staff again, then turned to face stage left. “I call forth Yulna, Mother-Supreme of the Females, seat of our culture and foster of life.”

Yulna was the head of a procession of three, flanked by Naydra on her right and Myun on her left. There was some kind of ritual challenge where Myun stepped protectively in front of the Mother-Supreme, baring a shield and sword. Gyotin duck-bowed formally, and Myun stepped back. Naydra was holding a rich blue cushion with an object on it that Adam couldn’t quite see.

With that done, Gyotin turned to face stage right. “And I call forth Reeko, Champion of the Straightshields, blind giver of justice, arbiter of disputes.”

Reeko was faceless behind a full suit of armor, brushed to a dull gleam rather than polished. His guards were completely identical. They were the same height, same build, moved in exactly the same precise way. It wasn’t robotic, they were definitely alive under there… But it was completely indistinguishable. Eerie. The only thing different about Reeko was the brass and wooden intaglio down the crest of his helm. The trio bore spears, which they planted firmly on the ground in front of them, and became perfectly statue-still.

Gyotin turned to the audience. “Are there any among us who would Challenge the sacred rite we are about to undertake? Is there a soul who would dispute what we do? Speak, now, and be heard: but be warned. You would Challenge the Conclave, the Clans, and Daar himself.”

Nobody answered, of course: who could Challenge Daar? Not even Adam was that stupid. Daar was a hell of a fight even way back when he was less than half Adam’s weight, what with his ridiculous speed and those teeth and claws of his. Now that they were about level? In a real fight? No gracias. Adam couldn’t imagine either of them coming out of that intact.

Adam had to suppress an urge to giggle at the idea, which Firth noticed out of the corner of his eye. He gave a very slight grin, rolled his eyes and shook his head ever-so-slightly. In any case, Gyotin waited a good long while for some immensely stupid person to try their luck.

None did. He turned back to the center of attention.

“Daar. You stand here before us, under the sight of our esteemed witnesses and the Clans of the Gao, here where the priests of ancient tradition invoked the spirits of the world. May they grant us grace. You have been recognized and acclaimed as the Great Father we require, and thus are called to a great and terrible duty. Do you understand and accept this burden?”

Daar spoke for the first time in the ceremony. He’d always had a booming, gravelly kind of voice, but now it was percussive as he raised his muzzle and announced: “I do.”

The words bounced off the back wall.

“And will you take the oath required of you, before those Seen and Unseen?” Gyotin asked.

“I will.”

“Then repeat after me…”

Gyotin’s voice was low enough that Adam could only just hear the words. When Daar repeated them, however, they carried real weight.

“I, Daar, Brother, Father, Warleader, Champion-Emeritus, Stud-Prime of Stoneback…”

His voice boomed across the hall.

“Pledge to keep and protect the Clans of the Gao against all enemies from within and without, physical and spiritual…”

“To provide Justice, Security, and Foundation…”

“To guide our kind through the twisting river of fate toward a bright and prosperous future…”

“To foster friendships across the stars, that our lands, our spirits, and our knowledge might grow…”

“And to respect the advice of the Champions, and to lead with integrity and wisdom.”

“I accept this singular, supreme, and unassailable authority as my burden alone…”

“…to be shared with no-one, and never bequeathed. I pledge to keep this office until the day I die, and I pledge that it shall die with me.”

“By all that I hold sacred, before those Seen and Unseen, these things that I have promised, I will perform and keep. So I do swear.”

Gyotin waited for the last of Daar’s oath to finish resonating around the hall, then struck his staff on the ground so hard that Adam actually flinched at the noise.

“Do the Clans accept his pledge?”

Again, there was that same bark of approval. Gyotin turned to his left.

“Do the Females trust his fidelity?”

Yulna stepped forward. She duck-nodded, then turned to Naydra and took what looked like a wooden walking-stick from the pillow.

“We do, and we present this token of our respect,” she declared. She stepped forward once again and placed it in Daar’s right paw. In his hands, it looked more like a humble scepter. “It belonged to my predecessor, Mother Giymuy. Carry it, as a symbol of what you must protect.”

As she stepped back, Gyotin turned to his right and addressed the Straightshields.

“Does the Law recognise his legitimacy?” he asked. Reeko stepped forward. With cold precision, he turned one-eighty to hand his spear to one of his guards. He shrugged a round shield from his back and, holding it rigidly in front of him, turned one-eighty again, stepped forward, and presented it. His voice boomed hollowly from inside his helmet.

“It does. This shield hung in the high courthouse for a thousand years, and survived even when that ancient building was flattened. Carry it, as a symbol of what you must uphold.” He then returned to the exact millimeter of stone he’d been occupying and stood, utterly still.

Gyotin duck-nodded, then gestured toward a low wooden table at the front of the stage. He spoke, his voice having slid into a more…well, serious and formal tone. It was captivating.

“Cousins of Daar, Brother-Clans of Stoneback, come forward and teach us thy offerings.”

The first to approach was Fiin, carrying his rifle. He prowled over to the table efficiently, checked and cleared the weapon with a well-practiced motion, then quite conspicuously charged it and set it on the table, pointing it in the one direction where nobody was seated.

“A rifle, one of human design, gaoian make, and mutual refinement. It has seen heavy service in the war that Our Father led us through. Many have died by its power, and it in turn has seen its masters fall one after the other. May it remind My Father always of the terrible cost of war, of its terrible necessity, and of the hope that must always be kept alive.”

…Damn. They were not fooling around with their symbology. Both Firth and ‘Base shifted uncomfortably on either side of Adam.

Next up was Loomi, who carried an ancient-looking book. He took a dignified walk up to the table and laid it down almost reverently.

“The remaining personal writings of Fyu, intended for his successor. There are secrets within that were kept by conspiracy in Stoneback, later Highmountain, and eventually through Whitecrest, when their Clan split from ours in secret so very long ago. The contents have been known only to the unbroken Rite of the Loremasters our Clans have always shared. Today, they are bestowed upon you. May they serve as a reminder that wisdom is the greatest of all blessings, and unheeded, is the most exquisite of all curses. May his writings give you the strength to wield such power.”

Thurrsto and Myaku looked at one another, then stepped forward as one.

“Our Clans represent polar extremes,” Myaku announced. “Mine is the craft of protecting life…”

“…and mine is the craft of ending it,” Thurrsto finished for him. “These are burdens and tools that the Great Father must wield.”

The pair of them took ampules from around their necks, and placed them together on the table.

“Water,” Myaku said. “Drawn from the headspring of the Bat-Yu river. That river, and the dams along its length, provide drinking water, sanitation, and electrical power for half our civilization. Without water, there can be no life. It extinguishes fires and cleans wounds… or it can flood towns and sweep away buildings. Water, like life, demands respect and careful shepherding. Guard it well.”

“Blood,” Thurrsto added. “Taken from an unfortunate soul who was simply in the wrong place at a very unfortunate time. He was entirely innocent of any wrongdoing, yet his life was forfeit for the success of a mission that had nothing to do with him whatsoever. Death, as the counterpart to what the esteemed Champion said, demands respect. Use it wisely.”

There were more, once his bodyguards had their say. Each Clan of the Conclave had a point they wanted to make, some duty they wanted to remind their Great Father of, and they made each one pointedly and solemnly. The Openpaws presented the obligation to heal via the Gaoian equivalent of the Rod of Asclepius; the Longears gave something ominous in the form of a magnifying glass. The one-fangs delivered a burned and broken helmet recovered from the graveyard orbit high overhead. As each token was given, a member of Starmind received it on the Great Father’s behalf and carried it away to a contemplation room just off the Great Hall.

The weight of it all was just…crushing. But at last it was Gyotin’s turn.

On the table there was an urn with hot coals within. He used a pair of tongs to select a coal and place it into a small bowl, which immediately erupted into thick, billowing smoke. It spread through the hall quickly, and by the time Gyotin had placed a second coal in a second bowl, Adam caught its scent: sweet, gentle, and grassy. There was a sharp resin-like note too, but he didn’t really know how to describe it. It was nice, either way.

Gyotin placed the bowls on the ground to either side of Daar.

“We burn sweet-herb in offering to the occasion. For those who are not Gaoian, know that sweet-herb comes in many forms. The ancient texts tell us of a particularly rare herb that was used only for the most sacred purposes. That herb had long been thought extinct, but modern archaeology, combined with molecular evidence, has identified its strain. It lives still, though only at High Mountain Fortress, and even then its survival is nothing short of miraculous. It was found in a single, untended garden in a worn-down, disused courtyard, one that had been slated for eventual demolition. We now know that courtyard was none other than Fyu and Tiritya’s personal garden. That herb has been carefully cultivated, My Father, and today…we offer it. May it please the spirits of all, Seen and Unseen, and consecrate these proceedings.”

Gyotin turned back toward the table, walked over, and picked up the crown.

“Let us all take a moment of silence to contemplate what we are about to do.”

Heads bowed. For a minute or longer, there was no sound at all that Adam could detect, beyond his own breath and the occasional faint rustle of fur and fabric as somebody moved. Gyotin stood unmoving in the middle of the stage, holding the crown up for them all to see.

It was a minimalist thing. It bore no diamonds, or velvet, or magnificent crenellations of precious metal… in fact it was simple. A shaped loop of silver, designed to fit snugly around his ears and the back of his head where it could shine through his fur without getting in the way.

Gyotin broke the silence by turning to face Daar.

“This crown is a symbol of your authority, and a token of your transformation. You do not kneel before me: You kneel before it, and all that it represents. Once you don this crown, you may never again be rid of the duties that come with it. Do you understand?”

Daar’s voice didn’t boom this time. It didn’t need to. He stared at the slim metal for a long second, then took a breath and spoke a modest, earnest word:

“Yes.”

“Then kneel, My Father.”

Daar did so.

Gyotin held the crown over Daar’s head, and intoned something that felt old in a way that a spoken voice usually didn’t. “Be thou sworn by thy own word, and blessed by the peoples given unto you, who submit willingly to your rule. Be thou consecrated by sweet-herb and offerings, guarded and guided by those Seen and Unseen. And be thou crowned the Great Father, embodiment of the Gao. So too may thou bless, consecrate, rule and reign over that which is given thee, and may thou never again allow anyone or anything command thee to obedience.”

Adam fixed the tableau in his memory, feeling acutely aware that this was one of those iconic moments that’d be reproduced on front pages around the whole galaxy, and in history books for… well. Certainly for as long as the Gao and Humanity were around. Possibly even longer. His friend, on his knees with a simple loop of metal hanging over him like an axe about to drop.

It dropped, and settled snugly around his ears and scalp. Gyotin said something, far too soft for anybody but himself and Daar to hear. Whatever it was… it seemed to give Daar comfort. He duck-nodded, flicked an ear, and then stood with the crown glittering in his fur. He surveyed the crowd, the cameras, and old stone walls that had seen yet another moment in the long march of history.

“…I rise,” he said, “and am the Great Father.”


“Laid Bare—Warriors in their own words” Issue #4: Julian Etsicitty Author and photographer: Ava Magdalena Ríos

On our last call before the shoot, my next subject left me with this bit of advice:

“You get used to the gravity pretty fast, actually. Or, at least I did. Well, no. We did, and the other fellas with us did, too.”

Julian Etsicitty is, to put it mildly, an unexpected interview choice for a series about warriors in their own words. He is a civilian—albeit an unusual one—and has no military or law enforcement background. He is not a particularly aggressive-seeming man nor is he steeped in any of the associated ethos. While soldiers in general (and the combat arms in particular) tend toward boisterousness, Julian generally does not. He is mild-mannered, polite, deferential, and solicitous. His voice is deep yet soft-spoken, and he tends to revise and backtrack over his thoughts as he speaks them. One very much gets the impression that he thinks as he talks.

Nor is he one to crave attention. Julian’s sparse social media presence is mostly limited to smiling selfies with fans or the occasional snap taken during an adventure. While he and his partners appear frequently in Byron Group promotional materials, he rarely photographs himself, and he never posts pictures of them [Disclosure: ESNN is a wholly-owned subsidiary]. The most numerous items are videos of Bozo, a Folcthian legend of a dog who, it has been rumored, may have explored Akyawentuo when the powers that be weren’t paying attention.

Julian’s personality is not, therefore, exactly one that a larger-than-life hero might be expected to possess. Meeting him in person is another matter entirely. Unassuming and friendly, yet not at all shy, Julian has a ruggedly handsome face and a thick-chested, charismatic presence that must be seen to be believed. Much like his friends, his huge shoulders are these days about as wide as a doorframe. They slope up to a massive set of traps that nearly touch his ears, which in turn frame a sinewy wrestler’s neck that’s significantly wider than his head. He prowls about as if ready to fight at any moment and has a perpetually wolf-like, loping posture, yet even then he stands six-foot-one in his bare feet. Julian is much larger in person than he appears on screen.

As with the Great Father, photography rarely does him justice. I aim to correct that.

In this double-length issue, we will explore the world of a man who, along with his partners, has rather unexpectedly found himself uniquely entangled with—and critically important to—the fortunes of the three sapient Deathworlder species.

We meet up at the jump facility on our way toward Akyawentuo, ready for the first off-world shoot of the series. Julian arrives burdened with a rather bulky-looking set of rugged travel cases, sets them down and shakes his head.

“Professor Hurt and his dang books…hi!”

[Image: Portering books for the “nutty professor.” Julian carries several large cases wedged under brawny arms, hands gripping numerous carrying handles.]

He grins a friendly grin and proffers a hard, paw-like hand that encircles mine entirely. We’ve been friends for some time now, making this gesture more of a nervous joke than anything. We make brief small talk and amble onto the platform. There’s an almost-didn’t-happen flash of black, a thump that can be felt just as much as be heard.

The gravity hits instantly and it is surprising, but not impossible to manage. For those of us who grew up in Folctha, it feels like a high-gravity session at the gym, which are still effectively mandatory at least three times a week. Stronger still is the air; it is heavy, cloying with too many overwhelming scents to catalog, and simultaneously oppressive yet energizing. Akyawentuo’s atmosphere has a higher oxygen content than Earth and it goes to ones’ head immediately.

And it is beautiful. I plot another excursion at a future date to more properly document Akyawentuo’s beauty. For now, a single photo which I took later on will need to suffice.

[Image: An otherworldly sunset. Julian’s head and shoulders are visible in the lower left corner, sitting on a cliff ledge and overlooking the jungle.]

The humidity is near dew-point and the temperature is genuinely hot, our time of arrival being the peak of midsummer noon. I break into a clammy sweat almost immediately, and understand why neither human nor Ten’Gewek are too keen on wearing much of anything at all, here.

[Image: A Ten’Gewek child perched on Julian’s shoulder, staring curiously into the camera.]

“I reckon he weighs about a hundred kilos.”

Julian hardly seems to notice the weight. Like most burdens, he handles it stoically and matter-of-factly. He isn’t bragging, he’s more interested in telling us about the Ten’Gewek.

He sends the child to handle some errands for him and introduces me to Yan Given-Man. Yan is both the most influential chieftain and his village is closest to the Jump Array, so this is a matter of etiquette. I am, after all, a stranger visiting their land.

The conversation is quick but pleasant (though Yan shamelessly flirts with me: Apparently, he flirts with every woman he meets regardless of species) and he’s kind enough to point us toward a suitable locale for our shoot.

During the trek out that way, Julian points out local flora and fauna. It’s quickly apparent that he’s easily the most nervous and self-conscious of my subjects to date. The source of his nervousness isn’t nakedness, as such—he’s quite famously noted for going au natural on Akyawentuo some days. Given the oppressive heat, I entirely understand. For him, the nervousness seems to be about the camera and the situation.

“We’ve been setting this up for months. Up until now I’ve been looking forward to it… Now that we’re here, I’m getting a serious case of cold feet, you know?”

I reassure him that we won’t proceed unless he’s comfortable, and we make some related small talk. He replies by chuckling softly, sighing, and peeling off his t-shirt. His physique is…striking. I snap up my camera and take a rapid-fire series of pictures, which he seems to find amusing.

[Image: Candid with sideways grin, abs tensed mid-chuckle while thick, stone-hard muscles fight for space on his frame. He pauses and flexes his forearm while unbuttoning his jeans.]

“I never thought I’d be this kind of a fella, you know?”

What do you mean?

“Well…this.” Julian gestures across himself in what seems like mild disbelief, then reaches behind his head with his arms and tenses his huge biceps for the first proper shot of the day.

[Image: A heroic body. Full-body frontal flexed pose, with arms the size of his head bulging prominently on either side. His expression is friendly but nevertheless nervous.]

“If you had asked me ten years ago what I’d be doing…well, okay. I suppose firstly I’d still be in stasis, but whatever. Even then, after having been abducted, rescued, even been a thief for a bit? I wouldn’t have ever guessed I’d end up wrestling gorillas for a living!”

Julian has worn many hats in his adult life: park ranger, alien abductee, castaway, explorer, research assistant. The revelation about his life of crime is a new one to me.

When you said you were “a thief for a bit,” what does that mean?

“You know the Cimbrean system defence field? I, uh… kinda stole it. From the Guvnurag.”

Tell me more.

“I was, uh… you know, I’d just spent like six years stuck on this hellhole planet with no way off, and then I got rescued. And the guy who rescued me, Kirk, he was eager to see humanity get a foothold on a colony planet. But Cimbrean was way vulnerable, it didn’t have any kind of serious protection so at the time it was only ever gonna be a little secret outpost. The only way it could grow was to get it a system field, and the Guvnurag weren’t selling. So Kirk hatched this plan to steal a crate of footballs right out from under their noses—uh, tentacles I guess, whatever—and it all hinged on a human who could set a decent distance-running pace.”

And that human was you?

He shrugs, which is a gesture he performs habitually, then after a moment he grins mischievously and sprints toward a far tree at a blistering pace. When he reaches the tree he quickly runs up the trunk, gracefully flips himself head over heels, and charges back.

[Image: Strength and grace. Three images capture Julian in flight, feet off the ground while running away, running back, and running past in a blur.]

He returns a moment later with a waterskin and takes a hefty swig, grinning hugely.

“I like running! Sprinting, long distance, track and field, whatever! Always did. I ran trail since I was a kid, not even in middle school yet. And I was so grateful to be rescued that, uh, I guess a little grand larceny seemed like a fair price. Especially for a good cause.”

You seem to get everywhere.

He shrugs again.

“For a while there, me and Allison were two of, like, only a handful of humans who were really doing anything outside Sol.”

Tell me about the others.

“Well, Xiù was doing her thing with the Gao obviously, but we didn’t pick her up until later… but on the ship there was Al and me, there was Lewis—He’s a really cool fella, shame we don’t get to hang out more. And there was our pilot, Amir…”

He looks down at the ground for a second.

“…Rest in peace, man.”

[Image: Mourning. Julian’s wild hair partially obscures his face.]

What happened?

“Sanctuary was attacked. Now, bear in mind, Sanctuary was this high-speed luxury yacht. Totally unarmed, civilian grade stuff. She couldn’t even begin to stack up to a warship. It damn near tore us in half, and Amir… he was wounded. Bad. But he held it together and flew circles around the bastards long enough for the rest of us to abandon ship, and then kamikaze’d them. He saved us all.”

This was the event that left you and your partners in stasis for five years?”

“Yeah. And we nearly didn’t make it. It was… close. Real close. Like, we actually got a taste of hard vacuum before making it to the lifeboat.”

He shudders.

“I don’t recommend it.”

What was it like?

“…Totally silent, except for my heartbeat. And… it hurt. All over, this crazy pain that just drilled down into me like I was being torn apart by thousands of little fish hooks. And a choking feeling in my lungs and my throat. I could feel the moisture on my eyes fizzing away in the vacuum, and… I mean, we were dying. We had, like, seconds before we passed out. And then when we got in the lifeboat and pressurized it, it was like being hit with a baseball bat, all over. And then there was more pain because we got a nasty case of the bends… I dunno if we passed out from the pain or fell asleep from just being exhausted.”

He shudders again.

“Either way… we made it. We spent a couple weeks in hospital, but we made it.”

You were rescued by [Warhorse] as I recall.

“Yeah, and his friends too. He was a lot smaller then. Well, relatively speaking anyway. But he still had the same goofy…everything, really. After that there was recovery. I bounced back pretty quick I guess. Took Xiù a bit longer, but she came through like she always does. Al I think was hurting the worst of us, but she powered through it.”

[Image: A distant fond smile.]

What inspired the three of you to join the Byron Group’s exploration program?

“We… sorted out our relationship, you know? Talked it out, figured out how we felt about each other, and decided we wanted to stay together. Well, no. We knew that from the start, but still. And the thing about what we’d gone through was that coming back to Earth was really kinda weird. Or maybe…like, we didn’t belong there. Yeah. That’s better. Xiù threw out literally all her stuff, ‘cuz she said it didn’t feel like hers any longer. Allison… I mean she didn’t really have any ties anyway. And in the years I’d been gone, my Grampa’d died…”

He trails off for a second.

“…That was real hard to take.”

You were close with him?

“He raised me. I’d like to think he’d be proud of me. Well, yeah. He would be, I think. He always worried after me too, always did want me to feed me better, but he couldn’t afford it. Something he always felt guilty about but I didn’t complain. It wasn’t like I was starving, you know?”

And Byron Group?

“They came to us. Being honest, my first interest in it was just…paying the bills, and getting their, uh, really famously litigious lawyers on my side!”

He laughs.

“There was a whole bunch of legal stuff about Grampa’s estate and the house and everything. I never asked how much it all cost, but Mister Byron likes to grumble about it now and then… Al and Xiù had their own reasons. Al was the one who really wanted to get out there. She said she felt like she mattered out there, you know? I think Xiù felt the same way, but it took her a while to figure it all out. Except, uh… like, she never hesitated, or anything. It’s not like she was lost, she knew what she wanted. It just took her a while to explain why she wanted it.”

[Image: A collage of Julian talking and waving his hands about wildly, showcasing his pacing, thoughtful mannerisms and the way he stops to brush his hair out of his face.]

And you went to Mars.

“Well, I mean, we went to Nebraska first…”

He laughs again.

“…But yeah. And the weird thing is, out of everything we’ve done, that’s the bit that seems the least, uh, real. I guess. Like, everywhere else we’ve gone there’s been life and people or at least trees or whatever. Mars… ain’t like that. It’s so not like anywhere on Earth, or any temperate planet, it just… I can’t imagine people living there. You can just feel it, it ain’t a living place. It ain’t been a living place in millions of years. It’s, uh…a Deadworld maybe.”

But after that, you found worlds full of life.

“Not at first! Our first find was Aphrodite, which is like, I guess a proto-Earth. It’s basically still molten under the steam clouds. Maybe there’s some organic molecules down there from all the comets, but that’s just guessing. Spectro wasn’t very helpful.”

But then you found Lucent.

“Oh man… Lucent.”

[Image: close-up of an unreservedly happy smile, head tilted upwards and stretching his neck.]

“Lucent was the jackpot, but more than that it was… It was spiritual. The first time we saw the glittermotes… I mean, Xiù saw them first. It’s her helmet cam footage we shared when we got back. But… there’s some things are just so profoundly beautiful, a fella like me can’t put it into words. I hope the Chinese appreciate what they’ve got there. If it were up to me, the only human presence on Lucent would be a jump array, and a couple of park rangers. And we’d take people out into the nail-tree woods and they’d see the glittermotes and go home.”

In my experience, Julian is not a particularly politics-oriented individual, unless that subject is conservation. This moment in our interview provokes a very long diversion along that topic. Not even a double-length issue could do his thoughts justice, so the full transcript, along with additional photography, is available on ESNN’s website.

We move on to Julian’s unwitting foray into intersolar politics, particularly with the People. The Misfit trio’s first contact with the Ten’Gewek is already well documented, so by mutual agreement we decide not to go over old ground again.

After your stint as a paid explorer, your role morphed into a sort of liason with the Ten’Gewek. How did that happen?

“God, I don’t even know, being honest. I think a big part was, uh, because I could hack it.”

What do you mean?

Julian thinks for a moment, shrugs, and decides to demonstrate. He races past me, rather effortlessly jumps high up and flings himself into the giant Ketta, then without pausing sets to leaping and swinging between the trees. Ketta tend to grow well apart from each other, making his stunt more impressive in the high gravity: twenty percent stronger than Earth standard. He apes about, runs along the strong lower branches, long-jumps between trees and shows off for the camera, then gracefully flips back down to the ground from about five meters up. He lands confidently on the balls of his feet, recomposes himself, stands up tall and grins fiercely. Warriors are often physically exuberant and so is he, in his unique way.

[Image: Collage of a modern-day Tarzan. The final image captures the moment he lands on his toes, brawny legs taut and bent slightly at the knees, with an effort-filled growl on his face.]

It only takes him two big huffs to catch his breath. He has a happy and mildly smug expression on his face, which immediately morphs into somewhat embarrassed pride.

“Fun! But I have to tell you, it took a whole bunch of just straight insane training to get good enough to do that! I’m a really big fella so it’s even harder, too. But, well…”

Here he grows a bit embarrassed about himself, and forges on somewhat reluctantly.

“Okay, back up. Dane [Bryon Group’s physical trainer] had helped me see that I had all this potential, right? Before we even left on the first mission, he cleaned up my diet and had me training not even all that hard, just something nice and strenuous, you know? Well, just by doing that I filled out fast. Like, so fast that I sort of realized I could do something almost nobody can do. Then [Warhorse] got involved, said I was something like him, I find out from Nofl [a Corti researcher, resident in Folctha] that I was picked for ‘research’ because of my background and, uh, because my genetics are really dang good I guess, which…I don’t know. That’s a strange thing to learn. A little humbling, too. Yeah.”

Julian’s physique has changed dramatically over the last several years, as readers will know from his various interviews or postings on social media. Before, one might have described him as a long-armed and rangy athlete, as if he were a wrestler that had never properly filled out.

Not any longer. I decide to broach the unavoidable topic.

You transformed yourself for this mission, in a way very few can.

“…Yeah. It’s a gift I have, I suppose. And [Righteous] says, it’s an insult to God to waste his blessings, which…I can get behind that. Still feels weird, though. Also, I’m pretty sure I know all the fellas who could even do this. That…it’s almost too much of a coincidence, you know?”

The black market has of course managed to gain access to Crude, likely from illegal Corti labs seeking untaxed profit. This has quite naturally produced a new crop of extreme performance athletes on the worldwide competitive scene across many sports, especially powerlifting, strongman, American football and the like. Yet despite this, none of these enhanced athletes have ever matched the physical performances that members of HEAT can achieve, nor those of a select few people in their close orbit, like Julian. We discuss this at length and what it might mean, though sadly I must once again refer you to the website for the full interview.

You are not a small man.

“No!”

He grins sheepishly, and again tries his hand at posing. He’s still nervous but quickly gets the hang of it with a bit of coaching and, I suspect, recalling some covert practice with his jockular friends. Given that he showed up for the shoot in an impressively lean state with a tan darker than his usual, it’s clear he prepared for this more than my other subjects had bothered.

Which is odd, because the others weren’t embarrassed subjects at all, whereas Julian…

“Like this? I feel like a dork!”

He laughs, but keeps posing hard. A sheen of sweat begins to develop on him, both from the strain and the oppressive, humid heat. I silently regret not wearing my exercise clothing.

You’re doing fine. As I said, you’re not small…

[Image: rear profile of upper body, fingers intertwined behind his head. His thick lats frame a broad, powerful back, while heavy cable-like muscles run along the deep groove of his spine.]

“No, never was, really. I’d always been a big fella even when I was just a kid. Strong as heck, too, but…not like I am now. I mean I was always, uh, big-boned? Yeah. Sorta. Even when I was little I had the frame and the strength, but I just didn’t have enough food to fill out like I could have. Might have ran varsity track or wrestled if we could’ve afford it, but…”

He shakes his shaggy head in mild self-disbelief, then continues:

“But now? I guess, uh, I made up for lost time. I’m strong enough I can edge out most of the [Ten’Gewek] men, and heck, I’m about level with Vemik! He’s a bruiser these days.”

He pauses again, spins his flank toward the camera and allows himself his first unreservedly self-confident grin of the shoot.

“But I’m still growing, and I can outrun them all too!”

[Image: A flash of pride. Side portrait of Julian with an aggressive, half-snarl grin as he holds a particularly strenuous full-body pose.]

Julian does not directly compare himself to anyone but his adopted tribe, and while he is not shy about his abilities, he generally prefers modesty over braggadocio. However, leaving aside the rough equality between the three Deathworlders at the figurative top of their respective species, the average Ten’Gewek possesses a physicality on par with the best that human and gaoiankind can offer. That curve is dramatically shifted in their favor, and yet Julian finds himself comfortably among them through luck, work ethic, and his sheer force of will. I know the pain he paid for those abilities better than most and prompt him accordingly.

I imagine it wasn’t easy.

“Oh fuck no it wasn’t. Still isn’t, won’t ever be! But we…well, heck, I’ll be honest, I needed to prove to them we could play by their rules, even if God made them better at it. Turns out though, he made us humans pretty damn good at this, too.”

It is difficult to illustrate with photos just how impressive Julian’s casually immense speed is. He can move like a blur when he wants to, though he is reluctant to state exactly how fast he is. His equally immense strength, however, is easier to depict. I cast about and point to an almost round boulder which has taken residence against the roots of a Ketta. Julian grins, prowls over to it and pries it out of the ground. The boulder is about as wide as his broad chest, and he picks it up and curls it repeatedly with quiet, satisfied grunts. I later learn how impressive a feat this is—for details, see his stats and other info in the full write-up on ESNN.

“Not many… hnngh… can do something… grr… like this!”

He lifts it above his head a few times, then falters, pauses for a moment, and looks at me.

[Image: Honest strength. Side profile of Julian pausing mid-curl while holding a large boulder in his hands, his arms bulging outrageously yet his expression questioning and uncertain.]

“…I guess that’s pretty stupid and macho of me, huh?”

I withhold any comment and press forward. Julian has become a mentor and teacher for a young Deathworld species who, while in many ways are much like us, value traits like physical strength much more strongly. Teaching them requires that he push himself past limits most of us would hardly believe a human could breach. He is still coming to terms with what that means for him.

Why did you feel it necessary to build yourself up, knowing you were at a disadvantage?

Julian looks at the boulder in his hands for a moment, then raises it above his head, jumps up and throws it an impressive distance away, as if it was merely a medicine ball.

[Image: Rock toss. Julian’s feet are a meter off the ground, his arms up, the rock mid-arc.]

He lands, huffs in a satisfied manner, and dusts his hands roughly against each other.

“Well, I’ve said it before, Ten’Gewek are smart. Really smart, maybe smarter than most people. But even still, they’re neolithic hunter-gatherers. You can’t just live in the trees with them. You’ve got to be able to hunt, bring the kill back, defend the tribe, do the hard work every single day. They respect survivors, and here that means a person has to be tough and strong in the tribe’s eyes. I have to hold their respect if we’re going to help, and I’m, uh, the right guy in the right place at the right time. Which is a weird feeling, but whatever. I won’t let that stop me.”

[Image: Self-contemplation. Julian examines his hands in this off-side relaxed portrait.]

Did you know you had it in you to rise to to the occasion?

“No, I didn’t! I had no idea what I had in me, I just wanted to keep Vemik from beating me up!”

The moment is punctuated by none other than Vemik leaping down from the tree onto Julian’s back. I’m reasonably sure such a tackle would have proved fatal for me—and most people, for that matter—but Julian seems only happily surprised.

“Hey–!”

An incredibly physical wrestling match ensues, where the two almost impossibly strong combatants crash about through the woods, throwing and trash-talking each other with massively happy expressions on their faces. My inexperienced eye has trouble following the action as they’re both simply too fast for me, but at some point Julian catches a lucky break. He gets Vemik around the waist, flings him backward and (according to some amusing internet research) manages a painful belly-to-back suplex. A quick scuffle ensues and Julian emerges on top, pinning Vemik firmly to the ground.

“Better give big fella, I’ve got some tricks you haven’t seen yet…”

[Image: Julian grinning savagely as he holds Vemik face-down, legs tangled up around his waist, Vemik’s arms crushed far up his own back. His thick tail pulls futilely at Julian’s hands.]

Once the bout is over, Julian explains what he’s doing to the curious ET, who spends the rest of our shoot watching from the sidelines with a manic, barely-contained curiosity.

“Being honest though, he wins more often than not. Vemik’s got…God, over thirty kilos on me still? I’m catching up…longer legs help a lot. Practice with my friends helps a lot more, heh.”

Vemik makes Julian promise to teach exactly what he did to win later on, which is agreed to with a soft chuckle.

“A surprising amount of this job has been like that, actually. Like, if you weren’t here, the next thing we’d be doing would be, uh, ‘samples’ collection, or maybe we’d go round up the smart kids for storytime with the professor, or talk about food, tools, that sort of thing. They never want to sit down and learn unless they’ve had a chance to play good and hard, first. Not even Yan.”

Why is that?

“Wrestling for them is how they build friendships. You and I might just sit down and have a good conversation, but Ten’Gewek will insist on a good roll in the dirt every time. They can be gentle about it, to be fair…but if you can’t play hard they start to think of you as a bit like a child.”

You had to work hard to earn their trust.

“Yeah. First contact woulda been a massacre one way or the other if not for Vemik there. He saw that we didn’t want a fight and stepped in… But let’s not re-hash all that. We met, he was friendly, I slabbed up…and so on. The interesting bit is what happened when the Hierarchy showed up. I think, uh, yeah. That’s the reason they respect us I think.”

I could see Vemik nodding unconsciously in my peripheral vision.

How so?

“Look, up until that point we were just these weird tall skinny people who showed up out of nowhere with a whole lot of magic and not a lot of muscle. And the People, they respect magic, but they respect strength a whole lot more. Again…just take a look at Vemik.”

I do. Vemik draws himself up to his full height and smiles aggressively at me. His physique is also striking, and his abilities are comparable to Julian’s despite being almost a foot shorter.

[Image: the two men side-by-side. Vemik is doing an impression of one of Julian’s poses from earlier in the shoot, and Julian has his hand up to his forehead, grinning in amusement.]

“He’s their inventor, their tinkerer, their smith, the guy with a head full of ideas. Like, if he were a human we’d call him an eccentric geek. He also has a child, and he’s one of their best hunters, and one of their strongest warriors too. If he wasn’t all of those things, then the eccentric geek stuff wouldn’t get him any respect at all.”

At the risk of sounding human-centric, isn’t that a little unfair?

“No. It’s easy to forget how easy it is to live in a proper civilization. All you need is some way to earn money. Here, that won’t cut it. Among humans, you can be a photographer, or a poet, or a movie star and people will respect you for it. And that’s certainly easier… But here, if you’re a man who can’t carry a Werne back to the tribe, you’re only a step above useless, and that means people die. It’s harsh maybe, but that ain’t the People’s fault. That’s how their world is. It took us… Fuck, millennia of hard work before that wasn’t how our world was, too.”

He has something on his mind he wants to get out and starts to pacing. He tends to bounce on the balls of his feet and swing his arms as he does this, and I remark how most people tend to freeze in their tracks while pondering something. This amuses Julian, and prompts him to prowl over to the boulder he tossed earlier. He sits himself down on it and needles me with a wry grin.

“Is this the official, Ava-sanctioned ‘deep thoughts’ pose?”

[Image: sitting on a rock, life modeling of the Thinker. He can’t quite manage a straight face.]

Perhaps if you weren’t bouncing your legs so much…you seemed caught by a thought just now. Something about civilization?

He pauses, shifts a bit, and rests his left leg across the other. He lets loose on a thought that’s clearly been brewing for a long while.

“Yeah. I think, maybe too many of us don’t really get just how much civilization actually costs, you know? Farmers pay for it with toil, policeman and soldiers pay in blood. Steel mills, now there are some hard-working fellas. It’s just…so many people are disconnected from it. They don’t respect their food, value their safety, or marvel at steel. The magic talking rock they have in their pockets replaces actual human contact sometimes. Well, no. I think maybe it just makes it easier to have, uh, fake friendships. Like, okay. Nobody these days has to really trust each other, except for, uh, like, the police and soldiers and whatever trust each other. And I think that maybe means we’re pretty fragile as a civilization. There’s a long, long way to fall, if we fall.”

Whereas the Ten’Gewek have only barely started that climb.

[Image: Close-up from below eye level, hands animated, face bright.]

“Yeah, exactly! Yan and Vemik, they’re in a really unique position. They come from a place where steel is magic and the idea of money, finance, vaccines, all that is radically alien and magical. Like, the word doesn’t even mean the same thing with them. Magic is more like, uh, how some tribes used medicine. Like, a powerful force. Well, no. I think, uh, magic means a lot more from their perspective. I think sometimes, we lose the magic of life with all the distractions, you know? They don’t. These two know what magic actually is. We took them to Earth, and showed them magic like they can barely grasp. It’s like…we’re elves to them.”

And yet they don’t respect us?

“Respect is earned. And up until the Hierarchy showed up, we hadn’t done that. Earned it. You know? We’d impressed them, sure, but that ain’t the same thing, you know? We didn’t earn their respect until we stood side-by-side with them in battle.”

And until you took their Rite of Manhood.

“Yeah. That’s why I’m the way I am now.”

What was it like?

“It was an ordeal. Well, the whole point is it’s an ordeal. Yan more or less decided I’d go through the whole thing pretty much right after the fight with the Abrogators.”

Why?

“I think… well, okay, so at that point we’d earned his trust, you know? But there’re a lot of tribes and not all of them were there for the battle. For the ones who were there, we’d proven ourselves. Humans, I mean. For the ones who weren’t, I guess… well, maybe he just needed to prove to them that humans can be real men in their eyes. Even if most of us don’t because we’re different, it’s enough that they can look at me and see that when we set our mind to it, we can be the kind of strong they value too. And once we did that, maybe they start asking, ‘what does strong mean to a human?’”

That seems very selfless of you…

“Well… it has its perks. I’ll admit, it’s nice being able to toss boulders around…so yeah. It’s not completely selfless, ha! Being this kind of ridiculously strong has some big costs, but heck, I’ll take it. Especially on high-carb days!”

Your cloned foot has been the talk of the gossip columns lately.

This comes as news to him and he barks out a surprised sort of chuckle.

“What, really?”

[Image: Powerfully muscled calves flexed hard for inspection atop wide, sturdy feet. The thin, tattooed line above Julian’s left ankle shows where his cloned foot begins.]

You are among the first humans with a cloned replacement limb.

“Well, I mean… I know it was an experimental procedure…”

If it was experimental, why didn’t you stick with the prosthetic?

“I did at first, went through two of them in fact. In some ways a prosthetic is still better, too. It’s repairable, it can be adapted for specific uses. The funny thing though, is it turns out the human foot is a heck of a challenge to replace. I was constantly having to adjust for it, or put up with the prosthetic breaking…the costs were promising to get pretty ridiculous, too. But really, the final straw was when the damn thing nearly got me killed.”

How?

“Some APA goons attacked us while I was showing Yan and Vemik around Earth.”

For the first time, I see him angry.

[Image: Undisguised fury on his face, balled fists and gritted teeth. The expression manages to dramatically change his face from handsome to monstrous.]

“Alien Protection Army? Please. They ain’t protecting shit. They tried to kill us! They’re a bunch of cowards scared of a bigger universe who wanna pretend like we’re the biggest bad around. We welcomed Yan and Vemik to our world as guests, and these morons attacked us!”

You defended yourselves.

“You’re damn right we did.”

Just as suddenly as it came, his anger slides away, and he briefly looks ashamed.

“Anyway… My foot broke during the fight. My prosthetic. I mean, being honest I should have expected it would break eventually, but…”

Why is that?

He shrugs resignedly and sits down for a moment.

“The first one broke all the time. The second one, well, it was great at first…but [Warhorse] made me a project of his. I’m pretty stupidly heavy now, like…I’m wary of cheap furniture, I’m bigger than competitive strongmen. I’m exactly the kind of strong that weight implies too, and I work on a high gravity world. It’s a rough life. And, well, Vemik is rough on me, too.”

[Image: Cross-legged on the ground, contemplating his left foot.]

“Anyway. The dang thing picked the worst possible time to go crunch and it nearly earned me an axe to the face. And in the aftermath, all I could think about was the pain that’d have caused… everyone. Al and Xiù, Yan and Vemik. Singer. All of them. So, yeah. I swallowed my pride and squeamishness and got a clone graft. That little incident taught me the hard way, you can’t put your own discomfort ahead of what’s really important. My partners, the Ten’Gewek, they depend on me. I have to protect them. That’s all there is to it.”

And who protects you?

“We protect each other. I’ve got some pretty good friends, too. Byron Group has been good to us…we’re not alone. None of us really are, you know?”

This is the moment that Julian’s inner warrior shines through. Unconventional though he may be, he is passionately committed to protecting those he loves, and fighting for their futures.

[Centerfold image: A stern, resolute expression, arms crossed in front of his chest. He stands tall and proud, his body taut, ready, and covered in sweat from head to toe.]

“The guys I work with, they talk sometimes about being the sheepdogs, protecting the flock from the wolves. I get that. But it also ain’t quite like that, because no sheep ever set up a charity for their wounded sheepdog, you know? Sheep don’t have monuments and memorial days. They…I don’t know. I think part of what makes them them is how they see themselves. Maybe. But like… part of what makes us humans is we can understand when somebody’s putting themselves on the line for the rest of us. And we can appreciate it. We can give something back. That’s what this whole series of yours is about, right?”

That was a viewpoint I had honestly not considered, and told him so. I had envisioned this series as a means for our defenders and protectors to share the world through their eyes, but it hadn’t occurred to me that the opportunity itself was more valuable to them.

“That’s, like… the contract. It’s the basic deal, you know? You pick the people who matter to you and you do your best for them. And in return, you want them to give you something that’s worth your best. If you’re not gonna enter into that kind of a contract with somebody then…”

Then… what?

“…The worst part of bein’ stuck alone on Nightmare for all that time was I had nobody with me. And in a way, well… I guess I was totally free. No obligations, no ties, you know? I had one concrete goal, look after myself. But why? I didn’t really think I’d ever see home again. I didn’t really have a reason to keep going, except that I didn’t want to die. And maybe the vague hope that maybe one day I’d be rescued. But I was living just for myself, and it… you can’t understand loneliness like that. I’m sorry, but you can’t. Thank God, there’s hardly anybody who’s had to go through it.”

Julian looks off at nothing in particular, his expression one of unreadable, quiet pain.

[Image: a distant, haunted look.]

He is not one to dwell, however, and my next question prompts him right back into optimism.

But now?

“Now I’ve got this misfit little family, I’ve got babies on the way, I’m a man of the tribe now in a way I never was with my own people and they all depend on me, you know? I would never have done any of this if it didn’t matter. It’s a heck of a lot of work living on two worlds and carrying this much weight around! Heck, it’s a lot of work being half this busy or half this big! But look what I get! I get a purpose, you know? I get to give my best to people who’re really worth it. That’s something I treasure every day.”

I pick out one word from among that thought.

Babies?

He smiles, a genuine beaming smile that makes his whole face light up.

“Yeah! Both Xiù and Allison! We’ve been trying for a few months now, and… well. They said it was okay to share that, too. So, I guess I’m gonna be a daddy twice over in not too long!”

Congratulations!

“I know, right?! It’s the next big adventure… You know what’s funny? I’ve been in some crazy situations. Gunfights, I got blown up, I got spaced… But I think I might actually be more scared about raising my kids right than I was about any of that other stuff. It’s a big responsibility.”

But you’re looking forward to it.

[Image: Julian sweaty and exhausted after this marathon modelling session, but grinning in a warm, deliriously happy way from ear to ear.]

“Yeah. The future’s looking bright.”


Date Point: 15y10m
Ceres, Asteroid Belt, Sol

Sam Jordan

Sam honestly hadn’t felt this… alive in his life. He was dancing on a knife-edge, riding on the thrill and danger of discovery. Every time he outwitted the investigation, every time he slipped through a door while it was closing, it was…

He’d never imagined a feeling like this. And all of it, all of it, for the greater good of both mankind and the galaxy. Freedom beckoned: all he had to do was stay one step ahead of the pursuit.

If his sponsor hadn’t shown him how to accomplish his little time-distortion trick, it all would have been impossible.

At least the weapon was ready. It had taken him weeks to recover the physics package, but that was all part of the plan. Designing and building a nuclear-pumped X-ray laser around it from spare parts while convincingly falsifying the requisition orders to cover his tracks had been… thrilling. His innocent, chirpy smile and trustworthy tone of voice had both been tested, and they’d held up. He always had a convincing alibi, he always managed to deflect suspicion just enough.

If they only knew. They were smart… but Sam was smarter. That knowledge was a drug.

He checked his timepiece again. He had three minutes. Good. Two minutes spare.

The gyroscopes were working properly, this time. His contraption looked janky and hand-built, but by God it was precision engineering. It had to be, for this job.

The target was, of course, invisible to the human eye. He was relying entirely on instruments and precision timing to take this shot, and had only one opportunity. He had to hit a moving target from more than twenty AU away, at precisely the right millisecond. That kind of precision defied belief, sometimes…

…But everything seemed to be ready. There was nothing more to tinker with at this point: It’d either succeed, or fail. It was out of his hands.

He checked the timer and the aim one last time, then left the little crater he was using for this and bounded back across the Ceres surface in three long leaps. As the dust left the temporal acceleration field he’d rigged up around his suit it hung frozen in the vacuum, like a still photo. It was a strange effect, with strange consequences. He’d nearly broken an airlock the first time he tried to let it out: as it turned out, doors didn’t much like it when different parts of them were experiencing wildly different degrees of time dilation. Just another daring escapade to give him a rush.

He signed the suit back in using Drew M’s access code and dismantled the field generator into its innocuous component parts. It didn’t feel great to use the diligent Aussie as the fall guy, but that was the price of freedom. Besides, Drew’s name would be cleared in the long run. Sam didn’t have any illusions that he could evade capture forever: he just needed to evade capture for long enough. Whatever came after would be the price he was willing to pay.

After all: Humanity didn’t belong in a cage.

It was time for the Sol Shield to come down.



++END CHAPTER 50 PT.2++



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HungryWerewolf

JLB58

John Eisenberg

Joseph Szuma

Joshua Mountain Taylor

Joshua Scott

Karthik Mohanarangan

Katja

mudkip201

Nathaniel Phillips

Nicolas Gruenbeck

Rob Rollins

Savvz

Shane Wegner

Theningaraf

tsanth

Volka Creed

Xultanis

Zachary Galicki


Sixty-four Deathworlders:

Graham Lynk Austin Deschner Brian Berland Aaron Hescox Adam Beeman Adam Shields Alex Hargott Andrew Ford Andrew Robinson Arnor atp Bartosz Borkowski Ben Thrussell Bruce Ludington Buck Caldwell C’tri Goudie Cadwah Chris Bausch Chris Candreva damnusername Daniel R. Dar Darryl Knight David Jamison Devin Rousso Doules1071HFY Elizabeth Schartok Eric Johansson Fiona Dunlop galrock0 Gavin Smart Gygax Fan Ignate Flare Jim Hamrick Jon Kristoffer Skarra Krit Barb Laga Mahesa lovot Matt Matt Demm Matthew Cook Mel B. Mikee Elliott Morgan Barnes Myke Harryson Nicholas Enyeart Nick Annunziata NightKhaos Oliver Mernagh Patrick Huizinga Peter Bellaby Richard A Anstett Ryan Cadiz Saph Sintanan SourMonkey Starky Stephane Girardin Sun Rendered theWorst Tyler Kelloway Woodsie13 Zachary M Lunstrum

As well as Sixty-nine Friendly ETs, 74 Squishy Xenos, and 278 precious, oh-so-derpy 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.

This work contains deliberate mentions of real persons, places and trademarks, which are made purely for reasons of verisimilitude under nominative fair use. These mentions have not been endorsed or sponsored by those persons or by the owners or governing bodies of those trademarks or places. All song lyrics, movie titles or other copyrighted material and trademarks that are referenced in this work under fair use are the property of their respective owners.

The events and characters portrayed in this story are fictional and any resemblance to actual persons or events is accidental.

The author does not automatically share or endorse the opinions and behavior of the characters.


Thank you for reading!

The Deathworlders will continue in Chapter 50: “Counterattack pt. 3 - Strike.”