The Deathworlders

EPUB

Chapter 51: Anticlimax

Date Point: 16y AV
Yukon–Koyukuk, Alaska, USA, Earth

Zane Reid

The cold didn’t hurt anymore.

At first, it had been like forcing his way through a wall made of knives that cut through his clothes. Zane’s every breath had blinded him as it billowed and steamed in the air, and when he’d experimentally licked his teeth, his tongue had briefly stuck to the ice it found there.

He’d realized what he was doing was stupid pretty much immediately. He’d barely made it to the treeline before his resolve faltered. He should have gone back, turned himself in, given up on freedom. At least he’d be alive.

But every time the shadow of that thought flicked its tail below the surface, it made him feel sick and disgusted with himself. He wasn’t some dog! He wasn’t gonna spend the rest of his life in a cage, too weak to get out.

He’d escape, or he’d die. Both were better than the cage.

And now he didn’t feel cold anymore. He felt warm. Hot, even. He wasn’t sweating, but suddenly it was almost like being back in Kingston, scratching odd jobs out here and there. Like the time he’d spent working in his uncle Dejuan’s garage, fixing the cars of richer men. That had been a sweltering hell: the door was always open, and Dejuan was too poor for air conditioning. There’d been a dusty old ceiling fan, spinning too slowly to do anything, and a battered desk fan from like the 1950s or something that needed a stick wedged under it in the right spot or it shorted out.

Dejuan had been a lion. Never a man to raise his voice, or get angry. Polite, quiet… the kind of person Zane usually hated. He acted like one of the sheep. But when wolves came to his door looking for Zane’s help with something, he’d shown his real fire then. He’d chased them out, and to Zane’s surprise they’d never come back.

He was one of the few people Zane genuinely respected… and missed.

But how could a freezing forest in an Alaskan winter blizzard be as hot as his workshop? It didn’t make sense. Zane wanted to strip off his shirt, to get some relief from the stifling sensation of heat. But some part of his brain knew that was a bad idea.

Just keep going. Push on, no matter what. Get as far away from the fence and the guards and the dogs as possible.

Suddenly, the ground wasn’t there in front of him anymore. He put his foot down and fell, tumbled painfully… landed on what felt like ice under a deep blanket of snow. A stream. Completely frozen right down to its bed, probably. With a groan, he picked himself up and clambered up the far bank. That wasn’t easy: it was steep, almost vertical, and several feet of snow had settled at the top. He collapsed on his belly when he reached the top.

So… tired…

He gasped, and pushed himself up. Stumbled forward maybe a dozen paces. Fell again. Stood and stumbled forward, fell again. And again. He couldn’t feel his fingers, or his feet. He couldn’t feel anything. Couldn’t see anything. He bounced off a tree and after that he couldn’t get up at all. His arms and legs just refused to work.

That… that was okay…

He’d just… he’d just rest a bit. Recover his strength.

…move on when…

…when he woke up…


Date Point: 16y1w AV
Cabal unlogged communications session, dataspace

++Asymptote++: I don’t understand. Why not simply talk to them, first?

++Cynosure++: Without leverage? And without tipping my hand?

++Asymptote++: Why not talk to us?

++Cynosure++: Because I wasn’t sure it would work and I wanted you to remain focused on your own projects.

++Asymptote++: And what if we’re not even sure that it was a good idea?

++Metastasis++: In your own words, the Humans seem to be the only extant deathworld species we can reasonably have a conversation with. The Gao are too vengeful, and the Ten’Gewek are too primitive.

++Asymptote++: At the very least, the possibility of explaining the dangers of replicator technology should have been explored. From everything you’ve previously said, the Humans would have listened.

++Metastasis++: Provoke them too much, however…

++Cynosure++: That… thing, the dataphage. It has a self-replicating hardware body now. Thanks to them and their research.

++Metastasis++: <Alarm> That does change things.

++Asymptote++: Then it’s too late, surely?

++Cynosure++: Maybe. And if it is… well, I won’t let the galaxy burn without visiting some justice on its destroyers. But if we are very, very lucky then we still have time to act.

++Asymptote++: Humans are entrenched on multiple worlds now, and our biodrone infiltration is effectively zero. Even containing and limiting them is going to be an almost insurmountable problem.

++Cynosure++: Not zero. We have one viable drone on Earth.

++Metastasis++: Since when?

++Cynosure++: It escaped confinement and is currently… dormant.

++Metastasis++: Dormant?

++Cynosure++: Its implant last reported ambient temperatures of approximately 200 absolute degrees.

++Asymptote++: …That’s not dormant. It froze to death.

++Cynosure++: This particular drone is exceptional.

++Metastasis++: Temperatures on Earth actually get that low?

++Cynosure++: Quite routinely, in some places.

++Metastasis++: <vague awe> Right. Deathworld.

++Asymptote++: I don’t care how “exceptional” your drone is. It’s a block of ice now, and that means it’s dead. Organic cells and ice crystals do not mix.

++Cynosure++: If it doesn’t survive then that will complicate matters, it’s true. But I think it will probably surprise you.

++Asymptote++: I am beginning to not like your surprises.

++Cynosure++: Noted. But are you with me?

++Asymptote++: <reluctant> …Provisionally. Subject to my consistent future inclusion in your decision-making process.

++Metastasis++: <agreement>

++Cynosure++: You are right. Forgive me.

++Metastasis++: So what happens now?

++Cynosure++: Now, we wait. Sol is locked down to a genuinely impressive degree. We wait for that to die down. Then we wait longer. Then we wait even longer still, and let this incident fade into memory.

++Asymptote++: I thought we had the urgent matter of a dataphage with a replicator body to worry about?

++Cynosure++: As you said: it may already be too late. This infiltration will be challenging, difficult and has a low probability of success. Thus, our only option is to be slow and careful.

++Metastasis++: And after the infiltration succeeds?

++Cynosure++: Too many variables, not enough information. We’ll formulate a concrete plan once we know enough.

++Metastasis++: Reasonable. Very well. But let’s start on rebuilding our trust that we are included in the decisions, shall we? What exactly is it that makes this biodrone of yours special to the point it can possibly survive freezing to death?

++Cynosure++: <File attachment>

++Asymptote++: …Oh.

++Metastasis++: I see!

++Cynosure++: Sadly it wasn’t quite as effective as I’d hoped. Human biology is already impressive and there’s little that technology can do to improve on it. But in this one small area, it made a difference. I hope.

++Asymptote++: <Pleased> Yes. I can see how it would.

++Metastasis++: Why, though? What do you gain from a single biodrone? Why not just bomb the planet to ashes?

++Cynosure++: This has to work. It has to be certain to work. The Humans are entrenched in off-world colonies and those require infiltration as well. If I just strike at Earth then Cimbrean and the others will lock down completely and we will not get another opportunity. We need to scout, and plan, and determine what exactly is the best course of action… and if nothing else, biodrones keep our options open in the face of unexpected developments. It may be that I won’t need them, but if I do need biodrones then I would rather have biodrones.

++Asymptote++: Reasonable. Very well. Shall I oversee the infiltration of Cimbrean?

++Cynosure++: <Gratitude> I was hoping you would volunteer. Be warned: you will not have direct control over your infiltrator as you would over a conventional biodrone. They are more… free-willed.

++Asymptote++: <Alarmed> Only to an illusory degree, I hope?

++Cynosure++: The Human brain is very sensitive to the correct stimuli. You can reliably influence their behaviour along the correct lines. It is like persuading an extremely impressionable agent.

++Metastasis++: <dry sarcasm> What could possibly go wrong?

++Cynosure++: <humorless; unamused> A lot. If we don’t win here…

++Metastasis++: Understood. I will talk to the right people.

++Asymptote++: As for me… I have a biodrone to acquire.

++Cynosure++: Thank you both. And… good luck.

SESSION ENDS
DELETING LOGS


Date Point: 16y1w1d AV
The White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth

President Arthur Sartori

So much for taking a vacation.

AEC had developed an extraplanetary version of the defense Readiness Condition system to handle space-based military threats to the USA in particular and by extension the Earth as a whole. The SOLCON levels ran from the minimum alert status of SOLCON 6, in which the Sol system was believed to be completely secure and peaceful, up to SOLCON 1 - hostile presence in near-Earth orbits.

Now, Sartori was facing the difficult decision of whether to step down from SOLCON 2. And he was reluctant to do so.

Level 2 suspended all non-military jump traffic from, to, and across Earth, and raised the dozen or so inner-system defense shields that partitioned the solar system into a series of increasingly tight concentric zones around Earth.

The innermost of those shields was intended to protect the GPS satellites, and orbited only a few hundred kilometers above them. There were hundreds of satellites on highly elliptical orbits that were in danger of smashing into that shield once raised, and each one represented millions of dollars, never mind the disruption their loss would cause. Communications, weather monitoring, surveillance… Each one was valuable. Each one’s loss would do long-term damage.

Likewise, millions of dollars in suspended commerce between cities on Earth, not to mention contact with the Cimbrean colonies, were mounting up every hour and Sartori was burning through his limited supply of political goodwill with the Chinese and Russians fast over the lost contact with their colonies on Lucent.

In the twenty-four hours since they’d first gone on high alert, those costs had piled up considerably. Now it was time to decide whether it was worth incurring further costs.

The US Navy, the Royal Navy, the 96th, US Space Force and NASA were all thoroughly scouring the system looking for anything out of place, but as the director of NASA had reminded him: ‘finding anything in space that doesn’t want to be found is orders of magnitude more impossible than looking for a needle in a haystack.’

A Weaver carrying astronauts and specialists from Scotch Creek had inspected the Sol Containment Field emitter and found it undamaged and still operating as intended, at least so far as they could tell. Local spacetime distortions in and around Sol had spiked enormously at the moment the laser struck the field, but after that…

Nothing. Just background noise. All was quiet.

Sartori didn’t like it one bit. Nor did Kolbeinn, nor did the Joint Chiefs, the Secretary of defense, nor the Prime Ministers of Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Folctha.

“I hate to break out the cliché, but it’s too quiet,” Kolbeinn observed. They were poring over the latest return from a Firebird squadron that had slow-dragged themselves all the way around the Earth/Mars orbital gap, pinging their warp drives like a kind of future-tech sonar. Such a sweep would have illuminated absolutely everything that was generating a spacetime distortion… and it had found nothing.

“We’re about to make the same mistake the Domain did,” Sartori agreed, shaking his head. He kept staring at the report as though it might suddenly change and reveal the evidence he needed to stay locked down.

“We have… ten minutes until we owe China another comsat, Mister President.”

“…Anything from Scotch Creek?”

Kolbeinn shook his head. “Brigadier-General Bartlett says they’ll need weeks of supercomputer time to properly simulate the attack, and even then he’s not convinced their model of how system shields work is accurate.”

“And even if it is, it might show that the attack failed and that all this was a waste of time and resources,” Margaret White added. “If it does… China and Russia won’t be happy.”

“With all due respect, Ms. White, I could give a damn what China and Russia think,” Kolbeinn said.

“Unfortunately, the rest of us have to.”

Sartori groaned and ran both hands backwards over his scalp.

“…Right. Drop the shields. Keep us at high readiness, and… Chris, we need to go over our doomsday plans. I do not like this. We have Hierarchy in system again, you know it, I know it…”

Margaret nodded glumly. “But unless we can prove it…”

Sartori sighed and sat up straighter as a few of the slightly less senior officers in the room set to carrying out his orders. “…What matters is keeping the peace, and that depends on trade,” he said. “Hungry and desperate people are how the worst wars start.”

Kolbeinn made a ‘hmm’ noise and turned away to make a phone call. There was coffee available in the corner of the room, set there by an aide who absolutely deserved high recognition if only Sartori knew who they were, and he stood up to grab a cup.

It helped. It gave him a moment to stop focusing on the futile facts in front of him and instead turn his attention to what could be done.

Doomsday scenarios. Sartori was just old enough that ‘doomsday’ had once meant the Soviets finally losing it and launching their ICBMs. The legacy of that standoff was still with them: even after several space battles and despite Sartori’s status as easily the most prolific launcher of wartime nukes ever, the USA’s reserve of nuclear weapons was still deep enough to hit every major city on the planet a few dozen times over. Still enough to reduce Humanity from substantially more than eight billion souls, to barely eight million, if not less.

The full extent of the Hierarchy’s resources was unquestionably enough to make that arsenal look like the fireworks display at a high school ball game. But at least he could plan for it.

Start with what he knew. The Gaoians had gigaton-scale weapons, and considering how deeply infiltrated they had been prior to the war on Gao it was a certainty that the Hierarchy had that technology as well.

Even one of those was a catastrophe on a global scale. He’d asked for an estimate on what such a bomb would do if it went off in, say, Washington and been told flatly that they didn’t really know, beyond that most of the people who lived between the Atlantic coast and the Rockies would be killed.

That obviously hadn’t happened. Which meant that the Hierarchy either didn’t intend to do it, or hadn’t yet had the chance.

Assume the latter first. What could they do to make sure the chance never arose? Well, step one was to ensure they never got to Earth itself, so naturally that meant the Luna shield had to stay up indefinitely. But assume it was too late. What else could be done?

Sartori sagged and wished briefly for something a lot stronger than coffee. The truthful answer to that question was… nothing. Sure, there were wormhole suppressors, but Human technology couldn’t even begin to match the Gaoians there. The very best they had could cover a few hundred miles, maybe, and they drank power like a large town. If the Hierarchy was on Earth, they’d have no trouble at all finding a gap in the suppressor coverage and summoning whatever weapons or materiel they desired… There was nothing more to be done today.

So. May as well deal with the backlog of nonsense that had accumulated over the last twenty-four hours.

He turned around and returned to the Resolute desk, where he sat down and rubbed his forehead for a second. He was going to pay for all the hours of stress and work with a badly disrupted sleep schedule and plenty of fatigue in the near future. Better work while he still could.

“Alright,” he said. “Let’s get back to business as usual.”

…Whatever that meant now.


Date Point: 16y1w2d AV
Multi-Faith Center, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Rachel “Ray” Wheeler

Ray had never been particularly religious. She still wasn’t, she supposed, though seeing how Holly Chase’s faith had got her through their shared experience on Hell had maybe softened her views a little. She’d stopped seeing faith as a crutch, and started seeing a font of strength at least.

When they’d first got back, Holly had spoken of taking vows and becoming a nun. That had been more than six months ago, and so far she hadn’t committed to taking vows or however it worked. Instead she’d become one of the Multi-Faith Center’s more dedicated volunteers. She didn’t have any formal responsibilities as far as Ray could tell, she just… kept the place clean and tidy, made hot drinks, kept up a steady supply of baked goods…

And listened to people.

It was a very healing kind of listening, too. Ray struggled to keep her cool when people tried to get her tangled in their personal problems. After all, what the hell was a bad day at work next to a decade in Hell? The temptation was always there to snap, to let them know how good they had it, to inform them that they hadn’t even begun to scratch the surface of just how evil life could get.

If Holly ever felt that temptation, she never acted on it. She just listened, and didn’t judge, and people walked away feeling better.

Ray had to admit: she seemed to have her life kinda-sorta figured out and on track now.

Ray had stayed on with MBG, on a zero-hour consultancy contract. Moses Byron had paid the whole crew compensation, negotiated out-of-court. Legally, MBG accepted no blame for what had happened to BGEV-03 Dauntless and her crew.

Privately… The unspoken motto among the architects of MBG’s spaceship program, not least of whom was Moses Byron himself, seemed to be “Do Better.”

She’d taken the compensation money, invested most of it, and bought a house in Folctha south of the river in the Delaney Row district on a cul-de-sac with the charming name of Apple Grove. It was a good start at putting her life back together, at least. Her own house, which she kept scrupulously neat. A job, sporadic and tentative though it was. After six months of rehabilitation under the attention of MBG’s fitness instructor Dane Brown, she was actually in great shape. Better shape even than when she’d left Earth, thanks to an alien surgeon who’d gone above and beyond when putting her back together.

She was doing better than most of her crew, anyway.

Cook was still in an institution, medicated and not allowed access to sharp objects or anything that could be turned into a rope. Jamie had sent a brief message at Christmas to wish her a merry one but was otherwise not in contact, and the last she’d heard of Spears had been a teary-eyed drunken video message recorded at the wrong end of the clock. He’d looked wild-haired and unshaven, with what might have been vomit on his shirt.

He was back on Earth, and hopefully not on a one-way slide into alcoholism and an early grave but… it was hard to tell. And Ray wasn’t sure she could face him, either.

But Holly? Holly seemed to have devoted herself wholly and completely, if a little desperately, to Doing Good. And she was making it work. She shared inspiring stories and vegetarian recipes on social media like she might drown if she didn’t, but other than that… she seemed to be mostly keeping her head above water.

And she was about the only person on the planet that Ray felt really able to relate to.

She’d met the crew of Misfit. Nice kids. Kinda terrifying, but nice. Allison in particular was a pineapple: covered in spikes, but sweet as anything on the inside. Xiù was almost the opposite of that: outwardly cute and friendly, but Ray could see cold sharp steel lurking in there, exposed by the scars.

It was a good thing she was so captivating, to be honest. Their partner Julian was…distracting. And friendly! And oblivious. But mostly distracting. Those three understood true hardship, but they hadn’t been to Hell. Nightmare, maybe, but not Hell. They were healed. They had each other.

She got on well with Dane, but that was a purely professional relationship founded on him doing his best to rebuild her neglected and malnourished body. He certainly couldn’t relate to what she’d been through.

The only people who could were… well, the only one available was Holly. So, Ray made a point of visiting her often.

She’d even tried meditating a few times. Apparently the Gaoian in the black robes who showed up at the Faith Center sometimes was some kind of bigwig, and Holly had talked her into taking one of his meditation classes. It had helped, but he’d done much more good for her with a mug of ovaltine and a joke.

But she’d come to like the Faith Center. It was peaceful, and she had a friend there.

A friend who always smiled to see her, and dropped whatever she’d been doing to trot over and give her a hug.

“Ray!”

Ray smiled and reminded herself that she could actually hug properly now. Holly’s own nutrition and exercise program had repaired a lot of the fragility that their exile had inflicted on her. Of the whole crew, she’d been most averse to the Hot—for which Ray didn’t blame her for a second—and had suffered the most from malnutrition as a result.

But she wasn’t made of porcelain any longer. Hell, her hug was firm enough to knock the wind out of the unprepared.

Ray returned it, and kissed her friend’s cheek. “You know, that hug never gets old.”

“Yeah-huh! You brought cookies, I see?”

Ray brandished the bag self-consciously. She’d taken up various creative hobbies as a kind of therapy, with baking coming in slightly behind oil painting and woodworking. She gave all her creations away as gifts, and the nice thing about baking was that she could make little gifts regularly, whereas the woodwork and paintings had to be saved for special occasions.

“White chocolate and raspberry,” she said.

Holly beamed and took the bag. Most of the cookies would wind up with the coffee and other hot drinks, over by the beanbags, armchairs and couches that were the Faith Center’s nexus. But she took one for herself and Ray congratulated herself on her expression when she took a bite.

“Mmm… How’s Thor?”

Ray had also adopted a kitten, a gorgeous fluffy Maine Coon who turned every stereotype about the aloof, disinterested cat upside-down and loved nothing more than to curl up and purr on her lap.

“He’s good. Settling in just fine. You were right about the cardboard box, though. Saved me a lot of money.”

“I told you!” Holly giggled, and guided Ray over toward the couches and bookshelves. She paused to wave at somebody who’d just come out of the Christian prayer room. “Hi Ava!”

Ray recognized the young woman immediately. It was hard not to, Ava Ríos was a prominent face on the news, being ESNN’s alien affairs correspondent. Everything to do with anyone non-human, be they Gaoians, the local ET residents in the Alien Quarter, or the far-flung politics of the Dominion, was inevitably reported by her.

She was taller in real life than on TV, and though her resting expression had been a little troubled she absolutely lit up and gave Holly a hug. “Holly! Sorry, I was miles away…”

“It’s alright. Are you okay?”

Ava sighed. “Just… I had a bad night last night. It’s okay.”

“Do you need to talk about it?”

Ava shook her head. “No, no…. We got a bunch of footage from Rvzrk yesterday. It kinda reminded me of…” She cleared her throat and then smiled apologetically at Ray. “You’ve got your friend here anyway.”

In addition to meat, Holly also eschewed swear words nowadays. That hadn’t stopped her from coming up with some remarkably virulent ways to use otherwise perfectly benign language when she was feeling annoyed with herself, however.

“Oh… puppies. Ava, this is Ray Wheeler. Ray, Ava Ríos.”

“Oh, wow!” Ava straightened up. “Uh… it’s nice to meet you. Holly’s told me a lot about you.”

“I bet,” Ray smiled, and they shook hands. “It’s nice to meet you too, I’m enjoying ‘Laid Bare.’ Especially Miss Patel’s.”

“Thank you!” Ava smiled, and allowed Holly to fuss her and Ray both over in the direction of drinks. She absently accepted one of Ray’s cookies as Holly bustled into action, and settled in on a couch. “At this rate it’s gonna become a regular feature of the magazine. I’ve got no shortage of models…”

“They’re good. I don’t think I’d want to model for one myself, but… reading them has helped me with what happened to us,” Ray gestured to Holly and herself.

Ava nodded solemnly. “She told me all about it.”

“Really?” Ray was genuinely surprised. “She’s… I didn’t know she’d spoken about it with anyone. I thought she was mostly trying to leave it in the past.”

With a light tilt of her head and looking away, Ava managed to convey something that wasn’t quite so crass as a shrug but carried pretty much the same sentiment: Whatever Holly’s reasons had been for opening up to her were Holly’s, not hers to comment on.

“I don’t want to drag it up if it makes you uncomfortable,” she said.

Ray shrugged. “I’m still here,” she said. “You’re more… discreet than I’d expected a journalist to be.”

Ava smiled, though Ray could see immediately she’d managed to be a little hurtful. “I’m not a journalist right now.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“It’s okay. I get that a lot. I don’t know who started the meme of the headline-hungry journalist who never takes off the press badge, but I’d like to give them some strong words sometime.”

“It’s just a job, huh?”

“Yeah! I mean, I love my job. But you can’t spend your whole life stuck in one mode, can you?”

Ray nodded. That made a lot of sense.

Ava smiled, however, as Holly returned with the drinks. “Don’t get me wrong… Ava the journalist would absolutely love to interview you. When she’s on the job.”

“Hmm… thanks Holly.” Ray accepted a coffee, then nodded at Ava. “…I might go for it, so long as I get to keep my clothes on.”

“Sure. But I like to leave my work at the door when I’m here…” Ava finally sampled her cookie and then promptly took a second, much larger sample. Ray grinned as she watched her demolish it, pleased with her own handiwork. It was truly nice to see something she’d made be enjoyed with such undisguised pleasure.

“Like it?”

“Mm!” Ava swallowed. “You made them?” When Ray nodded that she had, she grinned. “Can I have another?”

Another was duly produced, and savored with a little more patience than the first.

“So is today a day off work, or…?” Ray asked.

Ava shook her head. “Oh, no. I work afternoons and evenings, and it’s a big one this evening. We’ve still got more fallout from Rvzrk to cover.” She pronounced the alien word fluently, if not accurately. “Some Members of the Thing are arguing that we’re not doing enough to send humanitarian aid. I’ve got an interview with some New Whig backbenchers this afternoon.”

“Sounds like… fun…?” Ray suggested. Holly giggled into her drink. Ava shrugged, finished hers and set it down.

“Not really, but, well, a job’s a job. It was lovely to meet you…” She dug in her purse and handed Ray a business card. “Just in case you were serious about that interview.”

Ray nodded, and watched her go, then turned back to Holly, who was giving her a curious look.

“…What?”

“Nothing,” Holly said. “You just surprised me when you said you’re game for an interview.”

“Have you read her articles? I trust her.”

“Still…”

Ray shrugged. “Maybe I surprised myself,” she confessed. She pocketed the business card and sat back to sip her drink. “Anyway… did you talk to that Nofl guy like I suggested?”

“Not yet…” Holly said. She sighed, and opened up into the kind of long-winded fretting that was her way of working through stuff, and Ray smiled as she sat back to listen.

Things were working out pretty good.


Date Point: 16y1w2d AV
High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao

Champion Thurrsto of Whitecrest

“They let us know about it, of course. Very promptly, in fact. The official messages came in on the same synchronization as the unofficial ones.”

The Great Father duck-nodded solemnly. Thurrsto was briefing him in his official office, a relatively humble affair if one ignored the wooden desk which was a collective gift from the leaders of several Human nations, and had come with an enormous matching chair.

To a Gaoian, such a large amount of wood was an enormous display of wealth. Humans didn’t quite have the same relationship with wood, but the craftsmanship still made it a lavish gesture of esteem.

“That’s good. Nice ‘ta be right.”

“My Father?”

“Vindicated, I mean. Some of my Champions fret maybe the Humans ain’t totally open with us,” Daar clarified.

Thurrsto twisted his head back and forth in a gesture that was neither duck-nod nor shrug, but a little of both. “They take the strategic alliance seriously, of that I’m in no doubt. But vindicated or not, the implications for Sol aren’t great. It’s possible that the Hierarchy failed in whatever they were doing, but we’d have to be fools to assume as much.”

“What’s our best guess what they were doin’?”

“Highmountain and Longear both think they were striking at the containment field in some way, trying to weaken it. It’s still standing, but they can’t rule out the possibility that it was momentarily disrupted. That opinion is shared by the Human researchers at Scotch Creek.”

Daar grumbled low in his chest and moved a tablet around listlessly with a claw. “…How much damage could a Hierarchy ship do if it got to Earth?”

“The worst case scenario is… apocalyptic. If it’s loaded with jump arrays and the means to make more…”

“It only needs one,” Daar sighed and shook out his thickening pelt. “We made gigaton-class warheads a hunnerd years ago, after all.”

“And the Hierarchy definitely have them,” Thurrsto duck-nodded grimly. Even if, by some miracle, the enemy hadn’t developed such technology for themselves, they’d been so heavily embedded in Gaoian civilization that they’d definitely have copied the plans.

“So I s’pose the only thing that matters is how much time they need.”

“If their objective was to deploy a gigaton weapon on Earth and they managed to reach Earth before the system lockdown, then it would already have detonated.”

“Yeah. That means… balls. Fuckin’ Keeda’s burnt balls. They can’t never drop the inner shields, can they?”

“They already had to drop the innermost ones, otherwise much of their satellite network would have been ruined and several key orbits would be permanently unavailable. The current inner shield now encompasses both Earth and its moon.”

“…Damn. Plenty’a hidin’ spots on a moon that big.” The Great Father seemed frustrated and, as was his way, slunk from behind his desk and padded over to his ‘thinking rock,’ which he kept on a cushion atop a sturdy side table.

“Yes,” Thurrsto agreed.

“…What happens if they deploy a gigaton device on Luna?”

“Earth gets a ring system instead of a moon. I couldn’t comment on what happens on the ground exactly, but it’d be… unpleasant, I imagine.”

Daar picked up the rock and hefted it between his paws, passing it back and forth as he spoke. “No shit. Prol’ly ought’a avoid that.”

“I have a suggestion,” Thurrsto ventured. “It’ll be expensive, but… not as much so as losing Earth.”

The rock twirled high in the air for a second before landing heavily in Daar’s paws. It was an interestingly shaped smooth thing he’d apparently dug up in a field one time, and shot through with quartz veins. Probably some ancient glacier had bowled and rolled it for thousands of miles in the ancient past, before depositing it in the bottom of a valley. Some of the cubs undergoing their first rites had decided to polish the thing to a high gloss as a birthday gift, which apparently involved a teensy bit of petty larceny to steal it away for a week.

He’d probably sniffed them out immediately of course…but said nothing for several days. Mischief was its own reward, sometimes.

“…Let’s hear it,” he said.


Date Point: 16y2w AV
Weaver dropship, Gaoian space

Sergeant Ian “Hillfoot” Wilde

“So in all the excitement, we clean forgot about these things. That’s what you’re telling me.”

Champion Meereo made a sound that was half a sigh and half a chitter. “…That’s more-or-less exactly right, yes. We had… well, bigger priorities.”

Wilde had to nod to that. “Yeah, no shit.”

Just the invasion of the Gaoian homeworld, the raid on the Ring Orbital, Rvzrk… ‘Bigger priorities’ was putting it more than a little bit mildly. And now, JETS Team Two was coming in to finish a job that JETS Team One—who didn’t even exist any more—had started literal years ago.

He looked out the porthole window at the planet below them again. From what Coombes had told him, they were in for a few weeks of being constantly damp, and saturating in the smell of rotting meat. Apparently folks had lived down there once. A flourishing civilization had made it all the way to their version of the 1970s before finally the Hierarchy managed to trick or provoke them into a global nuclear war and then mopped up the remains.

And then they’d gone and built a comms relay of some kind right in the middle of the least pleasant swampy spot on the planet. There were deserts down there, rolling grasslands, sweeping coastlines, wind-swept steppes, soaring mountains and all the rest of it… but Big Hotel had decided that the primest real estate going was a bog that smelled like a bin full of week-old raw chicken.

Fucking lovely. Thank Christ this planet here wasn’t the mission planet.

“So what are we doing here?” he asked.

His team had already been briefed, of course. There were listening devices on the mission world, left by a previous JETS mission. They’d been down there much longer than originally planned and now needed retrieving so that Meereo, Clan Longear, and whatever human specialists AEC could find could trawl through what they’d gathered and see if anything useful turned up.

This waystop seemed a bit odd.

“Final mission briefing and send-off. We’re also here to pick up your ship.”

“…Our ship?”

“Yes, your team is being assigned a unique asset for this. It’s been a top secret special access program until now, so we’ll brief on arrival.”

“Where is here, exactly?”

“It’s a Class Ten, inside Gaoian borders. Point Nine-two gravity, nice and cool…it’s really the ideal planet for my kind. Let’s just say there have been…interesting…political dynamics because of that. We’ll not go into it further, but as a result it’s been more or less blockaded by all the Clans.”

“Which Daar clawed through, I’m guessing.”

“No. The planet remains broadly unknown because he ordered it. We Champions respect his will. In any case…” Meereo grabbed a tablet and tapped his claws against it. “Let’s get back to our review. Let’s see…yes, fauna. The previous mission noted a great many poisonous thorny plants.”

Wilde nodded. “I checked. The worst of them’s about as bad as a nettle, from our perspective.”

“You will want to be careful anyway. Team One were hardly equipped for botanical research, after all. Also beware of the local fauna, the Snake-Bears in particular.”

“Coombes called them Doom-Noodles.”

“Do not let the Great Father hear you say that,” Meereo cautioned, wearily. “He is more than likely going to check in on this mission from time to time, given the stakes.”

“…Right. He helped deploy the packages in the first place,” Wilde recalled.

“And I designed them. We both have a personal stake in this.”

“So what, exactly, is our mission? I mean besides fetching boxes and avoiding Snake-Bears?”

“I believe the rule is ‘pillage, then burn.’”” Meereo’s huge, expressive ears flicked back in a classic Gaoian smug smirk.

“Riiight. Easy to get that the wrong way ‘round.”

“And yes, do avoid the Snake-Bears. Bear-Snakes, as the Great Father prefers. He found them challenging foes…though that was some time ago. Now, they seem to grow more impressive each time Master Sergeant Coombes retells the tale.”

“…Daar says these things are mean?”

“He wasn’t as impressive as he is now, but yes. They’re mean, and strong. And they’re big and quiet, too. Deathworlders are like that. The Great Father had to rely on his nose, so you’ll need to keep exceptionally vigilant.”

“This planet’s beginning to sound absolutely fucking lovely…” Frasier interjected.

“Just for you, Frazey, I’ll make sure our next op’s in Benidorm, shall I?” Wilde retorted.

“Would you? That’d be nice.”

“Nah, boys. Tenerife, innit?” Rees said. He grinned at Meereo’s bewildered ear-flick. “Anyway, buckle in. Atmo in two minutes.”

“Right.”

Meereo leaned over once Rees had returned to the front of the Weaver. “…Was that English?”

“He’s Welsh.”

“That explains nothing.”

“Mate, it explains everything.”

Weavers handled re-entry with surprising grace considering they were about the same general shape as a bus. Wilde felt that if the halo of plasma that soon obscured the porthole windows was anything to go by, their ride should have been shaking and bouncing. It’d certainly have justified the need to belt up.

“…Why are we even strapped in?” he asked Frasier after a few minutes of silky-smooth calm.

“So if we blow up, they’ll be able to ID what’s left of us from the seat number, I think,” Frasier suggested.

“Oh. Fair enough, then.”

Meereo chittered. “Very pragmatic.”

“Anyway. You were saying. Pillage then burn.”

“Yes. The Great Father has determined the benefit gained by stealth is outweighed by the prospect of direct strategic gain. He will therefore march the Grand Army through these worlds and claim their secrets, as much as practicality permits.”

“That explains the jump array.”

“Correct. Fourth Fang will follow us to establish a base camp, once the sensor net has been retrieved. That part must be done in stealth. We do not want the enemy to understand how we are building this intelligence, after all.”

“Won’t they realize what we’re doing by the presence of, you know, a billion Gaoians?”

“They will realize we’re gathering intelligence, yes. They will not necessarily deduce how. That is ultimately your mission: protect our sources and methods.”

“Got it.”

“Speed is of the essence,” Meereo added. “We think the relay network is enormous, which is why this node is so lightly defended. We’re working off the assumption that there are response units.”

“…Assumption?”

“Yes. It’s all we have for now. There’s no other way to probe an adversary’s defenses than to, uh, probe them, after all. That’s why we have your team. We had considered augmenting from a Stoneback Fang, but their mission decks are pretty loaded these days.”

Wilde smiled, tickled by that mental image. He’d seen Stonebacks in action, and been impressed, but… “I’d bet we’re subtler anyway.”

“You might be surprised…but they do tend to flatten whatever they hit. For now, we need you to retrieve those sensor nets in their entirety, discreetly place a beacon, and then egress, all without being seen. That’s why you’re being given the… ah…” Meereo paused, then sighed. “The Drunker on Turkeyer for this purpose.”

Wilde blinked at him. “…The what?”

“Your ship for the mission. The Great Father, uhm… insisted. It’s an improvement on an earlier design, and this time a specially-trained pilot from Firefang has been assigned to the mission. He will not be disembarking with you but he will remain on-ship, ready to respond at a moment’s notice. The after-action on the first Drunk on Turkey’s loss rather stung the Great Father’s pride, from what I have heard. Well, Champion Daar at the time, anyway.”

“Drunker. On Turkeyer.”

“…The Great Father has his, uhm… quirks.”

“That’s not a quirk, mate, that’s a fucking war crime against English.”

Meereo sighed. “I admit, his sense of humor is…an acquired taste. But please be considerate. He’s poured a great personal sum into this vessel to improve its capability across every dimension. This is the fastest and most survivable manned surveillance craft ever fielded by Gaoian or Human.”

“With a name like that?” Frasier asked. “When I think ‘fast and stealthy,’ turkeys and bein’ drunk aren’t exactly the first things that spring to mind.”

“Anyway,” Meereo insisted, sparing him a mildly irritated look, “we will be briefing on the ship, its capabilities, and all the rest when we land. Please try and maintain some decorum. This is a significant mission and the, ah, ‘brass’ may be visiting.”

“…When you say ‘brass,’ who do you mean?” Wilde asked.

“Well… I’m the Champion of my Clan and yet here I sit, briefing you on this mission personally,” Meereo observed. “We all intend to hand off to subordinates but…not until we’re certain the gravity of what we’re doing has been properly conveyed. Does that paint an appropriate picture?”

“…Decorum, right. Shiny hats on, lads.”

“Forgot my hat polish, Wildey,” Frasier replied earnestly.

“Well, just try not to piss yourself.” They grinned at each other, and Wilde sensed Meereo relax as he accepted the humour.

The rest of the landing, and Meereo’s fretting over the details, was pretty smooth, right up until they actually touched the ground with a heavy jolt and the Weaver’s on-board gravity was turned off. There was a brief moment of subtle vertigo as the planet’s native gravity took over, a little lighter than Earth’s, but only enough that you’d notice if you were paying attention.

The “brass” turned out to be two Champions—Hiyel of One-Fang, and Goruu of Firefang. Wilde had a pretty comprehensive briefing on Gaoian clan politics, and he knew that the two Clans had traditionally been rivals with overlapping fields of competence. One was the equivalent of a navy, the other the equivalent of an air force.

Daar had ended that centuries-long feud with two deaths, at the height of the war for Gao. Now, it was like the two had always been close allies and friends. Certainly Hiyel and Goruu were reputed to be as thick as brothers.

And behind them, glinting dully in the sunlight, was what could only be the Drunker on Turkeyer. It had nose art of a staggering, giddy Gaoian waving a pair of panicking birds around in one paw while tearing at a drumstick in the other.

Set that aside, though, and she looked fucking lethal. She was a knife… hell, she was a bloody scalpel. Cold, clean, sharp and precise. Everything about her said that here was a ship with exactly one job: to go unseen where she wasn’t wanted.

Wilde fell in love almost instantly, stupid name or not. The sentiment expressed itself as a long whistle.

“I thought you’d like it,” Meereo said, sounding smug. He stepped forward and met his counterparts with that weird blend of playfulness and solemnity that was uniquely Gaoian. Introductions were made, and then Goruu gave them a tour of the ship while Meereo and Hiyel hung back and contributed little details here and there.

It wasn’t exactly spacious inside. In fact, it reminded Wilde of his Nanna and Grandpa’s caravan that he’d stayed in when visiting them for Christmas. It was built around Gaoian sensibilities about sleeping, so rather than bunks there was just a kind of nest, on top of most of their storage space. There was a small flameless kitchen with a table just big enough for five blokes who liked each other to squeeze in around. And then there was an armory and prep room at the top of the ramp that was bigger than the living space by a wide margin. Room enough to suit up, clean their weapons, all that stuff.

And then there was their pilot, Tooko. He was a Firefang himself, and maybe the smallest Gaoian adult that Wilde had ever met, counterbalanced by a particularly impressive fluffy tail and interesting curls of black fur at the tips of his ears. If most Gaoians looked rather like raccoons, then Tooko looked more like a grey fox.

He certainly looked nothing like his Champion, who wasn’t a big chap himself but still dwarfed the diminutive pilot. “Don’t let the looks fool you. He has fifty-seven confirmed combat kills to his name.”

Tooko simply bared his fangs happily.

“Nice!” Rees commented. “What’s your secret?”

Tooko shrugged. “I shoot them.”

Alright. A Gao of few words. Frasier picked up on it too, and grinned. “Are you sure you didn’t just talk ‘em to death?”

That got a chitter, and a shrug. “Pretty sure. That your approach?”

Just like that Tooko was part of the team. He could take a joke, he gave back as good as he got… as far as Wilde was concerned, the endorsement of three Champions and his own sense of humour was good enough.

“Right, then,” he declared. “So when’s our final briefing?”

“Right now,” Hiyel said. “This way, gentlemen.”

It was little more than a short recap of everything Coombes had given them back on Cimbrean and Meereo had gone over on the Weaver. Still, it settled the details in their minds and provided them with the last few puzzle pieces. There were no questions left to ask, nothing more to add… they packed up, settled in aboard their ship, and less than two hours after they’d first arrived, they buckled down for takeoff.

“Hey, Tooko. You sure you know how to drive this thing?” Rees asked as their pilot ticked off the last flight checks.

Tooko glanced at him, flicked an ear… and pinned them to their seats with enough acceleration to drive the wind out of their lungs.

Somewhere in the middle of the punishing G-forces, Frasier managed to groan out an admonishment.

“You ‘ad to open ‘yer big gob, didn’tcha?”

Wilde’s comment on that was a chuckle. Perversely, he was enjoying it.

Clearly it got Tooko’s blood pumping too, because he strung together the most words Wilde had yet heard from him over the intercom. “I can go much harder, boys…wanna test yourselves?”

Despite the gentle groan from Frasier beside him, Wilde raised his voice over the howling engines. “Aye, sure. Bring it on!”

Tooko was only too happy to oblige.

Wilde had regrets.


Date Point: 16y2w AV
Air Force One, somewhere over the Arctic Circle, Earth

President Arthur Sartori

The People’s Republic of China weren’t happy, and sometimes a President just had to take his lumps and go be Presidential. Modifying his schedule to tack on a flying visit to Beijing while he was out that way for a trade summit with Japan and the Republic of Korea had been straightforward enough.

Still. They’d shared their reasons for locking the system down, and the evidence behind their reasons too. At this point, the PRC was just being awkward for the sake of throwing their weight around.

Sartori had to admit, though: In the same position, he’d have done the same. No self-respecting nation should allow a foreign power to push it around unopposed, however justified the pushing-around.

Mollifying the Chinese was just the freezing tip of a deep, cold monster of an iceberg, though. There were bigger concerns.

“How quickly can we ramp up off-world colonization?”

He was flying alongside one of his special advisors. Chris Morgan had played a huge role in handling the relocation crisis in California after the San Diego bombing and the following earthquake. Hundreds of thousands of people had displaced northwards and eastwards, and a lot of them unknowingly owed him for how (relatively) smoothly it had all gone. There had been a real danger that people would starve.

Who better to handle the question of how to get their eggs into as many baskets as they could, as quickly as they could?

“The problem is supply, not demand,” he opined. “People are itching to get off Earth and homestead on other planets, but a colony can only develop so quickly. Modern civil planning and the lessons learned from the Cimbrean colonies mean we can expand them very rapidly indeed, but there’s still a practical limit.”

“Meaning we need more planets,” Sartori surmised.

“Mrwrki said the Coltainers haven’t been reporting back in the numbers they expected. They think something’s destroying them, probably the Hunters.”

“That’s not good.” Sartori pulled a face.

“It’s a control software problem, they say. Even the very best AI just doesn’t hold a candle to real intelligence, which is why they’ve programmed the Coltainers to self-destruct on a hair trigger. Better that than let the technology fall into the wrong hands.”

Sartori sighed. “Which means we need more survey ships. More Misfits.”

“That’s my take, Mister President,” Morgan agreed.

“That’s going to be expensive. The whole point of the Coltainers was that they were meant to be cheap…” Sartori pulled a face at his own words. “…Which means we got what we paid for. Can we even afford more colonies?”

“A colony is an investment, sir,” Morgan said. “We pay a lot up front, and get a lot more several years down the line.”

Sartori nodded and looked out the window. “Well, you know what they say about old men and date trees…”

“…Not sure I do actually,” Morgan replied.

“Ah, it’s some old thing. Date trees take a generation to bear fruit, so when a young man saw an old man planting dates, he asked ‘Grandfather, why are you planting trees whose fruit you will never eat?’”

“Oh, I see.”

“To which the old man replied ‘Buzz off kid, it’s my garden and I’ll plant whatever the hell I like,’” Sartori added with a grin. Morgan issued a gratifying chuckle, and he sat back to think. “Still… Sooner or later, the repo man cometh. We can’t keep paying up front forever.”

“All due respect, but I’m not here to advise you about the national debt or the deficit or whatever.”

“Hmm.” Sartori nodded.

Morgan gave him a second to think, then decided to venture an opinion. “From what I can see though, sir, it seems like a United States with a big debt to pay off is better than no United States at all.”

Sartori had to agree there. “You’re not wrong. The biggest part of my job is to carry the torch and not let it go out, after all.”

“Is promoting off-world settlement going to help you in that?” Morgan pointed out. “History is full of colonies seceding from their founders, after all…”

Sartori sighed. He had a point of course: even without the USA’s own history to consider, Folctha was providing a much more recent example. Its politics had drifted considerably from the British mainstream and, hell, it even had a written constitution. The Franklin territory was, for now, happy to consider themselves the Union’s next state but would that last? Or would they identify more with the people they actually shared a planet with?

Time would tell.

“I like to think we’ve learned a few things since the 1770s,” he said. “But there’s a more important torch to worry about, and that’s the torch of human life. The Hierarchy’s stated goal is to kill us all, and against something like that… If humanity doesn’t survive, the USA definitely won’t. So if I want to preserve our Republic, first I have to preserve the species. That means getting our eggs into some more baskets.”

Morgan’s head dipped as he accepted that point. He spent a few minutes tapping on his tablet and occasionally muttering something to himself sotto voce as he thought.

“MBG are working on their second Misfit-class ship,” he said at length. “And they have a crew lined up for it. I daresay the more they build, they better they’ll get at building them and the less they’ll cost.”

“Byron’s safety record isn’t exactly great.”

“On the other hand, they didn’t manage to lose a nuke.”

Sartori snorted. “True. And they have the expertise and experience now… Fine. I’ll look into funding a more aggressive exploration program. If the Coltainers aren’t working, we need to fall back on good old-fashioned intrepid human spirit.”

He sighed to himself. “…And I’m sure we’ll find the money from somewhere,” he added.

“…How bad is the war debt, Mister President?”

“It could be worse,” Sartori admitted. “But if things escalate, the whole interstellar situation threatens to cost an order of magnitude more than both world wars combined. There’s no way to afford that without… I don’t know. A war economy on that scale would be unprecedented.”

He stood up and stretched. The problem he found with travelling on Air Force One was that flying always made him drowsy. And there was a bed on board, after all. He’d learned early on that if he had both the opportunity and the desire to sleep, he needed to seize the chance.

“I’m taking a nap. You know the drill, if I’m needed…”

“Don’t be afraid to wake you up. Yeah.”

“Hopefully I’ll see you in Beijing.”

Morgan nodded with a smile, and returned to his work. Sartori sighed, and ducked back through the plane toward the back, where the small on-board suite and some quiet awaited him. Getting there required navigating a minor gauntlet of assorted staff and Secret Service, but he made it and plopped gratefully onto the mattress with a groan before massaging his temples. He had pajamas on board and could have changed into them, but instead he just kicked off his shoes and undid his belt. Then he lay back and closed his eyes.

…In the dark behind his eyelids, he clearly sees the Earth from an angel’s perspective. In the dark, he sees a point of light, then another and another, sweeping faster and faster across the world and dispelling the night. Speckles of light reflect in his tearful eyes as thousands of San Diego-sized detonations blossom across Earth’s surface…

He jumped at a knock on the door. He wasn’t sure if he’d fallen asleep atop the blankets, or if there’d even been time. Either way, he didn’t feel at all refreshed.

“…Yes?”

“You have a call from Great Father Daar, Mister President.”

Well.

So much for sleeping.


Date Point: 16y2w AV
Deep Space Layover 793-451-11 ‘Halfway To Infinity,’ Spinwise space

Leemu, Clanless

Leemu was, technically, an exile. Or at least, going home wasn’t an option any longer. The translator implant in his head made sure of that, and somehow he never quite managed to save up enough money to have the keeda-burned thing removed.

…That last part was probably Preed’s fault.

Preed Chadesakan. An old man by Human standards, which made him ancient indeed by those of a Gaoian. As he told it, he’d been abducted in the prime of his life at the age of forty, and been dumped on 793-451-11 after the Dominion’s customs and cargo inspection patrols had, in a rare moment of both competence and integrity, caught his abductors and refused to accept their bribes. Fortunately, the station had been open-minded and sensible about the whole ‘non-sapient indigenous fauna’ thing and worked around it, so he’d remained.

Even though returning to Earth had been an option for a long time now, Preed had elected to remain where he was, braving Hunters and the occasionally jittery station authorities out of loyalty to his customers, his station and, Leemu suspected, out of a kind of pleasant inertia. Preed was the kind of deeply happy person who could extract disproportionate satisfaction from life’s smallest pleasures. Give him a kitchen and empty bellies to fill, and he seemed truly content.

So he’d become a permanent fixture of ‘Halfway To Infinity.’ He was balding, round and soft without actually being fat, hummed or sang jolly tunes to himself as he worked, and could make food and flame do utterly mesmerising things. His noodles were legendary among regular travelers along Spacelane 793-451, and his eatery was always bustling even when Preed was the only being inside. There were always tables to wipe, bowls to clean, or a simmering hissing pan to give an expert push-flick to and send food fountaining into the air only to land neatly back in the pan without spilling so much as a grain.

So, yes. Leemu’s inability to ever quite save up enough to rid himself of his implant was probably Preed’s fault. Those noodles were just too good to resist, and a warm bowl full of them could keep a hungry ship repairer working all day.

And Fyu’s nuts did Leemu need some today. He woke with an aching head and a gnawing, empty belly as though he hadn’t eaten or drunk a thing yesterday. When he uncurled from his nest-bed and stretched, his limbs felt leaden and heavy like he’d been beating on metal and hauling on cargo containers all day. But yesterday had been fairly uneventful.

…Hadn’t it?

He shook his head to clear it, stood up, and dragged a brush through his fur to achieve the bare minimum of self-care. It caught and dragged painfully, and when he inspected himself he found several tangles and one matted patch like he’d managed to spill some oily substance on himself.

Was this what a ‘hangover’ felt like?

Cursing, he decided to take the brush with him and sort his fur out while he ate. Maybe things would become clearer with a full belly and some water.

As it happened, Preed was not happy to see him.

“Oh, there you are! I wondered if you would come to apologize today.”

Leemu blinked at him stupidly. “…Apologize?”

The normally-jolly Human held up his arm. He was sporting the unmistakable triple-scratch mark of Gaoian claws. Not deep, but an angry red.

Leemu immediately keened and rushed over to look at the wound. “I did that?! I’m sorry!! When did I do that?!”

“You really don’t remember?” Preed peered at him for a second—apparently his vision was going bad in his old age—then shook his head. “You weren’t drunk yesterday were you?”

“I… no?” Leemu scratched behind his own ear in mounting confusion and frustration. “…I don’t think so. Anyway, Gaoians don’t get drunk the same way your people do! I had a quiet day yesterday!”

“You call that quiet?” Preed seemed disbelieving, and more than a little irritated. “You turned over half my kitchen!”

Leemu didn’t remember doing that at all. “I’m… sorry?” he said, grappling with his memory and wondering if this was some strange kind of prank. It didn’t feel like a prank. And there was something… unsettling… in his memory. As though he could almost remember what Preed was talking about but it was slipping away whenever he thought about it.

“I’ve never seen you eat so much! You wanted to help, and then you started acting strange…at least you were in a good mood.”

Leemu finally gave up and decided to settle for honesty. “…Preed, I don’t remember any of what you’re telling me.”

Preed gave him a long, cool look then deflated, turned, and ladled a healthy serving of soup into one of the big bowls for him. He made his own bowls, and this one was human-sized. He had an eating challenge on the wall: any nonhuman who could empty one of those bowls inside five minutes earned their meal for free and got their picture on the ‘wall of fame.’ In all the years, only a couple of dozen beings had ever managed it, most of them Locayl.

Leemu suddenly felt famished. But something was off about the soup. He twitched his nose then frowned into the bowl as it was pressed into his hands. This was the wrong recipe. Preed rotated his menu on a seven-day cycle, and today was supposed to be ‘Tom Jabchai’ but instead the bowl’s contents smelled like the ‘Kua Chap.’

“…What day is it today?” Leemu asked.

“The eleventh. Why?”

“…I don’t remember yesterday at all.”

Preed put a friendly, warm hand on Leemu’s shoulder and pushed him toward a table. “Friend, I think something has happened. Maybe a blow to the head? I am no doctor. But I do know that good food cures almost anything, so…” He pushed Leemu gently but irresistibly down onto the bench seat and set the bowl down in front of him. “Eat.”

Leemu did as he was told. In fact, he finished the entire bowl with a satisfied slurp that completely restored Preed’s good humor.

“One for the wall, I think!” he announced. He swept the bowl away, refilled it, then posed Leemu with his second soup for the sake of a good picture. He raised his eyebrows when Leemu promptly attacked the second bowl, then chuckled and returned to the kitchen. Pretty soon the sound of him singing to himself reached Leemu’s ears. It was a familiar tune to practically everyone on the station, and allegedly it was a jolly children’s song… about an enormous terrifying monster with a thick hide and huge sharp teeth.

Humans were very strange.

♪“Chang chang chang, nong koi hen chang reu plow, chang man dtua dtoh mai bao…”♫

Leemu took the second bowl slower and brushed himself thoroughly as he ate. He couldn’t quite finish the second serving, but Preed never seemed to mind. On the contrary, a full bowl was always quickly refilled, so Leemu pushed it aside and stood up to leave. He tried to swipe his communicator to pay, but Preed rushed across the kitchen and snatched the payment device away before he could.

“You beat the challenge!” he said. “So it’s free today.”

“Are you sure?”

“It seems you needed it!”

“Well… thank you. I do feel a lot better.”

“I told you! Good food cures almost anything… but you should go see a doctor anyway, yes?”

“I suppose…”

Instead, Leemu wandered out onto the station promenade and checked his communicator for work. He sighed to himself when here saw there was only a handful of ships docked and none of them needed any repairs. No work today.

He ended up wandering the station, somewhat at a loose end and feeling unaccountably restless, like some urge had gripped him and he didn’t know what the urge was. He was on his third orbit around the station’s main ring when he passed by something vaguely familiar…

It was, in fact, a gym. They had been popping up in stations across the Dominion wherever gaoians or Humans trafficked in trade, and most of them were compact little affairs carefully folded into a small little stall hidden away in the cheap-rent corner of the promenade. This one was a bit bigger than most. Unsure of himself, he wandered in to satisfy his curiosity.

He was immediately greeted by an enormous brown wall of extremely friendly brownie. “Well hi! What brings you here?”

“…Honestly? I don’t know.”

That seemed to amuse the brownie, who chittered. “Sounds like ‘yer thinking too hard!”

“Maybe I am… It’s been a weird day.”

“Well, bein’ strictly honest, you strike me as someone who ain’t never set foot in a gym…ever. Y’have any idea what ‘yer doin’?”

It took Leemu a second to puzzle his way through the double-negatives, but that seemed to be the way of rural brownies. He’d worked with a few in the past, and always had the same trouble. “No, not really. Where are you from?”

“Gan Sho!” For a second the brownie’s sunny mood flickered. “…Heard it don’t exist no more, but… well, I’m still from there.”

“…Yeah. I grew up in Ken Tun.” Leemu hadn’t thought of home in years. Actually, he hadn’t really thought of Ken Tun as ‘home’ before, but a sudden mental image of the fountains near the commune where he’d grown up bubbled through his mind and left him feeling… sad, yes. But also a little angry. It had been a peaceful place full of peaceful people, and now it was gone.

He thought about the biodrones and the Hierarchy. He hated them with an unending fire. He still did…but suddenly he didn’t want to dwell on it. He was here now, and he’d maybe met a new friend. Best to see where it took him.

“So… I know the idea of a gym…” he prompted.

The next hour was a pleasantly tiring tour of what exactly it meant to exercise. His giant new friend—Gorku—was (of course) a Stoneback Associate who was, in his own words, “Pretty much good ‘fer only two things.” If one of those things was coaching, then he was damn good indeed. Every time Leemu pushed himself it just felt good, and Gorku’s cheering encouragement only made it better. Leemu left the gym some time later feeling oddly satisfied and hankering for a nice, long nap.

He awoke the next day, sore, hungry, and feeling oddly pleased with himself. He checked his work schedule and saw that, yet again, there was no scheduled shipping.

Well… maybe a change of routine would be good for him.

Yes. He felt good about that.


Date Point: 16y2w AV
Air Force One, somewhere over Asia, Earth

President Arthur Sartori

“…You want to give us a Farthrow generator.”

Daar’s image was janky and low-resolution thanks to the vagaries of current wormhole comms, but the audio was a lot clearer now. Technology marched onwards.

“It’s loaded up on a train and ready to jump to Chicago any time you like,” he said. “Complete with enough fusion plants to catch ‘yer moon in the field, too.”

Sartori ran a finger around under his shirt collar to loosen it as he thought. On the one hand, Daar’s offer was the answer to one of his biggest and most important challenges. If the Hierarchy successfully infiltrated Earth with the means to build jump beacons—or worse, with a cargo hold full of the damn things—then they could in principle bomb every major town and city on the planet. In seconds, if they were sufficiently co-ordinated and skillful.

A Farthrow would change that. Take it off the table entirely, in fact. But it would also permanently and forever make America the Earth’s gatekeepers. Whoever controlled a Farthrow controlled wormhole access to the planet, it was that simple.

And if major foreign powers had been upset by twenty-four hours at SOLCON 2, then how much more so would they be if they had to indefinitely go cap-in-hand to America to schedule every jump?

“That’s a… consequential gift,” he said aloud.

“It’ll cause as many problems as it solves, I bet,” Daar predicted.

“Possibly more.”

“Thing is, the problem it’ll solve is a big stinkin’ Naxas bull of a problem.”

Sartori nodded. And there was the crux of it, of course. The Farthrow generator solved a literally apocalyptic problem, and replaced it with a merely political one. And when—if—humanity was ever rid of the apocalyptic problem then resolving the political one was as simple as gratefully returning Daar’s gift.

The scale of it hit Sartori suddenly, the way a too-big thing didn’t always register its full impact instantly. He paused, and then leaned forward, close to the camera, and let the Great Father get a good look at the faintly awed curiosity on his face.

“…Why, Daar?”

Daar shook out his fur. It was short right now, as it always was in the weeks after he took to the field in armor. In a few more weeks it would be shaggy and impressively thick, but for now there wasn’t much of it to shake.

“You have to ask? I don’t wanna see Earth burn, and if Big Hotel really are back inside ‘yer shield, then…”

“How much did this cost you?” Sartori pressed. “How can you possibly afford to build something like this? Build it so quickly? Stage it?!”

“How can I afford to not?” Daar asked. “We need each other, my friend. Humans and the Gao, we’re gonna win together, or die together. If Earth falls, my people ain’t gonna be far behind. But ‘yer right, it was expensive. We cleared the decks on Dark Eye to make this.”

Sartori sat back and tried not to boggle at that thought. The Dark Eye nanofactory was… immense. It occupied a cavernous excavated volume inside one of Gao’s moons, and its liberation had almost certainly been the moment when Allied forces won the war for Gao. Its assembly lines could make anything, and generally they spat out materiel for the Grand Army and for civilian projects on the battle-scarred planet below.

Turning that over in its entirety to producing one shipment was…

Well. It was a typically Daar gesture. Big, loyal, blunt, and in no way inconsequential.

“That’s a… well, a kingly gift. In every meaning of the word.”

“I know. You gonna accept it?”

“Absolutely,” Sartori decided. And if the world’s leaders didn’t like it, they would just have to deal with it.

No doubt it would be more complicated than that, but for the sake of not seeing the Earth’s surface scoured by antimatter bombs, he’d endure any number of political headaches.

“Thank you,” he added. He’d never loaded as much meaning into those words before.

“Eh… I prol’ly just made a buncha extra trouble for ya,” Daar replied. He never could take sincere thanks. “Jus’ don’t break it ‘fore you get it built, ‘kay?”

“We’ll treat it right.”

“Good… Good. You don’t and I may hafta come visit…” Daar paused for a moment as his ears semaphored intriguingly. Clearly he was thinking. “…Your people were there for mine in our darkest hour, Sartori. This ain’t a favor. This is returnin’ the favor.”

“With interest.”

“Maybe. Anyhow, you look like you ain’t slept right in a while, not that I can blame ‘ya. I should stop wastin’ ‘yer precious time.”

Sartori chuckled. “Thank you,” he repeated himself. “No doubt we’ll talk again soon.”

“‘Til next time.” Daar duck-nodded, and ended the call.

Sartori sat back, rubbed his face, then sprang to his feet on a new surge of energy. He’d pay for it in a few hours, but right now he intended to use his sudden vigor to its full extent.

“Chris!” he called. “A new development for you…”

The planning never ended.


Date Point: 16y3w AV
Starship ‘Drunker on Turkeyer,’ Sagittarius Star Cloud

Sergeant Ian “Hillfoot” Wilde

The journey was an odd one, given the thoroughly Gaoian sensibilities about the ship’s design. It took a bit to get used to the idea of a nest-bed. It took even longer to wrap his head around how Tooko insisted on sleeping across and atop everyone in the most splayed-out, snoring-drooling manner possible.

But, being honest, it wasn’t all that different from austere field conditions. He’d rather have his own bed when things were nice and civilized, but the ship was free, and when in Rome…

Tooko was an early riser, though. That was just plain unforgivable.

“Nnnngh…do you really need to do your yoga stuff right away? While yowling at the top of your lungs?!”

Tooko paused in his… whatever-he-was-doing. “No time later,” he explained. Even after several days cooped up in tiny living quarters with the guy, he still refused to spend five words when three would do.

“And the ear-bleeding yowls?” Frasier asked, rolling onto his back. Beside him, Rees gave a snore and turned over. That was no surprise: Rees had literally slept through a car crash one time.

Tooko looked offended. “Females love my singing!”

“…Singing.” That claim was so absurd, Wilde sat up and stared at him disbelievingly. “…You mean you weren’t trying to claw your own balls off?”

Tooko made an honest-to-God harrumph noise and then grumbled the longest sentence Wilde had yet heard from him. “…Yeah, well, I’ve sired a dozen females, so you can fuck right off with your jealousy.”

Wilde had to admit: if true, that was pretty spectacular. And Gaoians as high up in their Clan as Tooko tended not to be liars, not when their peers could smell it.

“A dozen, huh?” He asked, and rolled himself out of the tangle of blankets. The truth was, he was awake now and Tooko’s cryptic comment about there being no time later suggested they were probably gonna want to be up and at’em soon.

Tooko duck-nodded and raided the ration stores for his breakfast. Smoked salmon, by the looks of it. Wilde decided they needed some eggs to go with it. “Thirteen.”

“Unlucky thirteen?” Frasier grumbled and sat up too. “Great.”

He gave Wilde the evil eye when Wilde snorted and put on an exaggerated Scottish accent to mutter “We’re dooooomed…” at him. He’d learned to tolerate that joke out of necessity, but there wasn’t a force in the galaxy that could make him like it.

“…Unlucky?” Tooko flicked an ear at them.

“It’s a superstition,” Wilde explained as he found the eggs. “Thirteen is an unlucky number.”

“…Weird.”

“That’s a lot of female cubs.”

Tooko just duck-nodded, with a smug flick of his ears.

“You’re one of those first-degree males, huh?”

“Yes.”

Well, that explained a few things. In the spectrum of Gaoian gender with their complex arrangement of sex chromosomes, first-degree males with only a single Y-equivalent chromosome were an extremely rare and valuable thing. Even rarer at the opposite extreme were full sixth-degree hypermales like Daar. The result, in Tooko’s case at least, was probably a kind of a furry Freddie Mercury type. It was hard to tell, sometimes.

Wilde could forgive him his cocky attitude if he’d earned it. He just wished Tooko would open up. Even Rees, who was… more of a kinetic genius than an actual thinker was better conversation.

Speaking of…

He reached out and gave the slumbering Welshman a firm slap on the head. “Up you get!”

Rees snorted and jerked awake. “Whuh?! We there yet?”

“Nearly.”

Rees sniffed, groaned, and stretched. “…What’s cookin’?”

“Eggs and salmon.”

“Mm. Smells fuckin’ lovely, boys. Coffee?”

“Well volunteered,” Wilde chuckled.

They prepared breakfast and Tooko filled them in as they ate. They were two hours out from the target system and it was about time to hunker down into their stealth approach, which was likely to take a week or more with limited heat dissipation capability.

Tooko opened up a lot when talking about what the ship could do. Apparently their waste heat was disposed of as a coherent laser beam about as wide as a pencil lead. The odds of it hitting anything before it became undetectable, let alone anything hostile, were basically zero. At least, according to Tooko who had a lot more to say on the subject of distortion-damped warp fields, low-flux shielding, and a bunch of other technobabble that Wilde wanted to be interested in but couldn’t remember.

In any case, things didn’t feel much different once they’d entered the mission’s slow-approach phase, beyond that their pilot was now stuck with an inordinate amount of free time on his hands.

So, he taught them Ta’Shen.

It was a pretty fun game. The tiles made satisfying clunk noises when tossed onto the tabletop, it rewarded plenty of different playstyles, and there was a neat blend of both physical and intellectual skill involved. A good mind for bluffing, playing the odds and predicting your opponent’s hands was best of course, but if you were good at flipping the tiles exactly where you needed them then that could paper over the cracks in an otherwise sloppy player’s style.

And it definitely opened Tooko’s mouth. In lieu of a poker face, he instead waxed enthusiastic about the Drunker on Turkeyer’s abilities, engineering and design. It seemed to work, too: Wilde was having a hard time reading his game.

Frasier could always be relied on to burst a bubble like that, though. Round about halfway through their fifth or sixth, he flipped a shower of three tiles into the middle and casually asked, “…And where’s the flux capacitor on this thing?”

“…The… what?”

“The flux capacitor,” Frasier insisted. “You do have flux capacitors, right?”

Tooko’s ear flicked. “I… no?”

Frasier was always a bit of an excited gambler, and this game of Ta’Shen wasn’t going in his favor. To be fair, it was easy to over-extend yourself; the bigger the bet, the more tokens you got to flip. But he wasn’t stupid, far from it. He turned to Wilde.

“I thought Gaoian tech was ahead of ours?” he asked, innocently.

“It is!” Tooko shot back, indignantly.

“I dunno, Tooko. That’s kind of an important technology you lot missed out on there,” Wilde said, joining in Frasier’s game. He preferred to bet conservatively, trading frequent small losses for the occasional huge win, but this time he paid for five tiles. “Now if this was a human ship, she’d have a flux capacitor good for… I dunno.”

“One point twenty-one gigawatts,” Rees supplied helpfully, as he flicked a high-value tile into the formation.

“At least,” Frasier agreed.

Tooko’s ears did a very satisfying kind of confused twist as he tried to puzzle through their bullshit.

“Your move, mate,” Wilde reminded him, and the diminutive Gaoian snapped out of his thoughts to hastily fling an ill-advised tile onto the table. It landed in a bad spot and he growled at himself, but the humans had managed to get a hook in his curiosity now.

“Well.. maybe we have a better alternative,” he said. “What does a ‘flux capacitor’ do?”

“You know, I don’t really know…” Frasier ‘admitted.’ “Somethin’ to do with the DeLorean Effect, I think.”

“The what?”

“The DeLorean effect. It was discovered years ago by Brown and McFly,” Wilde contributed. “In’t that right, Reesy?”

“…Don’t look at me, boys,” Rees shrugged. He chucked a tile and grinned as it landed in exactly the right spot. Perfect throw.

Tooko groaned and surrendered his hand.

“I have no idea what we’re talking about,” he admitted.

“That’s ‘cuz we’re bullshittin’ you, pal,” Rees revealed.

“You… what?”

“It’s an old movie, mate. A DeLorean is a car, and a Flux Capacitor is some shite that Doctor Brown and Marty McFly used to turn it into a time machine,” Frasier explained. He flipped his last tile then groaned when it landed wrong-side-up.

“You… teamed up to bluff me out of the round?” Tooko looked like he didn’t know whether to be insulted or impressed.

“Pretty much,” Wilde chuckled. His own tile was pretty good, but not good enough. All Rees needed to do was land his tile with a positive value upwards.

Tooko sighed, then chittered at himself. “‘Always assume human weirdness…’” he muttered. Or maybe quoted.

Rees flicked his last tile and, sure enough, it landed right-side-up and in a good spot. He won by a comfortable margin. “…Another round, lads?” he asked, a little smugly.

“Nah,” Wilde sat back and stretched. “Maybe we should play something else.”

“Like what?” Tooko asked. He scooped up the tiles and started slotting them back into their wooden travel box.

“Well…” Wilde glanced at Frasier and Rees. They were on the same wavelength, and all three men had to fight hard not to grin.

“…Why don’t we introduce you to a game called Fizzbin?” he asked.


Date Point: 16y3w AV
Deep Space Layover 793-451-11 ‘Halfway To Infinity,’ Spinwise space

Leemu, Clanless

Pain, surprisingly, was not a show-stopping component of Leemu’s training experience. Although Gorku, his new barely-a-Stoneback best friend, kept predicting that Leemu would be “sore in the morning” and other such dire promises, it never quite materialized the way he’d foretold.

Oh, certainly the feeling of pushing as hard as he possibly could on a bar that he’d already successfully pushed five times only for the sixth to prove impossible was unpleasant, but it definitely wasn’t pain. On the contrary, it made Leemu chitter every time he reached his limit that way. It wasn’t mirth, exactly, more a kind of catharsis to blow out the frustration and acknowledge that yes, he’d run out of energy.

Gorku had to insist that he take rest days. Leemu understood the logic, but honestly he felt great and he spent his recovery time feeling aimless and restless.

Gorku also stressed the need to eat, so Leemu spent a lot of time at Preed’s place. Despite his best efforts he couldn’t quite repeat the feat that had earned him his spot on the wall of fame, but he still polished off huge portions every time.

Work, when it came, interested him less but was becoming a lot easier. So the day when he woke up feeling utterly drained and worn out came as a surprise.

He frowned at the light above his nest-bed and scratched blearily at his own ear. There’d been a… courier ship, he recalled. The kind used for moving small, time-sensitive cargo to far-flung locations on a rapid schedule. They were a dying breed now that the Jump Array Network was becoming more widespread, but plenty of places still didn’t have Arrays.

Such ships were highly-strung, skittish things. They could flicker along the spacelines like a jumping spark, but the tradeoff was constant maintenance so for now they remained the lucrative backbone of Leemu’s business.

This one had needed some specialist work, too, he remembered. Couldn’t quite bring the details to mind though, but he was legitimately spent, and clearly hadn’t slept long enough.

Nevertheless he hauled himself out of bed and invited Gorku to meet him at Preed’s eatery.

Curiously, Gorku seemed pleased by the development. “Ha! Well it’s ‘bout damn time ‘ya started payin’ ‘yer dues!” he crowed over their breakfast. “You feeling okay?”

“Like I went to bed about three Ri’ before I woke up…” Leemu grumbled.

“So what got’chu so amped up ‘ta lift in the first place? I mean, ‘ya Clanless silverfurs aren’t usually the type, y’know? Er, no offense…”

“I couldn’t say…” Leemu trailed off into an expansive yawn so hard that he had to shake his head to clear it at the end. “…It just grabbed me.”

Preed, humming to himself on one of his periodic orbits around the eatery to clean up and see to his customers, delivered a water jug in front of them and then sat down.

“Good business for me!” he announced merrily. “Don’t you cook for yourself any longer?”

“…Honestly, no. I feel too tired!”

“Good…” Preed took a sip of water for himself—he always drank a lot of it—and took a moment to relax. He only did that when he was otherwise completely caught up on work, so it was a rare sight. “…Don’t give me too much, though!”

“Why not?” Gorku asked.

Preed massaged his knuckles and wrists with a wry look on his face. “I’m an old man. Can’t keep doing this forever. Back on Earth, maybe I’d have had children to take over the business…”

“Are you thinking of going back?”

“I’ve thought about it many times.” Preed drained his water and took a second cup. Maybe the jug hadn’t been for the Gaoians after all. “Recently though, I’ve been thinking of my family. I had a sister, and two brothers. All of them had children… Those little ones will have gray hairs now…”

He sighed, and added. “Besides. I won’t be around forever.”

“Preed, your species lives, like, twice as long as ours,” Leemu objected.

“And you’re a third my age,” Preed reminded him. He drank his second cup of water and stretched. “Old bones don’t work so well. Old joints seize up… I think I’d like to see trees again. And Wat Phra Kaew.”

“Wat what?”

“A very important temple. There’s a statue of the Buddha there, called the Emerald Buddha. It’s lived there for more than two hundred years… A very holy place. My father took me when I was small. I think I’d like to see it again…”

Preed tailed off and Gorku tilted his head. “Buddha. I read that word when I looked up Clan Starmind,” he said. “Emerald though? A whole statue made of emerald?”

“I think it’s actually Jade or Jasper,” Preed admitted. “But still. Precious beyond what it’s made of.”

“Do you think you’ll go?”

“Maybe. I have plenty of money saved… maybe I’ll go and come back!” Preed shrugged and chuckled. “My first vacation in thirty years. Or maybe I’ll retire.” He rubbed his hands and knuckles some more and sighed. “These fingers just don’t work as well as they used to.”

Leemu was surprised to catch himself whining at the sentiment. “Retire?! I’d have to come visit…well. Probably not. Because…Earth.”

Gorku shook his neck and shrugged. “Other Gaoians have visited. The Great Father even trained there!”

“Yes, and he’s the Great Father. I’m just a Clanless no-name silverfur. I bet I’d take one breath and die.”

“Fast as you’ve grown? Prob’ly not! ‘Yer tougher than ‘ya think!”

A thought hit Leemu between the ears. “What about Cimbrean?”

The three of them looked at each other silently as they suddenly realized they had a mission.

“That’s…a good idea. I will need to pass through Cimbrean to get back to Earth…” Preed said slowly.

“We’ve got translator implants, though,” Gorku pointed out. “That’s what stopped me takin’ my shot ‘fer the Second Ring! I had a recommendation, I just never got ‘ta use it.”

“How much would it cost to get them removed at Cimbrean?” Preed asked. Leemu promptly grabbed his communicator and opened his favorite search engine.

“Bear with me…” He did some quick research on the Cimbrean Infosphere page. “…There’s a trade station at the system border. The medical clinic there offers implant removal for… Five hundred pounds, whatever those are. And they offer zero percent interest loans! Oh, hey! And there’s a government subsidy for returning Human abductees and Gaoian exiles…”

Some more research and currency conversion later suggested that the trip would be eminently affordable. That news immediately got Gorku fired up.

“I could return to the Clan!” he enthused. “Try out ‘fer the second ring!”

“And I…” Leemu paused. He’d got swept up in the idea without thinking what was actually in it for him, beyond loyalty to his friend. But as soon as he thought about it, a few things fell into place. “…Spaceships are becoming rarer as the Jump Array Network expands. In a few years, there won’t be much need for mechanics like me… but I bet a place like Cimbrean could use somebody with my skills in a slightly different role.”

“I could use a training buddy!” Gorku boomed, predictably. “I’ll need ‘ta get ready ‘fer the Second Ring. And we can build ‘ya up too!”

“You’d really come with me?” Preed asked, looking exceedingly touched by their gesture. “It’s halfway around the galaxy from here.”

“I would,” Leemu decided firmly. “We gaoians are loyal to our friends.”

“And we’re not scared to move on ‘ta somethin’ new,” Gorku added. “Life is short, after all.”

“…Well, then.” Preed looked like Gorku’s attitude was very alien to him—and considering he’d spent thirty years running one remote eatery, Leemu could believe that—but also inspired. “I will need to make arrangements, notify my suppliers… I will be very busy for a few days, I think.”

“I’ll need ‘ta hand the gym over to someone. Mebbe Erik? He’s responsible an’ he’s pretty keen on stayin’ out in space!”

Preed frowned at him. “Erik? That’s a human name.”

“…No? Erik’s a brownie like me!”

“Oh. Well…” Preed stood. “I should get to work. There’s a lot to do before we go…”

“The next ship headed out that way isn’t due for a while anyway,” Leemu told him. “You have plenty of time.”

“The sooner I start, the sooner I am finished,” Preed retorted. “Besides. I like to work!” he smiled and returned to the kitchen with their empty bowls. He hummed a different song this time, one that Leemu wasn’t familiar with.

Gorku stood as well. “Rest today. Tomorrow too, if you need it. ‘Yer body knows what it needs. I’ll see ‘ya when ‘yer ready if not sooner.”

“That will be soon, I bet,” Leemu chittered. He really was enjoying himself under Gorku’s training.

“Good.” Gorku pant-grinned happily and left. As he did, Leemu sat back and considered what they’d just decided.

Gorku was right, though. Maybe it was instinct or maybe it was societal, but Gaoian males tended to be comfortable with turning their lives upside-down and seeking a new opportunity on short notice. That was, after all, what had led Leemu to his current position.

When he considered it this time, though, he got an especially warm glow of anticipation. Clearly he’d been more bored and frustrated in his job than he’d noticed. A change would be good for him.

He stood, and headed back to his quarters to catch up on sleep.


Date Point: 16y3w AV
Starship Drunker on Turkeyer, On approach to Sagittarius Star Cloud

Sergeant Ian “Hillfoot” Wilde

“…Ugggh,” Tooko groaned and threw his cards down in disgust, and gave Wilde an accusatory glare. “…You’re full of bullshit.”

Wilde chuckled and retrieved the cards to shuffle them. “That didn’t take long.”

“‘Unless it’s a Tuesday?’ How stupid do I smell?”

“That’s the joke, mate. The whole point is it’s nonsense.”

“Whatever.” Tooko stood up to leave. “Humans are weird.”

His sullen air was down to more than just a slightly chafed ego, Wilde decided. Of course… Gaoians were still aliens, weren’t they? It was easy to forget the fur and claws and expressive ears and just see a friendly person sat on the other side of the table and treat them like a human themselves, like a fellow Brit even. But that way, sooner or later, probably meant putting your foot in it.

“…Tooko, mate, there’s no malice in it.”

“Lies are always malicious. Fuck off.” Tooko vanished into the pilot’s station, swung his high-backed chair around and busied himself doing… pilot things. Whatever they were.

Well… shit. That wasn’t a great way to develop their working relationship.

Wilde, Rees and Frasier traded mutual slightly embarrassed expressions, then shrugged and put themselves to work getting the tiny living quarters cleaned up and neat. The slightest clutter in the confined space could get out of hand fast, so they stayed on top of it.

Unfortunately, that also meant that there wasn’t much for them to deal with. Pretty soon the distraction was cleared away. There was another moment of mutual awkwardness, then Rees sighed, shrugged, rolled onto the nest-bed and put his earphones in. Frasier shrugged and ducked through into the ready room where he opened a locker and retrieved a knife and whetstone and set to sharpening.

Wilde decided it was probably best not to let the poison simmer for too long. He stooped under the archway through into the cockpit and made himself comfortable.

“…I suppose working with aliens comes with some hazards,” he said. He heard a kind of stiffening, tensing sort of sound from the pilot’s chair, but got no reply.

“Alright. I get it. In Gaoian culture, a lie is always malicious. I’ll remember that from now on, mate. We all will,” Wilde promised. “I just want you to understand that’s not the case where I’m from, and there really was no harm meant. It’s just a prank… and I know your mob have a nose for mischief. Been on the wrong end of it myself.”

There was silence. Well… Wilde had said all he could think to say.

“…Fair enough. You’re not in the mood to talk,” he said and turned to go. There was a book in his bag, maybe he’d do a little reading…

He was stopped by the fact that Tooko turns his chair around. They stared at each other for a second, Wilde open and waiting, Tooko glaring.

“…The Great Father spoke highly of you,” he accused after a few seconds.

“Us?”

“You specifically.”

That was… bloody surprising, in fact. “Me? I barely met him, mate.”

“He said you were on Caledonia, the ship your people lost over Gao. He said you helped liberate the Three Valleys.”

“Mostly I was trying not to die at the time, but… yeah. That’s all true.”

“You kept people alive, he said. Killed biodrones… He said you boarded a Hunter swarmship.”

“Also true.”

“I know. The Great Father doesn’t lie.” There was definitely a look of hero worship in Tooko’s eye, there. And a heavy dose of acid.

“Look, mate. I won’t claim like I’m an angel. All I can say is that it’s a game with us. Like… When I was new to the Marines, my corporal told me to go get a tin of tartan paint from storage. And I was bloody stupid enough to go ask the quartermaster for one. I was embarrassed, we had a laugh…that was it. We all did that to each other…” he trailed off as he saw the bewildered way Tooko’s ears were moving. “…I suppose it sounds stupid.”

“Yes.”

“Well… it’s just us, mate. We aren’t Gaoians.”

“How is belittling your brothers in any way a good idea?!”

“Don’t ask me to get into the psychology of it, I’m no kind of a… whatever. It’s just how we are. I’m sorry we forgot it doesn’t work that way for Gaoians, okay?”

Tooko gave him a long, hard look. Diminutive or not, there was an intense personality behind the borderline child-like facade. “Gaoians do not like lies. Big ones are pointless because we can often smell them. Little ones are like trying to cheat someone else’s nose. It means you have no respect for them.”

“…I hear you. Me, when I got back from that tin of paint errand… it’s like, I took my lumps, you know? Prank played, well done lads, you got me… If I’d whined about it, that wouldn’t’ve gone down well. Instead I could laugh about it, and they respected that.”

“But what does that prove? That you can be toyed with and you’ll just roll over?”

“Or that I’m level-headed enough to only worry about the big shit, I guess,” Wilde said. “Like… You’re gonna be livin’ on top of these lads in a high-stress environment. You need to know when to let the small irritations slide by. That’s how you get along and build a team.”

“So… it was a test.”

“I guess, yeah.”

“And if I was Human, I’d have failed it,” Tooko sighed.

“Well… you’re not. Our bad for forgetting it, okay?” Wilde held out his hand. “…Start over?”

Tooko tilted his head like a thoughtful puppy for a moment, then duck-nodded and reached out and they shook, paw-to-hand. “Okay.”

Strangely enough, after that incident the friction completely vanished and Tooko opened up a good deal more. Mutual embarrassment over their misunderstanding made for a hell of a bonding experience.

It also added an interesting twist to their Ta’Shen games.

“Wait. You just bluffed us! Isn’t that a lie?”

“It is a deception,” Tooko sniffed. “That’s fine. A lie is when you say something false.”

“Okay, but… technically, Fizzbin was invented by Captain James Kirk of the USS Enterprise.”

“He’s a fictional character. And you’re still wrong. And you still lost. Pay up.”

…And so on. It made the days vanish, to the point where the moment when Wilde happened to glance out the front of the ship and see that there was a planet in front of them rather than endless midnight came as something of a surprise.

“When did that get there?”

“Yesterday.” Tooko flicked his ears in an amused way.

“How does a whole bloody planet just sneak up on us?”

“Technically, we sneaked up on it.”

“When are we landing?”

“Soon.”

“…And?”

“Updating the survey.”

Well, fair enough. Apparently being in work mode killed Tooko’s ability to string more than six words together at a time, and Wilde knew they needed to get ready anyway. He woke Frasier, got Rees’ attention and the three of them started in on final checks of their gear.

About thirty minutes later, Tooko told them to buckle up, with a surprisingly cheery-sound call: “Time to land! Settle in, please.”

“You sure you won’t be taking to the field with us?” Wilde asked. They already knew the mission, but it seemed like a tease he could get away with.

It earned an amused chitter and some complex ear semaphore. “Balls no! I’m barely fifty kilograms!”

“…Really?” Even though Tooko looked pretty damn small, he didn’t look that small.

“Fur.”

Fair enough. He was remarkably fluffy.

Fluffy or not, he made de-orbiting look easy. Surgical, even. Drunker handled the insertion smoothly and quietly and in remarkably short order they were skimming low over the ocean. Then, too quickly for Wilde to really follow, a thin green line on the horizon became a shoreline, became a green blur of marshlands and swamps below.

Up ahead, the terrain finally decided to stop being lazy and started to do interesting stuff with craggy rock hills that thrust up from the green like a line of badly worn molars. They looked densely-packed and tight, but that was just an illusion of distance: Up close, the canyons between them were more than wide enough for Drunker to flit through under Tooko’s skillful paws.

Wilde could hear him muttering to himself up front. “…Right here… descend to two hundred… there.”

He set them down sharply, precisely, and without ceremony. One second they were in the air, the next they were on the ground. Despite the sudden landing, there was barely a jolt. Just a gentle knock, and the sound of the engines powering down.

“We’re down,” Tooko called over his shoulder, and popped the ramp.

It wasn’t even fully deployed before the three scouts were down it, rifles up and alert for any kind of danger that might have been nesting in their landing site.

“Clear.”

“Clear.”

“Clear.”

Wilde glanced over his shoulder as Drunker made a kind of slithering ceramic hissing sound. The hull plating along its back was… changing. Texture, colour, appearance… in just ten seconds, the ship’s dorsum was a nearly perfect recreation of the terrain beneath it, and certainly good enough to fool any overhead surveillance. It was a hell of a lot more complete and convincing than just dragging a big camo net over the thing, and much quicker.

He touched his radio. “Comms check.”

Tooko’s voice came back loud and clear. “I hear you.”

Frasier answered from across the clearing. “Hillfoot, Gibson. Loud and clear.”

“Osprey here. All good,” Rees finished.

Satisfied, Wilde took a better look at their landing site. He was no kind of a geologist, but the chunky square rocks that surrounded them on all sides were a kind of warm yellowish-brown and bearded with hanging mossy stuff. It was an extremely sensible place to hide the ship: the only way to see in was to fly directly overhead, from which angle the ship’s camo was flawless. The rocks should fool any sensors, radar or whatever and from the previous team’s report there was only one obscure way in and out on foot.

“The cache is buried in the northwest corner,” Tooko told him. “Apparently it’s behind a rock shaped like a… horse shoe. Whatever that is.”

Rees vanished in that direction brandishing an entrenching tool, and returned after just a few busy minutes carrying the cache that Team One had left behind. It contained some non-perishable supplies they hadn’t used, some equipment… Anything useful they hadn’t taken back with them and that would survive being buried for a while.

“…Doesn’t stink so bad as Team One said it would…” he noted conversationally. He was right: in fact the scent in the air was sweet and fresh. Not exactly pleasant, but not bad either. Forgettable.

“Apparently it’s worse down in the lowlands,” Frasier said. “Where the forward camp is.”

“Oh. Lovely.”

They cracked open the cache and then decided to leave it with the ship. It was there for emergency backup after all. That pretty much concluded their business at the landing site. Tooko was going to have to fend for himself without them for a while.

…In a nice cozy bed, on a fresh, sweet-smelling hilltop, well-hidden in a defensible spot. Lucky sod. Wilde almost envied him.

But of course… Tooko wasn’t doing anything useful now.

“Come on, lads,” he hoisted his pack onto his shoulders, gave his rifle one last habitual glance over, and turned toward the path and their distant objective. “Last one in buys the first round.”

And with that little ritual out of the way, the mission began in earnest.


Date Point: 16y1m AV
Dataspace adjacent to Mrwrki Station

Entity

The Entity understood the concept of boredom in an academic, abstract way. It could even vaguely summon up Ava’s memories of being bored. But understanding the idea and actually feeling the emotion were two different things.

The closest it could get was the sensation of being… uncomfortably idle. It was, for the time being, safe. There were unfulfilled objectives vis-a-vis the acquisition of nanofactory functionality and other modular subsystems for its ship bodies, but those were for the time being outside of its control and therefore not worth fretting over. Darcy had been exceedingly honest about their reticence and concerns, and it understood them well. Humans, after all, were driven by <Survive> too. Handing technology so powerful to another party, even an ally, was not something to be done lightly, nor rushed.

The Entity could wait. In the name of <Survive>, so long as it appeared to be safe for the near-to-mid future, the Entity could be very patient indeed.

But that left it with nothing to work on. It was not, for the present, actively attempting to achieve an objective, all of its objectives being either met or unmeetable at present… there was nothing for it to do except satisfy its curiosity.

So, it researched. It accessed as many libraries as it could reach, and worked its way steadily through their contents. There was a lot of fiction, but the Ava memories said that was just as important. Fiction often contained truths in allegory format.

Later, the memories refined that sentiment to: ‘sometimes’ contained truths in allegory format. That was after about six solid hours of nothing but erotica, which created more questions than it answered. Though in fact, the Entity felt it had learned a lot. Nevertheless, it moved on alphabetically into Fantasy.

It began with the complete works of Tolkien, and read them ten times in the space of a single minute. It spent a further five minutes digesting what it had read and occasionally re-reading the series. Intriguing.

Next came Pratchett. Very intriguing.

Stephen Donaldson was by turns confusing and engaging. The Ava-memories did not like the character of Thomas Covenant one bit, but the Entity still found much to engage with.

A few milliseconds into its second read-through of Terry Brooks’ bibliography, something tickled its attention. The anomalous sensation came from a kind of crumb of Self that it had left behind to watch an important communications nexus and, more importantly, suppress certain signals from propagating through dataspace.

On that score it was working perfectly. Still, it indicated activity where, from the Hierarchy’s perspective, there shouldn’t have been any. From the Entity’s perspective, activity on that node was very welcome indeed.

It fashioned a brief message for Darcy to let her know it was leaving the safety of Mrwrki dataspace, and flashed away into the depths of the galactic communications systems, along channels barely understood by even the most learned of their inhabitants.

After all: this particular node was intimately involved in the Entity’s very existence…


Date Point: 16y1m AV
Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Deep Space

Darcy

Darcy sighed as she read the Entity’s message. Although the strange life-form was definitely getting more fluent at communicating with her, the language they spoke was a deeply private one. There were flashes of English here and there, sometimes even whole sentences. Other times it relied on strings of emoticons. Very occasionally, it even attached sound files which sounded like somebody had mashed together a dolphin and R2-D2.

Despite these limitations, it could be remarkably expressive. And she knew it was being determinedly Patient with them while it waited for the rest of Mrwrki’s crew to chew through their endless, circular geek-talk about its nature and the ethics of maybe giving it access to Von-Neumann tech.

It was hardly surprising it had decided to take a vacation, or maybe go run an errand. But it was still frustrating.

Well, seeing as she wasn’t going to have any work to do until it came back, she may as well go see what insights she could offer elsewhere on the station. That was the rule on Mrwrki—if you weren’t working on your own project, maybe your perspective would shed new light on what somebody else was struggling with. So go talk to people.

It got the fanatically devoted nerds who made up the bulk of the station’s staff to leave their offices and labs semi-regularly at least.

And, inevitably, talking to Lewis.

Darcy had known many charismatic people in her life. Charisma was a skill, and some people worked damn hard on it for their careers. Lewis, on the other hand, was simply easy-going and breathtakingly intelligent. When he listened, he listened. When he ranted, other people listened. He’d certainly managed to bowl over his wife Lucy, whom Darcy knew to be quite formidable in her own right.

Of course, she’d bowled him over too. Maybe after a year or two more of marriage the mutual fascination and awe would chill into mere comfortably fondness, but for now it was like neither one of them could believe their luck.

There was a very good reason they were both right at the sharp point of the Von-Neumann question. And when they were out of the lab, discussing it with others, the conversation tended to snowball until half the station’s intellectual coterie were sprawled all over the common area, nucleating into smaller and more precise debates while decimating the station’s coffee reserves.

Darcy lurked on the edges for a few minutes as she acquired a Moroccan Mint tea and got a feel for what the current sticking point might be. The Coltainer program’s continued underperformance was a source of mounting external pressure, especially in light of the Ceres Incident. AEC wanted more places to spread human life off of Earth, and the Coltainers just weren’t delivering. Too many of them were simply disappearing out in the black and never checking in. Maybe they were self-destructing too sensitively over false alarms. Maybe the Hunters really were prodding at them so relentlessly.

Maybe they were just really stupid and kept crashing into something. That was the problem: only a handful had returned to share any news at all, and only one had reported actual success.

There was, in short, a serious problem with Von-Neumann technology, and it turned out to be just the same as last time.

“—Neural networks aren’t a real-time solution to problems in the real world—”

“You’ve got to be able to come up with a working solution to emergent scenarios, first time, I know–”

“And those solutions need to work more often than not. We can’t afford to get it wrong a thousand times and iterate off the least bad run.”

“Not when a single bad attempt could destroy the probe. I know, dude. But what you’re describing ain’t programming at all, it’s sapience.”

“Yeah, and we’ve got a ready-made sapient mind who’s volunteering.”

“Speakin’ of which… ‘sup, Darcy?”

Well, so much for staying out of it. Darcy smiled and sat down next to Lucy. “Seems to me like you guys have been stuck on this one for a while now,” she said. Around them, assorted tangential conversations continued unabated.

“Yeah. And every time we do, we come back to the same damn problem,” Lewis grumbled. “V-N probes just don’t work without control software that can adapt to the unforeseen…”

“And the only thing that can really tick that box is something that’s actually intelligent,” Lucy finished.

“Lucy thinks we should let the Entity have the blueprints it asked for,” Lewis finished.

“This a domestic dispute?” Darcy asked, jokingly. Both of them snorted at the idea and shook their heads.

“Purely a professional difference,” Lucy assured her.

“That thing’s creepy, dude,” Lewis objected.

“No argument there,” Darcy agreed. Lucy looked faintly surprised.

“You work with it,” she said.

“Yeah, and it’s creepy,” Darcy agreed. “I… quite like it. But the little flashes of humanity make me remember what it is and where it came from, so that’s not exactly easy.”

“Our own pet ghost in the machine…” Lewis muttered.

“Hardly a pet. It ran off this morning.” Darcy sipped her tea. “I guess it had some unfinished business or something…”

She saw Lewis’ expression and smiled. “It did tell me first.”

“Ran off where?”

“I can’t say.”

“You mean you don’t know, or you’re not allowed to say?”

Darcy just looked him in the eye and gave a well-practiced and perfected complex shrug that conveyed nothing at all. Lewis got the message and chuckled.

“…Dude.”

“What’s your opinion though, Darcy?” Lucy asked. “You work with the Entity closer than anyone, do you think we should let it have a V-N probe?”

Darcy ran her finger around the rim of her teacup as she sat back and crossed one leg over the other. “Should? I dunno about should,” she said. “But what happens if we say ‘no’ or it gives up on waiting? It already brought us the Hunter probe prototype. Sooner or later, it’ll find another one I bet.”

“You think it’s a question of when rather than if?” Lucy asked.

“It did it once. It can do it again,” Darcy shrugged. “So… the question is, what will it mean for us when it does? Will we be the tightwads who refused to share, the enemies who tried to contain it, or the friends who helped it? I know which one I’d rather be. The Entity might be a creepy broken thing, but it’s loyal as hell and I think we ought to reward that loyalty.”

Lewis and Lucy shared a complicated married-couple glance that was about five minutes of conversation packed into two seconds of eye contact. It made Lewis sag a fraction, and shake his head.

“…Guess you’ve got me there,” he admitted.

“It’s not really our decision though,” Darcy reminded them. “Ultimately, something like that has to go through Colonel Nadeau, from there to Brigadier-General Bartlett and then… I don’t know. Probably all the way up to AEC and the Allied leaders.”

“Our recommendation should still carry weight…” Lucy said.

“It will,” Darcy agreed. “But that doesn’t mean they’ll automatically agree with us.”

“What happens if they say no?” Lewis asked.

“Well… I guess it’ll be my job to break the news gently,” Darcy said. She kept her sigh purely internal, and finished her tea. “Anyway, I’ve already worked overtime this month. I’m going to catch up on my sleep, I think.”

“Have fun!” Lucy wished her. “And… thanks for the insight.”

Darcy smiled, dipped her head to acknowledge the thanks, and slipped away between the chattering scientists.

In fact when she got back to her quarters, she found that sleep was surprisingly elusive. Even after a nice soak in the shower and even with the help of Enya, she wound up lying in bed and staring at the ceiling above her.

Stress. She’d never managed it properly. All the meditation, relaxing music and tea in the world just seemed like props rather than an actual solution. She’d been stressed to Hell and back when she’d made the mistake that saw her demoted down to being an analyst, and that had taken it all back down to a level she could handle. She’d been happy in that role.

Now, she felt like she had even more responsibility than before. There was a unique kind of demon prowling around, that could barely communicate, and it was her job to make sure it was friendly and well-disposed toward humanity as a whole.

So… no pressure.

She sighed and called up the Hunter V-N probe schematics again. She barely understood them, but apparently the tech in them was already being adopted into human designs. The next-generation starships, the Royal Navy’s Hostile-class frigate and the US Navy’s Shughart-class escort, both promised to revolutionize spaceborne warfare just like the Violent-class and the San Diego-class before them.

That seemed like a recipe for an endless cycle of counter-adaptation to Darcy. After all, it was reverse-engineered Hunter tech that had led humanity to discover FTL travel. Then the Hunters had adapted to human warfare, humanity had adapted to the Hunters, the Hunters had adapted again…

Where did it end? When one side or the other was dead, probably. And in the meantime, the real enemy were all but untouchable in their data-based alternate universe.

How long was it until the Hunters figured out an answer to WERBS? Or were given it, by the Hierarchy.

There was so much on the line. So much responsibility.

“…Lights off.”

The room plunged into darkness. She lay awake for a long time, thinking, until finally she thought no more and dreamed instead.

They were not happy dreams.


Date Point: 16y1m AV
Class 11 planet, Messier 24

Sergeant Ian “Hillfoot” Wilde

“You know who I think would work? Now, it’s a bit of an odd choice…”

“Compared to the other odd ducks we’ve bandied about? For the record, Hulk Hogan from the late eighties still doesn’t count.”

“Why not? Besides, y’know, time travel.”

Team Two had found some entertainment gaming out a pressing concern of theirs: how, exactly, they were going to deal with the sheer volume of equipment they needed to move in and out on these missions. Installing surveillance systems meant packing in a fuck of a lot of gear, even with modern miniaturization and very clever kit. Team One had solved that problem with a monster of a man and a pack-bear in the form of Daar. Team Two didn’t have that luxury.

Tooko had found it all amusing at their base camp, though he only visited once a day; it wasn’t safe, firstly, but secondly their growing body-funk was apparently too much for him.

Well, he could just harden the fuck up. Field work was grungy, there was no way around that.

“Alright, mate. Who’re you thinking?”

“Well…Look. There’s basically only three ways around the problem we’ve got, right? Pack less, carry more at once, or make more trips.”

“Right…?”

“The tech isn’t getting smaller, and making more trips puts us at risk–”

“Yes, we know…”

“For Tooko’s benefit, mate.”

Tooko nibbled on one of his gaori ration packs. For a male his size they were, apparently, more than a square meal. As far as Wilde was concerned, they looked more like a snack.

“Yes, I know,” he said. “I can’t carry your packs. Daar could…”

Again with that mild hero worship.

“Right. So. If I could pick anyone at all, and pay them enough…”

“Oh for fuck sake mate, just spit it out!” Rees laugh-groaned. “Who?”

“I’d pick a Ten’Gewek.”

“…Fuck it, yeah. I like that.”

“Exactly! They’re made for this. Big tough survival experts, crazy strong and trail-hardened…”

“Only real problem would be how much food we’d need to pack, but they’d be pretty good at hunting their own I bet.”

“Hell, we go hunt one doom-noodle and they’re fed for a week.” They’d seen one of the beasts draped languidly in a tree on the far side of the river, and Wilde had said that to his eyes they looked more like a massive ferret with the general air of psychotic danger he’d associate with a honey badger. Only, much much longer proportionately in the torso. They’d pointed it out to Tooko on one of their safer excursions to the perimeter, and he’d gone silent even by his standards over it.

He wasn’t silent about any perceived teasing levied against the Great Father, however. Tooko swallowed his food and glared at Frasier. “Bear-snake!”

He scowled at the chuckle that swept around the camp.

“Mate, you know we love ‘em, yeah? But c’mon, tell me that thing is anything but a noodle of doom!”

“Boys, you know who else would be good?” Rees interjected. “What about that Julian?”

“…Well, yes. But he’s also unavailable. What with the whole special envoy thing, and all.”

“Still, he’d be perfect! Six years on Nightmare, he’s a gorilla-whisperer, he’s a bigger and better athlete than Tiny nowadays and carries his size more naturally…”

“He’s also a rich millionaire with a pair of pregnant wives and unbreakable commitments to the Ten’Gewek, mate. And he eats like them, too.”

“…Are they married?”

“Tell me they’re not, mun. In their heads, anyway.”

“You humans are weird,” said Tooko around a mouthful of cracker-thing. “Must be nice to have equal numbers of males and females…”

“Nah mate. There’s more women, by a little bit.” Frasier grinned at Tooko’s expression.

“By what? One percent?!”

“‘Bout that, yeah.”

“My point stands.”

“It has its ups and downs,” Wilde said, evenly. “But don’t knock your own blessings. Thirteen female cubs and you don’t have to wipe their arses!”

“And I’ve never met them.” Tooko flicked an ear, then polished off the last of his food.

“That’s… a bit shit, yeah.” Wilde must have looked completely lost, because Tooko promptly forgave him and scooted closer round the fire to brave his odour and give him a kind of Gaoianly half-hug.

“Reesy here’s got a daughter, don’tcha mate?” Frasier said.

“Yup. Angharad. Four years old,” Rees smiled fondly. “Shame her mum’s a cunt, but I get to see her whenever I go on leave.”

“Her mother is a what?” Tooko tilted his head. “I don’t know that one.”

“Humans are weird,” Wilde explained. He didn’t get a chance to elaborate, however: There was a ping from his tablet, which was… unexpected, to say the least.

“…What?” He scowled at it for a second and then held out his hand. “…Fork that over, Frasier.”

Frasier leaned over and did as asked, handing him the device. When Wilde turned on the screen, he frowned at the screen for a second, then relaxed and smiled at what he saw.

<:-)>

“Oh aye?” Wilde asked, and chuckled. “They said you might show up…”


Date Point: 16y1m1w AV
Offutt AFB, Nebraska, USA, Earth

President Arthur Sartori

Some things, a man just had to do himself. Like, say, inspecting a device that was to strategic relations with every other nation on the planet what a big phlegmy loogie was to even the most delicious burger.

Daar would love that analogy, too. Sartori would have to share it with him when they met up later on. After all, there was something obscene about doing something this monumental and then being coy about it. This was an event that demanded a full screaming eagle ‘America fuck yeah’ suck-my-nuts attitude, and to Hell with what Beijing and the Kremlin thought about it, never mind the others.

He was slamming the doors on all wormhole traffic within the orbit of Earth’s moon. From now on, if it wasn’t authorized by the USA then it wasn’t allowed to happen. Full stop, no negotiation, no way around it. A Farthrow generator was an absolute solution that created a lot of small problems in solving the big one.

With extinction on the line, however, an absolute solution was the only possibility.

It looked the part, too. Not in a Star Trek sense—there were no curious glowing bits or inexplicable translucent swirly things—but it looked solid, and its mere presence left the feeling of immense power crawling up Sartori’s spine. It was, he knew, twisting the spacetime around Earth in truly weird ways. He’d tried to read a more accurate and full explanation but had been utterly defeated by phrases like ‘homeomorphic to the Euclidean space of dimension n.’ There were multiple layers of high education between him and grasping the generator’s most basic operating principles.

Daar’s letter had been blunt on that point: “Don’t try and twist your brain into understanding it. Leaders like you and me aren’t meant to be this kind of smart.”

Wise advice. So, he’d set the manual aside and focused his attention instead on what he did understand: politics. And in that field, Sartori felt, he could have written something just as totally perplexing to the scientists.

That thought made him feel a lot better.

He could certainly write a good dedication speech.

“This,” he said, looking at the cameras in the back of the room rather than at the gathered uniforms and suits closer to his lectern, “is a door with an unbreakable lock. And we control when, where and how it will open.”

Sadly, a square room in a bunker wasn’t exactly the perfect forum for stirring oratory. The acoustics were all wrong for a start. And he certainly wasn’t going to get any cheering and applause from this crowd, who were watching in respectful silence. But it helped him to imagine such things.

“Whoever controls such a door inherits a freight of power along with it. From now on, we control who can and cannot come to or leave the Earth. We control every jump, every wormhole communication. That is enormous power.

“Power,” he continued, “as we all know comes with responsibility. It comes with an obligation to use it wisely and for the greatest common good. This high ideal shines like a beacon, calling us forward. We have the power to shut the doors on Earth; it follows that we have the obligation to only do so when it will benefit all the peoples on this small blue planet.”

There were foreign dignitaries present for this. Ambassadors, senior government officials from allied and a select few other nations… He addressed his next remark to those ‘select few others.’

“It is emphatically not our place to use this generator to interfere with the legitimate affairs of our neighbors,” he said. “Instead we pledge it to their protection, as by protecting them we can be certain of protecting ourselves. My nation has, in somewhat recent decades, given the world two paradigm-shifting technologies: the Navstar global positioning system, and the Internet. In the spirit of those advances, we commit to an open and transparent operational regime, and will seek input from all our partners.

“Unlike those systems, there is no escaping the singular nature of its operation. A second one of these would not overrule the existence of the first, it would only lock the door ever tighter. We recognize the concerns this creates. Being honest, it gave me pause and nearly prompted me to decline the Great Father’s generous gift.”

He paused to take a brief sip of water. “However. All of us know what the stakes actually are. We know what the recent events on Ceres signify. We know what we are up against. Considering that, and reviewing the state of our international relations…we shall retain sovereign control of the device, until such time as a secure, trustworthy international regime can be established to our satisfaction. That concludes my statement, thank you.”

Well. Sartori had just undone much of his predecessors’ work in untangling the United States from binding–and arguably, strangling–international commitments. Instead of gradually relinquishing the title of ‘world police,’ he had just (by international standards) somewhat lustily embraced the title of “defender of mankind.”

Fuck.


Date Point: 16y1m2w AV
Class 11 planet, Messier 24

Brother Traan, Warleader of Fourth Fang

Thump.

Traan’s nose immediately objected. He was proud of his keen senses; they were on par with the Great Father in fact, and that made the rotting feculent nasal cacophony all the more impressive. How had Daar put up with this for weeks and months at a time?

He wasn’t the only one momentarily floored by the olfactory assault, either. The entire Fang flinched, pulled faces, growled and in one or two cases even covered their noses.

Which made it all the more infuriating when he heard somebody chitter. A legitimately tiny male with very un-Clanlike fur and markings but the flight suit of a Firefang pilot was leaning against the nearby dropship, and there was a certain sadist’s glee in the set of his ear.

He flattened his ears and ducked a little when Traan glared at him, though.

“Sorry. I had it bad too,” he apologized. “Welcome to Stinkworld.”

“You’d be Brother Tooko?” Traan checked. Even though there shouldn’t be any other Gaoians on the planet, he found it hard to believe that one of Firefang’s top-rated ace pilots was a tiny little first-degree who smelled more like a female than a Clan Brother.

“The one and only!” Tooko offered him a tin of something. “Southern style sweet-herb snuff. Tuck some in next to your gums, it helps.”

Traan pinched up a dose with his claws and did as suggested. Sure enough the pungent spicy leaf made the scent landscape a good deal more tolerable, largely by numbing his nose.

“…Thanks.”

Tooko just offered a small bow and waved the tin off when Traan tried to return it. “Pass it around,” he said. “I have more.”

“The humans?” Traan asked, handing the tin off to the man next to him.

Tooko chittered. “They barely smell anything!”

“I meant where are they?”

“On their way back. Mission accomplished, they tell me. They shouldn’t be long.”

In fact, there was a sharp whistle from their right. Tooko turned and pant-grinned. “…Mention Keeda and there he is…” he muttered.

Traan hadn’t appreciated that humans could be so hairy, before. Oh, he knew that Human males could grow fur on their faces and he’d seen the magnificent white beard sported by Ambassador Knight, but the three men squeezing through a crack in the rock looked as shaggy as Stonebacks after a week of hard labor, and they reeked even through the sweet herb. Behind the beards their faces were dark with some kind of oily paint, their clothing was filthy and their short hair was matted… but their eyes shone out of the filth looking clean and cold and intense. A human’s eyes were so intensely white around the edges that Traan could see why other species might find them unnerving.

They looked remarkably… not comfortable, but acclimated.

A man who was clearly their leader stepped forward. He seemed about average in size as human males tended to go…or, at least, the Humans that Traan had met. He was a bit smaller than the rest of the team, anyway. He nodded, grinned an unsettling grin, and stuck out his hand.

[“Christ,] they build you Stonebacks big, don’t they?” he commented conversationally, in pretty good Gaori.

Tooko chittered quietly to himself but kept out of the conversation. Something about him told Traan he’d be full of mischief in another setting. He filed that away for another day.

Traan shook the Human’s hand. “They certainly do,” he agreed proudly. “Brother Traan, warleader of Fourth Fang.”

“Sergeant Wilde, JETS Team Two. I understand you [chaps] plan to make a mess.”

“Not without purpose.”

“Be our guests!”

“Just watch out for the doom-noodles,” one of the other men added.

“…The Great Father calls them Snake-Bears. He also said not to be flippant about them.”

“Aye, we mean no disrespect. The big bastard’s saved my life more than once.”

“Humans are weird,” Tooko added, as a few of the Fang, the ones unfamiliar with Human foibles, bristled at the casual insult. They glanced at Traan, who duck-nodded, and their hackles lowered again.

“Understood. Nonetheless…”

[“Mate,] we mean no offense. But right now I’m tired, filthy, crawling with parasites, a few days behind on my sleep, about twenty meals behind on my diet, sore, cramped, aching, and just plain fuckin’ desperate to find a shower,” Wilde said.

“I have a hose,” Tooko interjected.

“Where did you–?”

“Hoeff.”

“…Of course. Fuck it, whatever. Bring it on.”

Tooko held out a paw. “The package?”

“Oh, yeah. Reesy?”

The largest of the three Humans—not the tallest, but easily the most solid—gladly handed over a hard case which Tooko heaved up the ramp into the ship with a visible effort.

“Tooko, [butty,] you need help with that?” the big human offered.

“Fuck off!” The…well, tiny male snarled and re-doubled his efforts. Traan hadn’t met many first-degrees before, but even still…

Wilde seemed amused. “I like him, he’s spunky!”

“He’s a fuckin’ [terrier,”] the tallest human opined. Whatever a ‘terrier’ was, his comment sounded approving.

The muffled sounds of Tooko swearing inside the ship came to an end, and he shortly returned pulling at a length of rubber hosepipe. Traan couldn’t think of anything he’d have wanted less in the Humans’ position than being sluiced down with cold water, but the three men promptly started shedding their gear as though the prospect was the most enticing thing they’d heard in a long time. He left them to it and connected to the ‘Drunker on Turkeyer’ so he could download its up-to-date survey data and plan Fourth Fang’s mission properly.

The Array had thumped twice more and delivered most of the rest of the Fang by the time the humans were satisfactorily cleaned off, and Wilde joined him while scrubbing his hair and face dry on a towel. Mercifully he smelled a good deal less awful than he had before, though Traan could tell that the rinse was no substitute for a real cleansing.

“Avoid the wildlife,” he commented, and leaned over Traan’s map to contribute. “There’s a snake-bear living on this side of the river, big bugger with lots of scars. We left him alone…”

“Drone patrols?”

“Here,” Wilde swooped a finger along the map to show a route. “Here, and here. But you don’t need to worry about them at all.”

“Why not?”

“Turns out we had a friend on the inside all along…”


Date Point: 16y2m AV
Armstrong Station, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches

Leemu, clanless

Interstellar travel still wasn’t exactly fast, though the longest part had been the journey to somewhere with a link to the Array Network. From there, Armstrong Station had been as simple as waiting for a scheduled connection, and after that…

A journey that would have taken a substantial portion of a year at warp was over in a black flash that lasted no time at all. Literally.

Preed gasped softly the second it was over. It took Leemu a second to realize why: the old man had just laid eyes on a member of his own species for the first time in decades. There were two of them, in fact: a male and a female, wearing identical dark blue uniforms over white shirts as they stood to either side of a standard biofilter field arch. Both were wearing the slim, closed-lip smiles of Humans who spent a lot of time interacting with aliens.

The female spoke up, calling over the chatter of travellers in a clear voice: “Welcome to Cimbrean, ladies and gentlemen! Please have your travel documents ready and form an orderly line for decontamination and security…” She lowered her voice then approached Preed. “Sir? Do you speak English or have a translator?”

It took Preed a while to answer for whatever reason. “…Oh! I… I have a translator. I do not have travel documents… I was abducted.”

“Oh! Well… welcome back.” The female glanced at a communicator in her hand, then back to Preed. “My translator says you’re speaking Thai. Are you a citizen of Thailand?”

“Yes. Or, I was…” Preed looked momentarily saddened. “They probably declared me dead.”

The female nodded sympathetically. “Don’t worry, we’ll have somebody from the Thai consulate here for you soon and they’ll sort everything out. If there’s anything we can get for you in the meantime, you just have to ask… I must ask you to submit to a security scan, however.” She turned to Leemu and Gorku and switched to accented but fluent Gaori. “Are you travelling with this gentleman?”

“We are,” Leemu confirmed.

“I’ll need you to pass through security with him, then. What’s your status, please?”

“Clanless. Exile,” Leemu informed her. She tapped the details into her communicator before turning to Gorku.

“And you sir?”

“Associate, Clan Stoneback. Also exiled.”

“Exiled due to implantation?”

“Yes, both of us.”

“The nature of your implants?”

“Translator and quick technical references,” Leemu said. “I’m a ship’s propulsion mechanic.”

Gorku squirmed. “Uh…translator and, uh… medical. For a, uh… a learning disability.” The set of his ears was ashamed and uncomfortable. Leemu had never even suspected that, and immediately gave his friend an astonished look and a keening whine that made Gorku’s ears flatten even more. Clearly he was more ashamed about not revealing it sooner than about needing it.

For her part, the human officer simply nodded solemnly. “Okay. You don’t have to tell me anything else. I’m afraid cannot permit you access to Cimbrean until the implant is removed…but you should know there is a Corti doctor in Folctha that specializes in advanced regenerative therapy. He might be able to help.”

“I unnerstand.”

The Human turned back to Preed. “Sir? Any implants?”

Preed shook his head.

“Okay. And your name and date of birth? It’ll help the consulate staff with your case…”

Preed gave her his details, including some family history, where he’d grown up… it only took a few minutes. By the time they were ushered through the biofilter arch, the jump hall had cleared entirely. Sure enough, the arch lit up and sounded an alarm as they passed through, and they were ushered aside into a security annex of some kind.

There was drinking water and a comfortable couch while they waited, but there was nothing really to do. Preed perched himself in an armchair in the corner, shut his eyes and went still. Leemu wasn’t sure if he was meditating or taking a nap.

Gorku threw himself onto the couch with a heavy thump and sighed pathetically. “…Sorry I din’t tell ‘ya sooner,” he grumbled after a minute or so, after Leemu had fetched some water.

“It’s alright. Wasn’t my business, yijao?”

“Eh… True. But I shouldn’t keep secrets from friends.” Gorku chittered darkly. “Worst part? My disability messes with my sense of smell. Figger I’m almost as nose-blind as a Human… An’ the implant don’t do shit ‘ta fix it. That part o’ my brain were…atrophied.”

“Uh, I don’t wanna pry, but…what caused it?” Leemu added hastily, “You don’t need to answer.”

“Caused? Nothin’. Developmental, ‘parently. It weren’t genetic though, thank fuck. S’why they let me in the Clan in the first place, ‘cuz Stoneback is picky. So, there’s still hopes ‘fer me to sire another cub or three someday. Maybe…” He sighed again and scratched his flank distractedly. “I’m kinda worried about what it’ll be like if I take the implant out.”

“How…bad was it?”

Gorku whined quietly and flattened his ears. “It were hard ‘ta string words together, sometimes I’d get writin’ switched up in my head, that kinda thing. Could always ‘member everything I ever heard, though.”

“So you weren’t stupid, then, you just had trouble communicating. That’s not so bad. And maybe we can get it fixed!”

“Yeah, but…Corti. Also, it’ll be ‘spensive.”

Preed spoke up. “That will not be a problem, if I have anything to say about it.”

Both the gaoians looked over at Preed with their ears up in surprise. He shrugged at them. “I have been saving my money for thirty years,” he said. “Even with the exchange rate, I have plenty set aside.”

“But–!”

“But nothing. I have no children and I am not long for the world. I am old. What am I going to do with my money but spend it? Besides, I’d miss your banter.”

Gorku whined and chittered his teeth, then dragged Preed up into a monster of a hug, keening all the while.

They were, sadly, interrupted by the arrival of security personnel and a small man in a dark suit, who put his briefcase down, pressed his hands together in front of his chest, and bowed his head so that his thumbs touched his chin.

Whatever the gesture meant—“hello,” presumably—Preed returned a slightly shallower version and spoke so clearly that Leemu heard his words over the translator’s attempt to replace them for his benefit.

“Sà wàt dii kráp.”

There followed a long discussion, lots of paperwork… apparently Preed’s prediction that he’d been declared legally dead was half-true. That had originally been the case, but when his name showed up on a list of recorded abductees that the Corti Directorate had shared with the Humans at some point, he’d been legally restored to life and marked as a missing person instead. That small fact alone apparently streamlined matters considerably.

It took less than an hour for Preed’s travel documents to be arranged. There were other details to worry about: apparently interstellar banking and finance was a whole cluster of headaches all by itself, not the least of which was how easily Preed’s savings could be accessed in Human space… but in the end, they were informed that they were free to wander the station’s public areas, but would not be granted access to private areas or any jump terminal hosting an in-system jump to Cimbrean’s surface or to Earth until the Gaoians had either resolved their implant problem or agreed to stay behind.

Preed still seemed a little awestruck at being back in contact with members of his own species again.

“I almost forgot how to wâi,” he marvelled. This, it seemed, was the bowing gesture he’d shared with the man in the suit. “It’s been so long…”

They followed Leemu’s nose to an eatery not dissimilar to the one Preed had so recently and sadly closed and said goodbye to. The menu turned out to be completely different, however, and it had waiting staff. Preed watched them as they orbited the tables, tending to travellers, crew and staff alike.

“Preed? You’re staring,” Gorku pointed out after a minute. The old man blushed and looked down at his hands.

“It’s been a long time since I last saw a young woman,” he explained sheepishly.

Gorku chittered deeply and pant-grinned with the most lecherous look Leemu had yet seen. “So are ‘ya gonna go mate with ‘em? Don’t let us stop ‘ya!”

Preed’s laugh turned nearby heads, even as he shook his own head and waved Gorku down. “No! No! Don’t embarrass me like that!” he chuckled and lowered his voice, having gone a few shades darker in the face. “…No. I’m happy just to look.”

“Why?!” Gorku seemed almost offended at the notion. “What’s the harm in askin’?”

“My friend, I am not a Gaoian. Our rules are different. And I do not want the first thing I do when I reunite with my species to be harassing a young woman while she’s hard at work.” Preed watched the waitress doing her rounds a second longer, then smiled and looked away. “Besides. I am old.”

“That don’t have to stop you.”

“Let the matter rest, please. I’d rather not embarrass myself.”

“Your loss,” Gorku shrugged and gave up. “I hear there’s lots of females on Cimbrean…an’ they’ve got a thing ‘fer brownies lately!”

“I wish you luck,” Preed said, levelly. Leemu chittered and they shared a mutual look of tolerance at the foibles of all Brownies.

After eating, they checked out the medical center. Translators, it turned out, were a routine operation under a local anaesthetic that needed only about twenty minutes. Leemu’s skullwire and Gorku’s correction implant both needed a slightly more involved intervention: half an hour, rather than twenty minutes.

It took Gorku a bit longer to come out of surgery. Why was almost immediately apparent: He…had trouble with his words.

“I…yeah. Wanna see the, uh…. Little.” He paused, made a frustrated noise, and finally found the word. “Corti? Yeah. …Money.”

Preed and Leemu looked at each other and nodded. “Okay big guy,” Leemu promised. “We’ll take care of it, okay? Let’s see if we can go right now.”

The prospect of getting down to Cimbrean was invigorating, too. Quite aside from maybe helping his friends, there was just something about the place that called to him. It felt right to be going there, in a deep and satisfying way.

To his dismay, there was a wait to head down. They’d just missed a scheduled jump, and the next wasn’t for a couple of hours. So, they sat and waited.

After a while, though, Gorku started fidgeting. He’d been silent since the surgery, but now he gave Leemu a strange look.

“…You… good? Smell…. Not smell nice,” he slurred.

“I do?” Leemu sniffed himself then turned to Preed, who shrugged. “I smell nothing.”

“Smell… uh… uh, wrong.”

“Maybe I just need a dust bath,” Leemu said dismissively. “It’s been a long voyage.”

“…Maybe…” Gorku agreed, and lapsed into silence. His nose didn’t stop twitching, however.

Leemu sighed and resigned himself to a long wait.

There’d be time to worry about how he smelled later.


Date Point: 16y2m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Allison Buehler

After a lifetime of helicopter parenting, Tristan and Ramsey seemed addicted to every opportunity they could find to do something their mother would have scooted them away from. And who could blame them? Amanda had never managed to get her head around the idea that the risk of physical injury was inconsequential next to the certain harm she’d caused by cloistering her sons.

And as it turned out, the difference between a man and a boy was mostly a matter of size. Even when the three men in question were HEAT-sized monsters.

They were playing… well. It wasn’t any kind of a formal game as far as Allison could tell. She’d dubbed it ‘Boyball,’ and it looked more like a scuffle than anything with actual rules. Still, every so often the soccer ball would bounce off the garage wall and there’d be cheers and groans and victory laps. Clearly the boys understood it, even if she didn’t.

It didn’t matter, she decided. They were having fun and, more importantly, they were keeping all that male energy out of the house and out of the way.

Inside the house was pretty much the exact opposite. There were a total of four babies in there if one counted the pregnancies, which meant a lot of discussion about the joys of getting kicked in the bladder and, in Marty’s case, Diego’s status as an apparently endless generator of poop.

Mothering was a glamorous business.

“I can see why the Gaoians do it the way they do…” Xiù muttered, as there was another thunk of ball on wall from the game outside, and Julian did a victory lap around the lawn with Ramsey under his arm. She’d suffered at first from a case of morning sickness that had rendered her miserable and almost immobile. Now she was coming up on her twentieth week and the baby was turning out to be quite the gymnast himself, to judge by the number of little somersaults he was doing.

God, and they still had twenty more weeks to go.

For Al, it was familiar territory, sort of. It wasn’t her first pregnancy after all… Except this time she wasn’t terrified, ashamed and confused.

“Which bit?” Marty asked. She was sitting on the floor, keeping a watchful eye on Diego as he determinedly explored the world around him. “I think Gaoian cubs miss out for not having a father’s influence in their life when they’re small…”

“I mean sharing the workload, mostly. And they do have father figures, it’s just probably not their actual father.”

“I thought the whole point of the commune is it’s a male-free zone?” Freya asked. As predicted she’d given birth to the biggest baby boy Allison had ever seen, who’d promptly been named for his paternal grandfather Joseph and would no doubt grow into an absolute wall of a man in due course… but for now he was a peaceful baby. Eat, sleep, poop, repeat.

Xiù shook her head. “It isn’t. It’s a safe zone. Males aren’t in charge there, but they visit all the time. Cubs are mostly males themselves after all, and they grow up very fast. They strike for Clans starting around five, usually.”

“So the Clans show up to recruit?” Marty asked.

“Workhouses, too. Some of the most prestigious are super competitive to get into, apparently. But it’s not that cynical: Mostly they show up because they just love the cubs.”

“And fatherly men are hot as hell, too,” Allison snarked, getting a grin from Xiù for her efforts.

“That too, yeah.”

They giggled, and as one decided to go peek out the window and watch the boys at play. They’d migrated to the backyard and were quite blissfully and obliviously living up to every stereotype they could. The boys were being exuberant boys for maybe the first time in their lives, and the men were gleefully galumphing about in their hilariously immodest nylon ‘silkies.’ Seriously. Most of Julian’s underwear was less revealing–which was saying something, honestly—and definitely more functional. Why not just wear those instead?

…Still, the man-candy was…nice to ogle, Allison wasn’t ashamed to admit. And the moment when Tristan and Ramsey ‘tackled’ Adam and ‘wrestled’ him to the ground to ‘steal’ the football produced a synchronized “aww!” from all four of them, and a proud beaming smile from Marty.

“Those two seem a lot happier…” she observed.

“Julian too. He just…lights up, you know?”

“Next thing you know, they’ll be coming home with skinned knees and grazes and stuff.”

“That’s already happened,” Allison recalled. “Ramsey actually seemed excited by it.”

Xiù snorted softly. “Boys… though honestly, it’s still surprising how much poise the men have. Julian’s so big these days, the rugby league was worried he might accidentally hurt somebody. They wouldn’t let him play on Mark’s team! And yet there he is, roughhousing with the boys and everyone’s just fine.” She couldn’t hide the pride in her voice.

“It’s because he’s so big,” Freya said wisely. “Big men are usually much more careful. They have to be. It’s the little guys that are constantly causing trouble…”

“I think that may just be bias on your part,” Marty suggested, probably more than a little aware of her tiny physical stature next to the other women present. She was even an inch or two shorter than Xiù.

“Heh. Maybe.”

They were interrupted by the doorbell. Marty left Diego to explore the rug for a few seconds as she trotted through to the front door and the other three drifted back to the couch and armchair. When she returned, she had an amused expression on her face.

“Mail?” Xiù asked. Considering they were living under an active threat from a terrorist organization, all their mail went to a PO Box and was handled on their behalf by Byron security before coming to their door.

“No stamp on this,” she said, handing it over. “Just… the signature of postmaster-general of Akyawentuo.”

‘This’ turned out to be a package of four letters, in a clean-edged manila envelope. One of the letters was written on sharp white office stationery, but the rest of it had a slightly more… home-grown feel. Clearly somebody over there had invented paper. Copied. Discovered, whatever.

Allison took it off her. “…Akyawentuo has a postmaster-general?” She turned the envelope over in her hands and snorted. “…This is Daniel Hurt’s signature.”

“Heck of a promotion,” Freya quipped.

Allison giggled and heaved herself to her feet. “I’ll go fetch Julian, I bet he’d love this.”

She found him continuing to show off for the boys, with his arms held straight out to either side while Tristan and Ramsey dangled from of them, fighting to see who could do more pull-ups.

Or, well. A pull-up, it looked like.

Ramsey won just as Allison joined them, by virtue of Tristan losing his grip.

“No fair! I couldn’t keep hold!”

Allison again found herself rolling her eyes and giggling. Boys. There was just something so wholesomely corn-fed about it all.

“Hey, no hard feelings, little fellas! That’s almost as many pull-ups as I could do at your age!”

He was rather seriously understating things to build their confidence, Al knew, but she just grinned at him and let it go.

“Really?!” Ramsey jumped down and bounced next to Tristan, both too excited to stand still.

“Heck yeah! Eat healthy food and get exercise, and who knows? Whadd’ya think, ‘Horse? Think these two should join a league?”

Adam made a big show of thinking about it. “Hmm…I dunno, soccer and wrestling are both looking for athletes, but those are sports that take a lot of work. You think they’re up to it?”

Both of the boys looked back eagerly at Julian, who wiped some sweat from his face and covertly smirked at Allison. “Maybe! We’ll need to talk to your mother first, boys.”

“Aww–!”

“That’s not negotiable, Ramsey. She’s still your mother.”

“She’ll say no,” said Ramsey, despondently.

“Maybe she will. But…” Julian grinned at them. “…Me and my friends know what we’re doing, right? Maybe we can start with some basic practice. See if you like it!”

That brightened their mood. “You mean it?”

“Could teach ‘em some basic forms, too,” Christian added.

Julian looked at Allison, who nodded slightly. “Good idea, but that will need permission,” she said. She’d had to become proficient very quickly indeed when it came to navigating the twisty legal landscape surrounding her parents. Jacob had been quiet lately, but the next letter from his lawyers was never far away, and Amanda was… well, she was an incurable helicopter mom. Anything that might hurt her poor delicate babies was a crisis of apocalyptic proportions.

The fact that those ‘poor delicate babies’ were absolutely thriving on exposure to some dirt, grease, and actual father figures was completely lost on her.

Folctha’s only social worker seemed to understand, at least. Ugh.

“Al’s right. You two need to prove to all of us you can be safe, okay?” Julian warned.

“I bet you could beat up anybody!” Ramsey enthused, missing the point.

“I don’t wanna beat up anyone, Ramsey. Fighting is a last resort, not the first.”

“I know!” Ramsey sulked a bit, “But I bet you still could.”

Julian chuckled, looked over at Christian and Adam, and grinned sheepishly. “Well…okay. Let’s just say almost anyone. What’s up, Al?”

“We got a letter from the, and I quote, ‘Postmaster general of Akyawentuo’.”

“…That has to be Daniel, right? Unless somebody slipped the phrase to Vemik…”

“It’s Daniel,” Allison confirmed. “But there’s some other letters with it and the paper looks like a big guy made it by beating some bark flat with a rock.”

“Ha!” Julian grinned and rolled the two boys over his shoulder to their giggling protest. “That’s probably exactly what Vemik did, too…. Anyway, you two play nice, okay? Don’t beat up Righteous!”

“We promise,” Tristan said. The kid had a remarkably sophisticated sense of humor sometimes, including a precocious nose for irony. It got a snicker from Christian at least. That made Julian grin evilly, and with a quiet grunt, easily tossed the boys completely across the yard, right into Christian’s absurd arms.

He played along perfectly, too. “I think, somehow, I’ll surv–oof! Ahhhhgh!”

Christian hugged the boys tightly, then threw himself backwards as if he’d just been hit by a truck, slamming into the ground and sending a tremor through the dirt. Funny how the biggest and most terrifying men always got super goofy when two little boys wanted to tussle. Al could see Freya through the window, watching with a proud, adoring expression.

“It’s cute how you let them win…” she muttered to Julian as they headed indoors.

“Builds confidence. They need it.” Julian hosed his head down quick and toweled off at the entryway; one of their only firm house rules was that ‘boy grossness’ had to be kept outside or in the basement. Once he was clean, however, he wrapped an arm around her waist and they stole a quick kiss while they were alone. “Gotta have confidence if you’re ever gonna kiss a girl…”

Allison didn’t mind a little smugness from her man. “You’re good at it,” she told him.

“So’re you,” He kissed her again. “My spunky greasemonkey spacebabe!”

She gave his ass a playful spank to guide in him the direction of the living room. Like usual he was barefoot, and they’d taken to keeping a shallow tub next to the back door for him to clean his feet after the third or fourth set of muddy footprints. He rinsed off, wiped his soles on a mat that Xiù had found in the pet store, then padded over towards the hubbub.

“Letters?”

“Four. One from Daniel, one from Yan, one from Singer, and this one—” Xiù waggled something that was more like a small book “—is from Vemik.”

“Oh man, this is gonna be taxing…” Julian sat down. “I don’t really ‘get’ Vemik’s writing system yet.”

“It’s okay,” Xiù said, sitting down. “I do.”

Julian snuggled up to her and kissed her cheek. “My spaceninja polymath linguist.”

Allison smiled to herself: he was always so conscientiously even-handed with his affection. Glowing happily at the compliment, Xiù unfolded the first letter. This was Yan’s, and the size of the lettering left not a lot of room for actual message.

Marty maneuvered Diego onto her other knee and leaned over to get a good interested look at the paper. “…That seems almost cartoonishly big.”

“Yan’s got hands like a pair of shovels. They’re even bigger than those two lunks outside, so I’m not surprised,” Allison explained, then the mental image hit her of Yan hunched over a tiny piece of paper, maneuvering a sliver of charcoal in his fingers with an expression of the most grim studiousness. For some reason, her imagination insisted on furnishing him with a tiny round pair of reading glasses and she had to fight hard not to laugh aloud at the mental image.

“Fine motor control isn’t their thing, I take it,” Freya commented.

Julian shook his head out. “Eh, you might be surprised. Anyway…I think this is my name. He wrote it out like he says it, so no ‘ell’ sound… Uh…” He faltered his way through a sentence in Peoplespeak, which Allison understood pretty well and Xiù translated on the fly for the other two’s benefit.

“My friends. Writing is not easy, and paper is hard to make, but Vemik and Professor Daniel believe it is a strong tool. I think I will have them teach a girl with small hands and she can write what I say. But Daniel say, ‘practice makes perfect,’ so I write anyway.

“Weather is nice, gods smile. Good hunting this season. Three boys will take their trial soon, and we have eight new children in the tribe. One of them is mine! Two are Vemik’s, but that is just luck of timing. My crest is darker, but I do not feel old. I train like Adam say, feel younger and stronger every day. I am blessed and I miss you! Come visit when you can.

–Yan”

He paused and considered something at the bottom of the page. “There’s a character at the end I don’t know. It looks like Singer’s loopy writing.”

“I think that’s a spell she casts,” Xiù said. “I’ve seen her inscribe it on preserve jars and stuff… here’s her letter.”

Julian nodded and they repeated the reading performance.

“My dear friends,

“We got Yan to write at last, and it was hard not to laugh at him. He looked very serious.”

Allison’s resolve failed and she just had to laugh. “Oh man, I can just see him now…!”

“Imagine him holding it with his tail!” Xiù agreed.

“Nono, imagine him with tiny reading glasses!” Allison insisted.

Julian rolled his eyes, though he was clearly trying not to laugh himself, and ploughed forward doggedly into the meat of the Singer’s letter.

“…You can see, he did not write much. I think the Given-Men will write with few words and mean much by them.

“I pray that your babies are strong, and I hope to meet them when they are big enough to travel. Daniel says Awisun will have a girl. I don’t know how I feel about magic that can say whether a child will be a boy or girl before it is born, but he says it is a medicine that knows without taking or giving. I think it changes nothing to know, so if you want to know and there is no harm in it then why not? He did not say if Shyow’s baby will be a boy or girl, so maybe you did not tell him or maybe you do not want to know. Either way, I know it will be strong like its parents.

“We have learned more about the water people and their cities. Claire showed me a hole she dug, and showed me how the different layers of rock and mud and sand in the side of the hole told the story of what they built. Then I helped with the digging for a while. It was so interesting, I forgot to watch the sun and nearly didn’t make it back to the village in time for the song that ends the day.

“Claire and Heff still make us all groan. Everyone can see they want each other very much, but Heff still says he is no good and she deserves better. I think Yan wants to break him in half sometimes, but he knows there are some learnings you can’t beat into a man. We can only wait and pray for them, I think.

“Vemik’s apprentice Yetu has made a very fine knife. Daniel called it a “masterpiece.” He left the forge to go back to his home village and start teaching apprentices of his own, which I think Vemik is glad about. He says kind things about Yetu, and is always visiting the others to talk about new ideas and ways of working steel. I think he used a whole leaf of paper to talk about it. I am watching him now and it is hard not to laugh as he sticks his tongue out when he writes and makes the markings carefully. He looks very serious. Even more serious than Yan!

“I could say more, but the day is getting late and I must sing soon. It has been too long since we saw you. If you cannot come soon, please write to us. Either way, blessings and peace on you all.

“–The Singer of Yan’s tribe.”

“…It’s gonna be a long time before we can go back,” Allison sighed, and ran a hand down her belly. There’d been some discussion about names now that they knew they were expecting a girl. So far the only thing she’d ruled out had been that the lass’ name wouldn’t start with an A. And she was more than happy for her daughter to take the surname Etsicitty. The Buehler name didn’t mean much to her.

“Will it?” Freya asked. “A brief visit couldn’t hurt too much…”

“I dunno. I’m not sure I like ‘couldn’t hurt too much,’” Allison replied.

“Well, we do have expecting mothers doing high-gravity yoga at Venus.”

That was a women-only gym downtown. Allison and Xiù had checked it out once, but… well, notoriety came with a downside. Neither of them were interested on appearing in somebody else’s Instagram feed.

“Everything weighs twenty percent more there, Freya. You might not notice, but I can’t toss tractor tires around for fun.”

“Grow stronger, then! How else are you going to put your man in his place?”

“Yeah, Al! How are you gonna put me in my place?”

“Hush, babe,” Al told him, without looking at him. All part of the game.

Julian chuckled. “Yes ma’am.”

“Good boy.” Allison grinned at Freya. “That’s how.”

“Teach me your ways, wise sensei!”

“Mostly it’s ‘cuz she can work miracles with her–” Julian began, before Xiù gave him a ringing slap on the arm on Allison’s behalf that made him descend into a fit of boyish giggling.

“Julian!!”

Freya and Marty weren’t exactly prissy blushing prudes, though. Both of them found it deeply funny, and Julian was eventually shooed out of the house to go play with the boys again.

“He is such a troll sometimes…”

“He’s trouble!” Marty laughed. “In the best way. Anyway, aren’t we gonna read Vemik’s?”

“Have you seen the size of this thing?” Xiù asked, and flipped through the veritable tome of smashed-bark leafs. “I think much of this is, uh, ‘field reports.’ There’s drawings, see?”

Sure enough, a surprisingly good drawing of a giant butterfly-like insect took up an entire page. Vemik hadn’t colored it completely, but he had used crayons to suggest what the colors should be, hinting at an iridescent purple-green like a hummingbird.

“We should copy this and get it to Doctor Tisdale.”

“Which one?”

“Both of them. Anyway, this is…” Xiù leafed through the ‘letter’ with a look of mild disbelief, “…a lot to handle. I’ll translate it for you and mail you a copy.”

“Sounds good. I bet xenobiology is fascinating,” Marty nodded.

“It really is,” Allison agreed. “I– oh dear. I think someone’s hungry.”

Marty looked down at the grabby, complaining infant in her lap and smiled fondly. “Yeah. He’s his father’s son.”

“You can use an upstairs bedroom if you want, or… hell, right here if you want. We don’t mind.”

Marty laughed, but shook her head. “No, we should probably go home anyway. It’ll be bathtime soon.”

“Fair enough. It’s time to bring the boys in anyway, I have an engine to rebuild.”

Farewells were said, and Marty and Adam beat a hasty retreat home before their baby decided that grumbling and pawing at Mom wasn’t enough and he needed to put his lungs to use. Freya and Firth departed not long after, and the brothers were reminded they still had homework to do, which they didn’t complain too much about.

Once they were alone, the room became remarkably quiet. Allison basked in it: the peace, the lingering warmth and the faint residual aroma of Baby.

…Well. There was also a lingering slightly spicy-acrid healthy guy-type note, too. Julian was resting against the side of a doorway with his big arms crossed, giving her a wry look.

“Thought you had an engine to rebuild?”

“It can wait.” Allison stretched and then scooted over on the couch to snuggle up to Xiù, who was still flipping through Vemik’s novel-length ‘letter.’

“Yup.” Julian padded over, plopped down next to her and wrapped himself around her firmly.

“Thought you were gonna go Slab?”

“It can wait for a few minutes. I’m behind on snuggle time. And I had a few ideas for names…” he tickled her belly gently.

Xiù put Vemik’s correspondence aside, shifted her legs over to the other side and snuggled up properly as well. “So did I.”

Allison smiled happily and put her arms around them both.

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s hear them…”


Date Point: 16y2m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Officer Narl, “Clan” Folcthan Border Force

Bozo was a frighteningly intelligent being, especially considering he wasn’t a person.

He didn’t speak, of course. He was theoretically non-sapient, too. Nevertheless, he had an astonishing ability to communicate with most anyone, but especially with Humans and gaoians. He could convey re-assurance, confidence, inquisitiveness, curiosity…and where he was trained, Bozo could directly signal what was important to the task at hand. He was so good in fact, it took Narl less than an hour to reach a rapport with the huge hound. That communication wasn’t one-way, either. Bozo could seemly read Narl like a book. It wasn’t long before the huge canine could anticipate what Narl needed and work accordingly; they’d gelled so fast it was alarming. That innate intelligence, combined with the training Bozo had been given, meant that the complex tasks he could accomplish were just…hard to believe.

Also, he was literally over twice as heavy as Narl and could outrun damn near anything; Narl wasn’t slow, either! Having caught his prey, Bozo was strong enough to just push it over and pin it to the ground. Or…much, much worse, if needed. Those teeth could rip out a Human’s throat, no trouble. What he could do to that same Human if he was angry…

But mostly, he just wanted to be friends with absolutely everybody.

He was still good at his job though, which at the moment was sniffing out stuff. There were other dogs in the Jump terminal on the lookout for other banned substances, mostly working alongside Gaoian officers whose noses could verify what the dogs had found, but Bozo and Narl specialized in explosive compounds.

Bozo occupied an interesting position in Folctha’s tiny security community. He was the SOR’s mascot dog, officially. Unofficially, he was the city’s dog too, and indisputably the pack alpha of the rest of Folctha’s canine population. But a dog that big, that intelligent and that full of energy could be a nuisance, and Bozo liked–no, needed to work. So, with his extensive training and whatever magic Dog and Human had between them, they’d found him a job.

Several jobs actually by several agencies, all related to security, and for all but the most extreme military working dog tasks, all with Narl as Bozo’s partner. For whatever doggie reasons, besides his best friends at the SOR, Bozo just…decided he liked Narl the most.

It worked out for everyone in the end. The SOR got him out from underfoot when they weren’t keeping him busy, the jump terminal got an extra nose and a lot of extra muscle, and Narl got an excellent sometimes-partner and a surprisingly good friend.

Naturally, Bozo instantly become the alpha of their working dogs, too. Whoever he approved of, the others did too. On the rare occasion he didn’t like someone…neither did they.

But in all the time that Narl had worked with him, he’d never seen Bozo take an immediate dislike to somebody the way he took to the lean, muscular silverfur who came down from Armstrong in the company of an elderly Human male and a big, burly Brownie. The very instant Bozo laid eyes on him, his hackles went up and his lips drew back all the way to the cheek, exposing every one of his fearsome teeth.

“What’s wrong, boy? Something…”

And then he smelled it. He had no idea what he was smelling, but there was something very wrong about the silverfur’s musk, and the indescribable bite of it was deeply, viscerally unnerving. It was… alien. Possibly a little metallic, or plastic, or oily… unnatural in some way. But unlike anything else he’d ever scented.

Narl pressed his panic button surreptitiously and approached authoritatively. “Gentlemen, I am going to need you to step aside and—” he began.

The silverfur froze as he approached and then lashed out at him, claws fully extended. Narl was alert for danger, but the mad panicking violence, speed and strength behind the attack wrong-footed him. There was a flash of agony in his face and he tumbled aside with a pained yelp, feeling wetness in his eye that he couldn’t see through.

Please, please, please let it just be blood…

Bozo uttered a noise that was less a bark, snarl or a hunting howl than it was pure sonic murder. There was the rough scratching of massive paws on carpet, a heavy impact and a crash, a feral snarl from the big brownie, the quiet double-hiss of a fast-acting tranquilizer dart–

The Quick Reaction Force flooded into the room and secured everything with extreme urgency.

Narl managed to get his eye open. Thank Daar, he could still see through it.

The silverfur was keening and writhing with Bozo’s jaws clamped around the back of his neck. Blood trickled through his fur and between Bozo’s teeth, promising an immediate and messy end should anything stupid be attempted. Not that he could have done anything, since Bozo was also sitting on his hips and crushing him under his absurd weight. Whatever happened next, the silverfur wouldn’t be walking away painlessly, assuming he could walk at all.

The elderly Human was being held back by two of the security team, while two more attended to the Brownie who was slumped on the ground in a tranquilized stupor. Shock and confusion were written all over the poor man’s face.

“Narl!” One of the medics got to him. Slater. He inspected Narl’s injury with a concerned expression. “…Oh wow. Damn bro, you got super lucky.”

“Yeah.” Narl lay back and relaxed as his wound was inspected. He could feel how close he’d come to losing his eye. “He’s even quicker than he looks.”

Slater nodded and cleaned him up a little to better inspect the wound. “…This is gonna need hospital time, man,” he reported. “Badass scar, though!”

…Well, Narl reflected as his wound was covered in a gauzy patch and taped down. There was a downy lining, with a good story too! First, though, there was a job to do.

“Can you smell that?” he asked.

“Smell what?”

Of course not. Slater was Human, after all.

Bozo reluctantly gave up his quarry to one of the Human handlers. He stepped away a few paces and then sneezed violently before dry-retching. Narl got the impression he would have loved to spit, if he could.

“There’s something very wrong with that silverfur. Bozo smelled it before me. He smells…balls. I don’t have the words. Fake, maybe. Synthetic, even. I was about to call for Section Nine.”

That was a code phrase, and apparently a reference to some animated series that Narl had never watched. Section Nine: suspected Hierarchy infiltrator. As opposed to a Laughing Man, which was a confirmed infiltrator.

Just mentioning those words got things moving fast. The silverfur was promptly secured and moved out of the public space.

Bozo loyally returned to Narl’s side–the one that had the gouges around his eye. He didn’t fawn or fuss, sensing somehow that wouldn’t be the right thing at the moment, but Narl had no doubt Bozo would be Helpfully doting on him for the entirety of his recovery. Narl hauled himself to his hindpaws, using Bozo’s thick neck as a solid surface to steady himself on.

“Dude, you should take it easy ‘til the ambulance gets here…” Slater cautioned.

“I’m just checking a hunch…” Narl told him. He took a good hefty snuffle of the drugged brownie first, and sorted through the assorted notes and tones of the big idiot’s scent. He mostly smelled like a healthy and hard-working male, third or maybe fourth degree. There was also a recent hint of medicine and a sterile environment, and the bitter aroma of anaesthetic.

“Did this guy have anything medical done to him up on Armstrong?” he asked Slater.

“Uh…” Slater pulled out his phone and swiped through the security team’s traveller tracking app. “…Case report says he had an implant removed right before he came down here. Um…oh. It was a cognitive implant. Says here he has a language processing disability.”

Narl duck-nodded, took one last deep sniff to be absolutely certain that the Brownie wasn’t polluted by whatever had caused his friend’s execrable stink, then decided that all was well here.

[“We need to take you somewhere safe,”] he said clearly and calmly in Gaori. [“Your friend is okay.”]

[“Where… Leemu…?”]

[“Hospital. Openpaw. Safe. Okay?”]

[“…Okay…”]

The poor fucker’s head was going to hurt when the tranquilizer wore off, but at least he seemed docile. Satisfied, Narl turned to the old man, who’d sat down on a bench and was shivering and lost.

“Sir? I need to perform a scent test,” Narl informed him. “This won’t take a second, okay?”

Even old Humans could pack a serious punch if they decided to be trouble, but this one seemed like he wasn’t inclined to fight. He just nodded numbly and tilted his head to one side. Narl again took a deep breath, investigating his scent.

Humans always smelled so complex. There was the usual musky, leathery, warm tone of a human male, but under that were cooking scents: hot oil, flour, detergent, vegetable sugars. They were deeply ingrained into him, like he’d spent his whole life saturating in those scents and they’d become a permanent part of him.

And yes, there was the very faintest hint of that same awful stench that had enveloped the silverfur. Narl tracked it carefully, down the old man’s arm until he found where it was most intense: on the forearm, hidden under a long sleeve.

“Roll your sleeve up for me please, sir,” he said. The old man did so, and Narl took a troubled step back. There were Gaoian claw marks on his arm, apparently healed but the area looked reddened and inflamed.

“How did you get this scratch, sir?”

“Leemu did it,” the old man said. “But… some time ago. Several weeks.”

“Has it been like this ever since?”

“Off and on. I thought it went away, but then it came back. I didn’t want him to worry. He wasn’t himself that day.”

Narl looked up at the security officer who was chaperoning the old man, and saw his own worries reflected in his colleague’s eyes.

“…You’ll need to get it seen by a specialist,” he decided. “It would be helpful if you would agree to an immediate examination by one we have on retainer.”

“I… this is all so confusing. He’s a nice person!” the old man objected.

“I don’t doubt it, but he may be, uh…”

“Sick,” Slater offered helpfully. “Let’s go with that.”

“Oh…” The news seemed to cause the elderly Human real grief. “…Will he be alright?”

“That’s not for me to say, sir,” Narl replied. In fact he was worrying about his own condition, now. If those claws could give the infamous Human immune system that kind of trouble, then the wound to his own face was…

“Why don’t we all head over to our specialist right now,” Slater urged tactfully. He knew the stakes too, and a quick glance at the reaction force set everything in motion.

Bozo stood by Narl’s side, whined quietly, and gave an uncertain wag of his rudder-like tail. Narl scratched his ears as much for his own comfort as for the dog’s.

“Good boy,” he said. “Good dog.”

His reply was a slightly stronger wag and a quiet version of Bozo’s usual floor-shaking bark.

“Wuff.”


Date Point: 16y2m AV
Yukon–Koyukuk, Alaska, USA, Earth

Zane Reid

Pain.

Zane had woken up in pain before, but never like this. This wasn’t a hangover, this was…

He wanted to writhe, and scream. His whole body felt like it was on fire but something forced him to stay still. When he tried to shake or move he felt his muscles creak like they were…

…frozen…

His eyes slammed open with a shocked, horrified gasp. He was lying slumped against a tree, in a shallow hollow in the deep blanket of snow around him. His clothes were soaking wet, his dreadlocks were covered in a solid layer of ice… and he was steaming. White clouds billowed off him like he was freshly-brewed coffee on a winter morning.

He shut his eyes again and suffered, too wracked with agony to do more than go to a strange meditative place in his head, far away from thought.

After some time, he became aware of… something. A heavy thumping through the nearby trees and a snuffling sound. He opened his eyes again and groaned, though he was grateful for any kind of a distraction.

…It was a bear. A huge, shaggy brown Grizzly that looked skinny and starved under its coarse fur. And his arms and legs still refused to work at all. It pawed at a patch of snow, excavated down to the soil, then shoved its claws into the frozen ground and pulled it apart, sticking its snuffling nose into the resulting hole.

Whatever it found, it clearly wasn’t satisfied. Instead it turned and trudged through the snow toward him. A few paces away it paused, snuffled at the air again, then came closer. Right up to him.

Its jaws were big enough to fit around his head. And Zane’s body still refused to move. All he could do was stare wild-eyed at its teeth… then at the nose as big as his face that it shoved right up against his throat and snuffled again.

It sneezed with a disgusting blast of hot air, shook itself, and backed off as though burnt. It made a panting, roaring kind of sound then, of all things, it whimpered, turned, and fled.

Zane watched it crash away through the snow and the trees. Then, not knowing what else to do, he shut his eyes and suffered some more.

Maybe he slept. Maybe the pain just blurred the hours together so he didn’t remember them. It didn’t matter. Slowly he became aware that the pain was being overtaken by a different feeling. He felt… warm. Not sweltering hot like he’d felt before passing out, but… more like he was soaking in a pleasantly hot bath. The warmth soaked into his aching muscles and slowly, so slowly, he felt them relax and loosen up.

He shut his eyes again and basked in the feeling. When he opened them, he realized that the cold light of morning he’d first woken up to was gone: now, the sun was behind him and the light was redder. He’d spent the whole day lying against this tree, delirious from pain.

But his limbs worked now. When he tried them experimentally, he found they moved stiffly and uncomfortably, but they moved.

His arms and clothes were bone dry. When he stood up, his butt was still damp from wet earth and melted snow but he barely noticed. His fingers, his toes, his whole body felt like he had a heater under his skin to stave off the chill.

That was… weird. All of this was weird, even if it was welcome. He should be dead.

Now… well, he had options. He’d definitely proven that wandering out into an Alaskan blizzard was a bad idea. In theory he could head back to the prison…

“…B–” he choked on the attempt to speak, coughed, and tried again. It came out as a tortured croak. “…Blood clot.”

Bad idea. Stupid idea. Wrong idea. He’d just survived freezing to death in the wilderness, and his first thought was to throw that away by climbing back in his cage? But what else was he gonna do? He felt starved, in a deep way. Like his whole body was running on fumes and wishes, not actual calories.

There was food back in the prison, at least.

…And there’d also be getting locked up tighter than ever and probably poked and prodded in a lab. Or whatever they did to people who survived the unsurvivable.

He groaned and, reluctantly, turned away. He’d been heading West, he thought. He’d certainly intended to head West. May as well stick to that plan and see if his luck held.

Walking wasn’t easy at first. He stumbled and staggered like a zombie rather than walking, but movement slowly loosened him up, got the blood pumping. After a few hundred yards he was merely shuffling. A few hundred more and he was limping. After maybe ten minutes, he was walking pretty much normally. He still felt stiff and sore everywhere but at least he was moving sorta freely.

It was still cold as hell around, he could tell. He didn’t feel cold at all, but when he stumbled upon another stream—or maybe the same stream as before—it turned out to be solid ice. Still, it was open ground and easier to navigate than the woods, so he followed it toward the setting sun.

Just as the sun was genuinely setting, having gone a deep orange-red and touched the ground, he turned a bend in the stream’s channel and found himself standing on an open, flat expanse of white that could only be a frozen lake. He paused, and it sunk in at that moment just how far he was from… well, anything. Anywhere.

Anywhere except the prison.

Again, he felt a flash of anger at himself. Was he really that weak? With a snarl, he set out across the snow field.

As soon as he did, movement caught his eye. There was a flicker, a janky kind of effect like a bad digital TV signal and then there was… something… parked on the ice just a sprint away.

It looked just like a classic flying saucer.

He paused and stared at it. Somewhere in the back of his mind, some instinct was howling at him that this shit was suspicious and maybe he should really think about heading back, turning himself in, warning them.

Instead he shivered and, hunched over against the suddenly cold air, he walked toward the spaceship’s lowered ramp.



++END CHAPTER 51++



If you have enjoyed the story so far and want to support the author, you can do so by:

This chapter was brought to you with the help of…


The SOR

Those special individuals whose contributions to this story go above and beyond mere money

Ctwelve,

BitterBusiness,

Sally and Stephen Johnson

Ellen Houston


Thirty Humans

TTTA

SirNeonPancake

Andrew Huang

Anthony Landry

Anthony Youhas

Chris Dye

Daniel Morris

Greg Tebbutt

His Dread Monarch

HungryWerewolf

JLB58

John Eisenberg

Joseph Szuma

Joshua Mountain Taylor

Joshua Scott

Karthik Mohanarangan

Katja

Krit Barb

mudkip201

Nathaniel Phillips

Nicolas Gruenbeck

Rob Rollins

Savvz

Shane Wegner

Sun Rendered

Theningaraf

tsanth

Volka Creed

Xultanis

Zachary Galicki


Fifty-six Deathworlders:

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 Chris Bausch Chris Candreva damnusername Daniel R. Dar Darryl Knight David Jamison Devin Rousso Elizabeth Schartok ELLIOTT S RIDDLE Eric Johansson Fabiola Pachecano Fiona Dunlop galrock0 Gavin Smart Ignate Flare Jim Hamrick Jon Kristoffer Skarra Laga Mahesa lovot Matt Matt Demm Matthew Cook Mel B. mihkel miks Mikee Elliott Myke Harryson Nick Annunziata NightKhaos Oliver Mernagh Patrick Huizinga Richard A Anstett Ryan Cadiz Saph Sintanan Stephane Girardin theWorst Tyler Kelloway Woodsie13 Zachary M Lunstrum

As well as Sixty-one Friendly ETs, 75 Squishy Xenos, and 259 outstanding 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 behaviour of the characters.


Thank you for reading!

The Deathworlders will continue in the next chapter.