The Deathworlders

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Chapter 52: Autoimmune

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

Nofl

Nofl’s lab was spacious, but inevitably finite. When it contained an alarming number of alarmed Humans, not to mention one particularly sculpted canine and a Gaoian brownie who was doing his best not to loom at everyone… well, there were times when Nofl was glad of his species’ diminutive stature.

There were also, rarely, times when he wished he was a little more conformant with the Corti dispassionate ideal.

“Oh dear, dear, dear…”

Chief Arés was the second-smallest Human present, after Nofl’s patient Mister Chadesakan. He frowned over Nofl’s shoulder at the volumetric display and tried to make sense of it.

“I’m no biologist, but I know that isn’t natural…”

Frankly, an uneducated Ten’Gewek child would have discerned that much. There was something disconcertingly evil about the dark, asymmetrical lattice of nanotechnology that had enfolded every last one of Leemu’s living cells. It was a technological miracle of course, and had substantially improved every aspect of Leemu’s physical and mental faculties beyond the norm for a Gaoian of his size… but it looked like some kind of demonic spider had webbed up his whole body on the tiniest scale.

“It’s OmoAru technology,” Nofl explained. “Or so I assumed. Oh, deary me… Either I was wrong and the Hierarchy gave it to the OmoAru, or they stole it from them. Either way, mister, ah… Leemu’s tissues are absolutely riddled with it.”

“And Mister Chadesakan?”

“Human biology strikes again!” Nofl chirped. “I’m pleased to say that his immune system is putting up an incredible fight! I’m… not one hundred percent convinced that he will fight it off, but something seems to be wrong with my predictive models because they all say that he should have been completely overtaken weeks ago, so…”

“How bad is it?” Arés asked.

“You were right to place the Human and Gaoian in stasis. As for Bozo and Officer Narl, they will need to remain under strict quarantine for the moment. If there’s any of the Arutech in their system, it’s below my instruments’ ability to measure.”

That apparently was not enough of a specific answer as far as Arés was concerned, as he repeated himself with added emphasis. “How. Bad. Is. It?”

“…A repair of this scale may not be possible. Leemu might well need to be surgically disassembled at the cellular level, which is…” Nofl paused and sucked air through his teeth.

“Is that even possible?” the largest man in the room asked. Colonel Powell was lurking in the back and though his expression was stony, Nofl knew enough about him to suspect that the big man was nearly frantic with worry for his dog.

“…No. Not yet, anyway. Hopefully I’m wrong and a less… aggressive treatment will present itself. I am many things, but a Level Twelve surgeon is not one of them.”

“A Level Twelve could do it?”

“They’d try. And probably fail.” Nofl bobbled his head gently. “Cellular-scale medical techniques are an important part of a… project you’re aware of.” he refrained from mentioning the Ark out loud, on the basis that neither Preed nor Gorku were aware of it.

“So the technology exists.”

“But it’s never been used on a fully grown adult Deathworlder before. Fiddling with an experimental cell cluster is one thing. Stripping sophisticated nanotechnology out of a living adult…” Nofl cleared his throat. “Of course, the other issue is that Leemu cannot possibly be considered competent to render consent.”

Powell grunted and his forearm squirmed as he tightened his fist for a moment. “…Fookin’ hellfire…”

The enormous Gaoian spoke, then. Tried. “Then…Fix. Leemu…would want…not a slave.”

“Oh, honey, I really should help you with that shouldn’t I?” Nofl clucked. He swung a scanner over on its arm and pointed it at Gorku’s cranium. “Dear, dear, dear… Not enough Meeshi when you were a cub, eh?”

Gorku shrugged and kept understandably silent.

“I’m afraid it’s not that simple,” Arés told him solemnly. “Unless you have power of attorney, you can’t make that decision for him.”

“Their courts will need to weigh in, or I believe the Governor-General will need to declare a state of emergency.”

Gorku’s ears swivelled, then he sighed miserably, scratched at the spot on his head where his implants had been removed, and managed to dig up one syllable: “…‘kay…”

“Ohhh…” Nofl made a sympathetic noise. “I’ll attend to your problem as soon as we’re done, alright? We’ll work out the details later.”

“And Mister Chadesakan?” Arés asked.

“Treating him should be as simple as amputating his arm. I hope. In any case, this entire situation requires containment and a full Grade Twelve medical intervention. I have taken the liberty of dispatching a message. Given exactly what we’re looking at here…”

“And my dog?” Powell asked.

“He and Officer Narl will require quarantine so I can monitor them. The good news is, I don’t think either of them are infected. Again, I will defer to my medical colleagues when they arrive.”

“When?” Powell asked. “And more to the point, how much is it gonna bloody cost us?”

“Powell, dear. This is far bigger than money or politics. We will settle all accounts after the danger is past, and need I remind you, we are in no position to foster enmity.”

“In my experience, the Directorate’s idea of a fee can be a little unintuitive anyway,” Arés soothed.

“Then I will be blunt. We’d like to send an expedition to Akyawentuo. Nothing extreme,” Nofl cautioned, “We would simply like to examine them. You will have full authority, of course.”

Powell and Arés shared a lengthy eye contact with each other that seemed to encompass a full conversation. Eventually Powell shrugged, shook his head and subsided. “…You’ll need to talk with Etsicitty,” he said. “He’s the special envoy to them an’ all that.”

“Oh lovely!” Nofl chirped. “My favourite customer! One of them, anyway… Where is he?”

“This time o’ the day?” Powell thought about it. “…The Dog House, I expect.”

“…Oh. Well. I shall have to mount an expedition, then! Before my colleagues arrive.”

“And when will that be?” Powell asked, repeating his earlier question.

“For all I know, the Empirical Razor might already be in orbit,” Nofl said. “It depends on just how much my word is worth with the Directorate and the military Colleges… which is quite a lot right now, actually.”

Arés scratched at his chin with a thumb for a second as he contemplated the situation, then sighed and looked at Powell. “We should pass this on to our respective superiors, I guess.”

“Aye. The whole of 5-EYES need to know this one… and we’ll need to tell the Great Father as well.”

“That’ll be easy. He’s visiting Folctha today, unofficially.”

“Unofficially?”

“Every week, if he can. Usually he just jumps over when the array isn’t busy and does…whatever a Great Father does when nobody’s looking. Today though he’s flying with a special somebody. We’re expecting him later this morning.”

“Damn,” Powell rumbled. “I’d hate to ruin his day off, but…”

“Needs must.”

“Aye.”

“Well then, gentlemen. I believe we know what we’re all doing!” Nofl clapped his hands and shooed them out the door. “Go on! Don’t worry, Colonel, I’ll take special care of Bozo.”

“You do that…” Powell said, darkly. He shot one last worried glance at the quarantine lab and then, with a sigh and a shake of his head, he squeezed through the door and was gone. Gabe Arés followed a moment later.

Nofl sighed, dusted off his hands, and took a deep breath before checking on his patients. Narl had finally persuaded Bozo to calm down, and requested only a bowl of water for the dog and a bottle of water for himself. Nofl instructed his butler drone to provide both, then checked on Preed Chadesakan. The old man was lying on his cot in quarantine, looking up at the ceiling with a hollow expression.

“Can I get you anything, Mister Chadesakan?” Nofl asked. The elderly Human half-turned his head, gave Nofl a bleary-eyed empty look, then shook his head and subsided. Nofl ordered some water for him as well and made a note to call for somebody better-qualified to help him.

That just left Gorku.

“Well, dear!” he said cheerily, and approached the sullen Gaoian. “It’s your turn at last! Let’s see if we can’t figure out a way to straighten out your language centers without cybernetics, hmm?”

Gorku sighed and heaved himself up onto four paws. “…Long time?”

“Who knows? We’re only reinventing a field of medicine from first principles!” Nofl fluttered a hand vaguely at the diagnostic equipment. “Chop chop! The sooner we scan your brain, the sooner we figure out what it needs.”

Gorku duck-nodded and flopped up onto the medical bed. It was built for HEAT members, and took his merely large frame easily and without complaint. Nofl swept into his seat and rolled over to the appropriate workstation, where he powered up the complex, powerful and subtle scanners he’d ordered, installed and sometimes built himself.

That was the nice thing about living in Folctha. He never ran out of interesting specimens.

“Yes…this was definitely caused by malnutrition. But how do we fix it…?” he muttered to himself.

Gorku gave him a Look.

“Don’t mind me, darling, just talking to myself! I’m sure your conversation will be gripping when we’re done, though!”

Gorku snorted, crossed his paws under his chin and put his head down while Nofl delved a little deeper into the subtleties of his patient’s trouble.

Life simply didn’t get any better. And until the ship arrived… well. What better way to preoccupy himself?

None that he could think of.


Date Point: 16y2m AV
The Life-Mate’s private yacht, Cimbrean system, The Far Reaches

Daar, Great Father of the Gao

“Big Burly Buckin’ Badass Beastie!”

Naydra chittered again and swatted his ear affectionately. “You and your alliteration, Bumpkin…also, no you great oaf! The Summer Scent, maybe?”

“It’s th’ most fastest ‘lil ship I ever owned! It’s the prototype ‘fer the Drunker! Don’t that seem kinda…uh…”

“Feminine?”

“…I was thinkin’ sedate,” Daar said, gleefully deploying a fancier word for a change. Banter with Naydi was the most funnest!

And for once, they had real privacy. He’d decided to commandeer the prototype and have it converted into a luxury yacht for her. Well…he’d tried to buy it first, but Clan politics got in the way and it turned into a gift from Clan Ironpaw to the Females. But still, it was nice. After all, she travelled on official business just as much as him and while Daar tended to just grab whatever dropship or warship was available, he felt like his love needed something fancier.

The problem was, she kept turning down his names for it. She had an almost Human-like picky streak about ship names.

“I don’t plan on cruising the spacelanes with it, Daar. Besides, it’s all…a bit much, I think. Doesn’t a gift like this demand a good name?”

“I mean…you ain’t wrong. I named my precision hand tools!”

“You named them Pokey and Son of Pokey, Bumpkin.”

“Also Stabby Two: Electric Boogaloo!”

“…Why?”

“We wuz watchin’ bad movies one night! They can’t seem ‘ta get enough o’ them’ awful balls-damned period Clan epics…but hey! Their old sci-fi stuff is neat!”

“You’re very weird, my love.”

Daar chittered happily and stretched out on the long, wide couch she’d had installed. Keeda’s nuts, it was good ‘ta take a load off sometimes. One day out of every eight didn’t feel like enough, but he made the most of that day whenever it came around.

“I could get used ‘ta this,” he rumbled, and pulled Naydi into himself for the most tightest snuggle she’d allow for the moment; the cub was coming along big and fast. “Jus’ you an’ me!”

She combed her claws through his whiskers. “No advisors ringing day and night…”

“Or interruptin’ at the worstest times…”

“No— oof!”

Daar chittered fondly and turned his attention to her belly. “Fightin’ to get out?”

Naydra stifled a hiccup. “Ugh. He’s even fiercer than the last…” she paused and blinked as a tiny paw pressed against her skin from the inside. “…the last one.”

Daar laid a paw on the wriggling cub and felt it settle down. Fuck, but bein’ away from them was gonna be hard.

Naydra was due. She’d already pushed a little past when she shoulda travelled to the Grand Commune, actually. She was a healthy mother herself, she’d had plenty of cubs before… there shouldn’t be any problems.

But if there were, she wanted the best obstetrics going, and there was nowhere better than the hospital at the Grand Commune. Shit, they even treated Human mothers when things went real wrong, and when Human births went wrong they went very wrong.

…She’d be all but unvisitable, though. That part of tradition really sucked nuts. It was necessary, and Daar weren’t a ‘Back to shy away from necessary, but…

“I’m gonna miss ‘ya terribly.”

“I will message you every day! And you will have affairs of state to distract you, at least.”

“Eh…less o’ that as we go on. I’m tryin’ ‘ta get the Clans back ‘ta thinkin’ independently again.”

She duck-nodded and moved her claws up to scritch lightly behind his ears. “That would be nice. A return to how things were, a little bit.”

Daar shook his head. “I don’t think we can ever really go back, t’be honest. Still gotta wean ‘em off, though. Ain’t gonna happen in a day, but it needs to happen sooner or later. One day there won’t be a Great Father again, an’ they need to be ready for it.”

“The sooner the better.”

“Balls, yeah. Ooh, right there–!” Naydi always knew the bestest way to ear-scritch! He panted happily, and relaxed.

The yacht’s pilot was under pretty strict orders to interrupt them for only one thing: the end of their journey. The Humans took security at Cimbrean very seriously, and even the Great Father had to wait some. He had diplomatic immunity but that didn’t make him immune to the time it took to arrange his own safety.

He didn’t mind. This was one of his “unofficial” visits anyway, where they’d discreetly clear him through and let him get on with his day. A small abuse of privilege, maybe, but he needed to keep some part of a normal life or he might just go insane. For Daar, “normal” meant “visit his friends” now and then. And buy corn dogs. And tacos! And ice cream for Naydi. And stuff.

And get a good training session in! It’d been way too long since he’d lifted balls-out…

Still… he kinda wished he could pass on all that if it meant more Naydi.

“…You should see the other guy?” he suggested, returning to the subject of naming the yacht.

“Humans are rubbing off on you,” Naydra sniffed. She didn’t need prompting to follow his lurch in topic. “Besides, again: too boisterous. This is a yacht and I’ll be using it for diplomacy, it needs to sound respectable!”

“Aww–!”

“I know you can do respectable,” she half-encouraged, half-chided him.

“Sure,” he crowed. “Ain’t nobody disrespects me!”

Naydi chittered at his gratuitous play-bragging, and gently pinched his ear with her claws. “That’s not what I meant!”

Daar chittered again, and finally took the thought seriously. Once upon a time, he’d thought Coombes, Walsh and Hoeff were crazy for takin’ so long over naming the ship, but then he’d kinda fallen in love with it partly because of the name. So much that he’d insisted on resurrecting the Drunk on Turkey name in its successor. They’d been right: names mattered.

“…What about the Hopeful Star?” he asked. That was the focus of an old story he’d found among the ancient texts gifted to him by Clan Highmountain after his coronation. The Highmountains hadn’t seen a lot of value in the kind of story the ancient Gao had told their cubs—they’d been more interested in whether or not the star in question might be a real supernova—but Daar had obsessed over it, shared it with Gyotin and traded long, thoughtful letters with him over its deeper message.

He’d also discussed it with Naydra, whose ears pricked up as she thought about it.

“…That’s sly of you, Bumpkin. Not many people know what it actually means.”

“An’ it sounds like the same kinda name the One-Fangs use,” Daar added. “So it’ll just be our little detail.”

“Why do they name their ships that way?”

Daar shrugged. “Iunno. Clans got their traditions. Sometimes even they don’t really know where it comes from…”

The interruption finally came. It was simple enough, just a polite chime and a light in the ceiling telling them to buckle in to their seats for landing. They rubbed noses and Daar made sure Naydra was properly secure in her seat before buckling himself in.

The descent was perfectly smooth and soft, and the landing was as gentle as a Mother laying her first cub in its cradle. When the hatch popped, the smell of Tiritya Island flooded in.

Sea air, cubs and females. Flowers, herbs and honey from the kitchen garden, the ubiquitous petrochemical zest shared by landing pads all over the galaxy, and a thousand other things besides. It was a nasal symphony unique to this one small corner of an alien planet that had become the future of the Gaoian species.

Naydra descended the steps first, and Daar followed her reluctantly. He hated this part. It had sucked balls with their first cub, and it never got better. He wouldn’t smell her again until the cub had been weaned, which could be months away.

He could still steal another great big hug, though. And maybe a nip on her ear.

“I love you, Naydi. More’n anythin’.”

“I know.” She sniffed his nose. “I’ll miss you too.”

Then they were in public and there was no more time for affection.

Whoever had planned the island’s layout had put the Guard-Sisters’ barracks right where visitors arriving by shuttle could see them training, in a clear statement: ‘This is what you’ll have to deal with if you start trouble.’

The Guard-Sisters had always been a large and fierce corps, but now they were doubly so and they’d learned their lesson about weaponry. Fusion spears and blades might be traditional and ceremonial and perfectly deadly in skilled hands—Balls, Yulna was only alive thanks to Myun’s prowess with a blade—but guns were better.

Once upon a time the Guard-Sisters down in that field would have been stabbing, slashing and parrying. Now, they were running assault courses for best time, spurred by the valkyrie calls of the Guard-Mothers. Daar watched one young Sister with a professional eye as she launched herself four-pawed into the gauntlet and flowed through it like a clawed silk ribbon. She’d mastered the art of smoothly transitioning her gait and readying her weapon in one motion, freeing herself to maneuver with maximum efficiency and without hindering her ability to shoot.

Balls, there were veteran units in the Grand Army that didn’t know how to fight like that.

He was interrupted by a familiar and very welcome voice.

“I hope you approve, My Father…”

Daar turned, briefly forgetting the wrench of being parted from Naydi as he realized he’d just been reunited with another precious soul.

“Myun!”

His most favoritest daughter chittered happily as he abandoned any pretense at decorum and tackle-snoogled her half to death.

“Mrf! My Father! Yes, hello! I missed you too.”

There were some stifled chitters from a few of the other females in attendance, and a completely unstifled one from Naydra.

“Hello, Myun,” she said warmly.

Myun’s rise through the ranks had been volcanic. Saving the Mother-Supreme’s life at the height of the biodrone crisis had earned her prestige and notoriety… and the sad fact that all of the senior guard-mothers had been biodrones themselves or else slaughtered in the opening seconds of the war had left her plenty of room to be promoted into.

She’d earned a terrible injury in the process, too. But now! Look at her! The wound had been properly tended to, but she’d kept the scar up her right cheek as a mark of pride and it made her even more beautiful than she’d been before. The hardship she’d endured had given weight to her personality, and now she was perhaps the most formidable female Daar had ever met, besides Naydi of course.

Daar pulled both of them to himself for one last hug. “You take care of my Naydi, ‘kay? I hear she’s a pawful!”

“She’s in safe paws, I promise,” Myun replied.

“I know,” Daar pressed his nose to hers affectionately. “I always knew.”

“What do you think of the assault course?”

“…Not-so-secretly, I kinda wanna give it a go.”

Daar glanced back down at the training area. The young guard he’d been watching was panting happily at the end of the course while her sisters celebrated around her, and she looked fiercely eager to throw herself back into it for a second go. He couldn’t see her time from where he was standing, but the Guard-Mother looked satisfied with it.

“I’m sure you’d earn a dozen mating contracts if you did,” Naydi said with a sly look.

“Ha! Well…”

Myun chittered. “I’d like to respectfully ask the Great Father to please not interrupt my training schedule,” she said.

“I’d be a fool to step in ‘yer way, Myun. Go. I think there’s Sisters down there who ain’t tired!”

“Let’s get the mother-to-be inside, first,” Myun said. She gently stepped aside and ushered Naydra toward the waiting nurse-sisters, who flocked around and generally started acting like Naydra was made of spun sugar and would break if touched too firmly. Daar saw Myun roll her eyes, and had to fight down a chitter of his own.

It was a short walk up the slope to the commune’s front doors. Like the ones at Wi Kao, these were huge wooden things with decorative metal, though where the Wi Kao commune’s doors had been banded with black iron, these were polished to the point where they shone even in the dim light of an overcast day. They weren’t thrown open, however: Naydra had requested no great ceremony, so she went through the smaller wicket gate just like everyone else. The guard-sisters on either side came to attention as they approached, but other than that there was no fanfare or fuss.

Daar only noticed that he was unconsciously following after her into the Commune when Myun cleared her throat. Her tone of voice changed, from familiar and warm to professional.

“My Father…”

Daar paused, and blinked. The guards hadn’t challenged him, because they couldn’t; the Females had submitted to him, after all. He, alone among all males of the Gao, was permitted unfettered access to their world.

Which was why he had to restrain himself.

He stopped, then took a step back. “…Thank you, my daughter.”

Myun duck-nodded sympathetically, and the moment passed. With a heavy sigh, Daar watched until Naydra was out of sight, then watched a little longer as Myun gave him an apologetic parting duck-nod and followed Naydi into the commune. Finally, once the door was closed, he turned and padded away down the path back toward the landing pad. There was a shuttle waiting there to take him to Folctha, and from there he could enjoy a few hours of just being Daar.

Leaving Naydi always left him feeling frustrated. Normally he’d solve that by wooing females and testing out his cheesiest come-on lines…maybe try his luck (and get shot down again!) with that cute little number over at Ninja Taco in Folctha…

…But that kind of thing always felt wrong when Naydi was on his mind.

Well, not all was lost; he had more than one way to burn off frustration. He shook his pelt out, whipped out his communicator, and sent a message to Warhorse. They were so close in strength these days, maybe today would be the day he finally settled the question…

Daar chittered to himself ruefully. He really were the most predictablest tail ever, sometimes. But that was what made him, him. Gyotin and Naydi were right. Balls, everyone was. Daar couldn’t be anything but himself if he was going bear the burden of being the Great Father.

It was high time for the Great Father to remember who Daar was.


Date Point: 16y2m AV

Hierarchy/Cabal Joint Communications session #1535

++0007++: <Aghast> You infected them with unrestricted nanites?!

++Cynosure++: No, of course not. The technology’s capacity to replicate is tightly constrained. It literally can’t grow in the absence of compatible tissue.

++0011++: Is this how you infiltrated Sol?

++Cynosure++: <Pleased> Indeed! I infected the crew of ‘My Other Spaceship Is The Millennium Falcon’ at Origin, and had the pilot transfer to their new mining ship when the opportunity arose. The droud function came in very useful indeed when I needed to terminate the biodrone. It sat quite peacefully and watched the stars until it suffocated.

++Proximal++: <Uneasy> I have to admit, constrained or not… I don’t much like the idea of this technology. We Declined the OmoAru specifically because of it, after all.

++0007++: I’m more concerned by your sudden reverse-course on this, Cynosure. You fomented a conspiracy within the Hierarchy, established the Cabal, somehow found a way to avoid being incorporated into a 0001 instance and all along your objective allegedly was to ensure long-term cooperation with the Humans.

++Cynosure++: …How much Human literature have you read, 0007?

++0007++: About twelve gigabytes. Why?

++Cynosure++: So you are well aware that they’ve considered the dangers of self-replicating technology.

++0007++: Yes?

++Cynosure++: And yet they persist in developing it.

++0007++: Perhaps that makes them better qualified to develop it.

++Cynosure++: <Anger> That is snivelling apologetics! And in their case, it’s hubris!

++0011++: You’ve held them to be reasonable before.

++Cynosure++: And I have adjusted my opinion in light of new evidence!

++0004++: Calm yourself, please.

SYSTEM NOTIFICATION: USER Proximal HAS QUIT

++Cynosure++: <strained contrition> …Apologies. It is… we all know how difficult it is to admit to having been grievously wrong. I thought the Humans were one thing, and they have now proven themselves to be quite another.

++0007++: Proximal had a good point, however. Arutech is a self-replicating machine. Even though its ability to replicate may be tightly limited, any replicant can mutate given sufficient time.

++0004++: It does seem inappropriate to use the very thing we are sworn to destroy.

++Cynosure++: I have my own misgivings. But the alternative was to not penetrate the Human defences at all. Their security measures are too effective and reliable in their simplicity.

++0007++: <resigned> So long as it works, then…

++Cynosure++: It already has. We have a force of Injunctors on Earth, one compliant biodrone recovered from an internment facility, and two infiltrators en route to Cimbrean. They should be arriving about now, in fact.

++0004++: That is considerably more progress than we’ve made since we lost that Abductor in Egypt six years ago…

++Cynosure++: It’s a foothold. There is a lot of hard work ahead of us before it becomes something more substantive.

++0004++: And you’re committed to this? You’ve given up on Humans as a viable partner species?

++Cynosure++: Reluctantly, but yes. They’re too unpredictable, and their relationship with the Gao has made both species stronger. And they’re corrupting the Corti, now. I say, break the linchpin and we can watch that relationship fall apart.

++0007++: What is the first step on Earth? Dissemination of the Arutech?

++Cynosure++: Where necessary, yes. Cybernetic biodrones are more convenient—control over them is immediate and complete, as opposed to the prolonged period of indoctrination an Arutech drone must undergo—and they will continue to form the backbone of the plan. Arutech drones will serve for infiltration and intelligence gathering.

++0004++: All of which must ultimately culminate in disabling the planetary wormhole suppressor.

++Cynosure++: Let us be precise about the required objective. We must remove Humanity as a threat. That doesn’t mandate any particular approach, and…I confess, I still believe there is something worth preserving, or at least studying in them. But that is secondary to preserving the Substrate.

++0011++: On that note, I’m pleased to report some success. The Guvnurag remnant have been induced to expand to two new temperate worlds. And, importantly, they plan to do this without notifying the Dominion. Their expansion will safeguard a larger Substrate.

++0004++: That is good news, but four planets scarcely compare to the entire Dominion.

++0011++: It’s an anchor. At the very least, it prevents the complete loss of Substrate.

++Cynosure++: True, and I congratulate you on your success. Now, let us focus on ensuring that your anchor never becomes necessary.

++0004++: Where do you propose we begin?

++Cynosure++: Let us wait and see how well the infiltration of Cimbrean goes. It will be the first real test of the Arutech drones. After that… well, then we can plan.

Emote channel: 137 instances of <agreement>
Consensus reached.

++0004++: Very well, then. Let us watch Cimbrean closely…

SYSTEM NOTIFICATION: SESSION SUSPENDED
STAND BY


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

Nofl

Leemu had become unresponsive.

Nofl’s quarantine facility had alerted him after the patient had been anomalously still for twenty minutes, and the reason why became obvious upon a quick inspection of the cell: Leemu was sprawled on his back, staring blissfully up at the ceiling as though it was the most transcendentally fascinating thing in existence.

Seeing as there was nobody around to play up for, Nofl didn’t bother with the usual clucking ‘dear, oh dear,’ he’d have usually produced. He settled instead for something a good deal more robust.

“…Well, fuck.”

He’d been afraid of this. The droud function was, in his view, perhaps the most horrifying aspect of Arutech and it had rendered the OmoAru themselves all but extinct. Only a hardy handful of particularly resilient souls remained on their homeworld, and even they spent more time smiling at clouds than actually looking after themselves.

Even if stripping the tech out of their cells was a possibility—and despite his musings to Arés and Powell about a complete cellular rebuild, Nofl suspected that was basically just a fantasy—the OmoAru were dead. Even if they could somehow be cured, they were all so hopelessly addicted to the droud now that freeing them would involve plunging them into the worst, deepest and blackest depression a sapient mind could experience.

In Leemu’s case, it took interrogation off the table. There was no point in trying to bore, cajole or manipulate information out of somebody who could be endlessly entertained by watching dry paint.

It also took away much hope for any possible recovery, which left Nofl with one choice. He pressed a button, and stasis-bubbled the quarantine room.

His other patients weren’t doing so well either, but for entirely different reasons. For example, Bozo was becoming manically hyperactive as he searched to do something other than run around in circles, which was driving Narl into an exhausted fugue.

Preed was sitting despondently on his bed and staring at his feet. There’d been an awkward conversation with staff from the Thai consulate, who’d eventually left with a grim promise about their citizen’s rights and the Folctha government’s responsibilities… it certainly hadn’t done Preed’s mood any good. Nofl hadn’t been able to extract so much as a word from him since, and although he suspected that Preed’s arm must be throbbing and sore from fighting off the Arutech infection, the glass of water and the painkillers he’d left the old man sat neglected where Nofl had left them.

Gorku, at least, was asleep. He’d found Nofl’s gauntlet of tests, questions and scans thoroughly draining, and had ultimately insisted on being allowed to rest. Nofl was pretty sure he might have a solution to the big Gaoian’s linguistic troubles before long, but he had to admit: in this instance, cybernetics were the sensible solution.

And therein lay something to truly hate the Hierarchy for. A whole field of medicine was now tainted, permanently. Cybernetics had promised not only to repair and enhance the abilities of organic life forms, but indeed to expand what a living being could do! The possibilities had been theoretically endless!

As much as there was no sense in crying over spilled milk, Nofl did feel a touch of something like mourning for the field of neurocybernetic implantation. It was, if nothing else, a depressing waste of potential.

His sullen funk was interrupted by his phone. It was a human model that he’d programmed some very personal apps for, and he’d rigged up a small drone to relay calls through it. The drone kit was actually a brightly colored children’s toy, which Nofl approved of on several levels. Naturally, he’d extensively expanded the technology and programming for an adult Corti’s needs, but it really was rather delightful to think that there were human younglings running around building drones out of little plastic bricks.

He turned to face it as it swooped toward him, chirping merrily. “Yes?”

“Nofl, this is Third Director Tran aboard the Empirical Razor. We just entered Cimbrean orbit.”

Oh. Well. Apparently Nofl’s word counted for a lot with the Directorate, then. And thank goodness for well-integrated planetary communications with universal telecommunications gateways, where a Third Director could simply arrive in orbit and phone Nofl’s office as though it were a trivial matter of routine rather than a miracle of standardization.

“Ah, welcome Director. Thank you for such a swift response.”

“Your message specifically mentioned Arutech in a non-OmoAru subject. The First Director was gravely concerned.”

“Rightly so!” Nofl agreed. “Should I prepare to transfer my patients up to you, or will you come to me?”

“We will come to you first,” Tran declared. “I am sure the Human governments will prefer it that way.”

“Oh good. That gives me time to clean up the dirty laundry.”

Nofl never tired of irking his so-called betters, but Tran was becoming unfortunately well-adapted to his proclivities. His reply to the joke was level-headed: he ignored it. “Please do. I will see you shortly.”

Nofl sighed at the beep as the call ended and looked around. At least they were taking this seriously. Maybe there was hope for Leemu yet.

That thought made him chuckle. Realistically it was a stupid and irrational hope. But somehow he couldn’t let go of it.

“…Ever the optimist, Nofl…” he muttered to himself, and fetched his gravity harness.

There was a tacit assumption among Humankind that the Corti were cowardly and unadventurous. That was, perhaps, a bit unfair. The cowardly bit was dead on, of course. But science was nothing but an adventure! How could exploring the very mechanisms of infinity be unadventurous? Ridiculous. No other species had probed the unknown so relentlessly.

Relentlessly, but not recklessly. Hence Nofl’s personal gravity harness.

He rarely used it nowadays, not even when visiting those parts of the city that were kept at Earth gravity: Stunted and deprived though it was, the Corti body could still gain strength and endurance, at least to the point where spending time in Human gravity environments was tolerable. Not comfortable or easy, but tolerable.

The harness, however, just made things certain. A lot of the gyms in Folctha experimented with supergravity training, but none more so than the Dog House. It was the hardest of the hardcore gyms, and had become a bit of a destination for adventurous, like-minded athletes from Earth (and increasingly, Gao) who wanted to test themselves against the very best to ever live.

On that thought, Nofl satisfied himself that it would be difficult indeed to deride him as “unadventurous” as he rented a car across town to venture into the Dog House’s infamous basement “dungeon.”

He checked his personal gravity harness one last time before braving the stairs. Some of the most terrifyingly strong examples of Deathworlder physiology alive would be busy straining their bodies down there, pushing themselves against limits so far beyond any Corti that it was difficult to imagine.

It certainly sounded liked distilled aggression down there. Loud, incredibly violent music was made barely tolerable by the muffling effect of walls, and charging through what was surely a sonic blitzkrieg came the sound of a man’s voice in full force.

“Fuck yeah!! You’re gonna fuckin’ smash your PR!”

The words were certainly positive. The tone of voice, on the other hand, was an incitement to murder.

Another voice added his own thunderous note to the battle cry. “You got it!”

“Yeah!”

“You fuckin’ got it!!”

“Fuck yeah!”

“Get under that fuckin’ bar!!”

Nofl reached the bottom of the steps in time to get a good look at the thick steel bar in question. It was loaded with solid metal plates all the way to its edges and was bending alarmingly under the strain. The mass alone was…astounding. He made note of the blue warning light at the threshold and blanched when he saw what the gravity inside the room was set to. The resulting weight under that heavy a force…

Julian was in the process of inserting himself underneath it and taking that incredible weight across his broad, heavy shoulders. Where normally he had an open and friendly face, right then he was wild-eyed and uncaged as though something had just made the mistake of becoming his mortal enemy.

The two vastly larger Deathworlders with him looked even wilder. Clearly, the shouting had been their doing.

What followed was legitimately terrifying. Spurred by yet more roars of encouragement, Julian took the full weight as he lifted the bar off the rack, then bent at the knees and hips while keeping his back straight. The bar went down, his rear came alarmingly close to the floor. He made a guttural, red-faced grunt, and the corded muscles in his thick neck bulged from the immense forces at play. More yelling, a look of agony and then, with a defiant bellow, the bar went back up. Down, up, down again…shaking with tremendous effort, back up for a third time.

Not content with that feat, his companions quickly whipped a plate off each side of the bar and dropped them to the matting with a calamitous thud. The feat was repeated, each time until Julian could lift no more, then another plate was pulled off…and so on. When there were only a few plates left on each side and Julian stalled, Warhorse ambled behind him and provided the barest assisting nudge against the bar, bellowing right next to his ear and “encouraging” him to force out another dozen repetitions. Down to two plates, even more reps, than one plate, the bare bar, and finally just his own bodyweight. By then Julian could hardly move but Adam was merciless, and didn’t let him stop until he could barely rise on his own. It took a shockingly long time to reach that point, and Etsicitty spent it with an expression like he was in profound pain.

Despite the apparently excruciating ordeal, when he finally freed himself of his torment and collapsed onto a nearby bench, gasping for air and wobbling as if he could barely sit upright, he did so with an expression of almost psychedelic delight. Fascinating.

Warhorse was no less pleased.

“Fuck yeah, man!! That’s the best fuckin’ set you’ve ever done!”

Julian’s expression was one of pure savagery, though when he eventually caught his breath his voice was quiet and growly enough that Nofl could hardly hear him. “Fuck yeah. Put it in the book.”

“Dude,” Adam enthused. “There ain’t nobody on Earth that could squat like that! Literally!”

Curiously, Julian laughed at that compliment. “Ha! I hear how you qualified that shit!”

“Well,” Adam grinned sheepishly. “Didn’t wanna embarrass ‘ya too hard, y’know.”

“Yeah, yeah…” Julian grinned and reached down to the floor beside him and mopped the copious moisture off his face with a towel. He also took an enormous swig of water from a bottle as big as Nofl’s torso. “Don’t worry big fella, I know my place.”

“Bah, don’t let ‘em git away with it, Playboy! Ain’t nobody outside o’ HEAT could beat you! Balls, a buncha’ them couldn’t, neither!”

“Well…” Julian grinned again and took another swig of water. “Gotta admit that feels pretty good! Too bad huge muscles don’t make me much good at TIG welding. Al’s been teaching me!”

“Yeah? How ‘ya doin’ at it?”

“Terrible!” Julian laughed, “So far my beads look like crap!”

“Ha! You’ll git good, don’t worry. Just practice! ‘Ya shoulda seen my first beads! Damn near lit myself on fire a buncha times when I was little…”

Despite the friendly banter, all three of them looked as if they’d come through a terrible ordeal. Julian was ruddy, plainly exhausted, and dripping with sweat. ‘Horse was glowing with both pride and perspiration, and looking thoroughly pleased with himself…

The Great Father of the Gao was also soaked from head to toe, his huge tongue lolling out the side of his mouth in a delighted, exhausted fugue.

Nofl hadn’t foreseen his presence at all. Oh dear.

“Fuck, I’ve needed ‘ta lift like this ‘fer a coupl’a weeks! Our turn now!” the Great Father roared. “Let’s show our little guy here what a real lift looks like!”

The two much larger males set up their lift at a nearby station, and those weights utterly dwarfed the incredible feat Julian had just accomplished. The equipment was clearly custom: a longer, much thicker and heavier bar, bigger and (according to the numbers) vastly more massive plates. The entire aggressive ritual was repeated, first by Daar and then by Adam, Julian cheering along just as violently as the other two had for him. Nofl watched with no small sense of intimidation. It took considerably longer for both males to finish their task as there were many more plates and many more repetitions at each step. The ground shook underfoot as each plate hit the floor, which Julian helped tidy up behind them with a subtle grimace of effort.

The two titans struggled mightily under the absurd load. Nofl didn’t know which of them was “better” at it, but at that level of performance, the answer seemed more academic than anything.

He waited at the doorway until they had reached a comparatively quiescent phase in their exercise. All three were now toying with relatively “smaller” handheld weights and engaging in some form of aggressively jocular banter while they trained. The two bigger males suddenly grew much louder and decided it was time to wrestle. They tackled each other with a loud, solid whump of enormous masses slamming together, and tumbled across the floor in what must have been some form of Deathworlder play. There didn’t seem to be any harm intended…

Julian, for his part, shook his head quietly and continued what Nofl decided must be bicep curls. Even in that simple seeming, one-armed exercise, Julian was casually curling many times Nofl’s mass under gravity that would crush him to goo, and his weight was considerably less massive than what the other two had been using. The sheer physical capability the three displayed was intimidating, deep in instincts a Corti sometimes forgot they still had.

For a moment, the ongoing fight and general display of Deathworlder danger prompted Nofl to consider creeping back upstairs and simply calling them instead… but his pride won out. He’d be damned if he would prove the cowardly Corti stereotype right today.

He straightened his own posture and knocked. The two combatants paused and looked up from the floor at Julian, then the trio collectively glanced in Nofl’s direction. A collection of firmly predatory grins lit their faces.

Predatory…yet, friendly. Daar in particular yipped happily, “Nofl! ‘Ya plannin’ on joinin’ us?”

Nofl had met Daar before, of course. Before he’d been raised to a peerless degree of both authority and responsibility. Back, in fact, when he’d still merely been Champion Daar, as opposed to the most powerful individual in the galaxy.

That grin was a sight he’d never expected to see again. And Nofl could think very, very quickly indeed sometimes. Especially when it came to speaking to people who were a long way up the ladder from his perspective.

“Oh… dear, this is embarrassing. Caught playing voyeur!”

Plumping for flippant sass might have been a risky move if he’d been dealing with anybody else, but Nofl had memorized the Directorate Intelligence College’s psychological dossier on Daar. The Corti knew a great deal about what made him tick, which was why Daar’s reaction was a pleased basso profundo chitter.

“I could smell ‘yer fungus-chompin’ tail the second ‘ya entered the buildin’, Nofl,” he rumbled.

“You caught my delicate bouquet over the stink of this place? Your nose really is legendary…”

“Man’s gotta have a talent,” the Great Father rumbled drily.

“…Right. May I come in please? You’ll have to turn the gravity down, I’m afraid.”

‘Horse detangled himself from the Great Father, grabbed his phone and tapped at it a few times. After a moment a faint infrasonic noise that Nofl hadn’t really registered faded to nothing, and the warning light over the door shut off. 1G: Earth standard. He then thumped over and opened the door for Nofl. Apparently as an extra safety measure it locked from the inside. Sensible.

“Is this how Deathworlders train?” Nofl asked as he ventured over the threshold.

“Naw,” boomed Daar, who was thrashing back and forth against the floor, presumably to reach some frustrating itch. “‘Least not all of us! ‘Ya gotta be a special kind o’ insane t’train like we do. Don’t’cha fellas?!” There was a lusty chorus of acclaim from the other two. “Ain’t no Corti can handle this, that’s for sure.”

“Not yet, at least,” Nofl said. “Who knows, in a few generations…”

“Man,” Adam laughed and wrapped a gigantic and uncomfortably hot, moist arm around Nofl’s shoulders in what was probably a friendly gesture. “There’s a thought…anyway, que pasa?”

Corti weren’t known for their sense of smell. For which, in this instance, Nofl was quite glad. He didn’t particularly want to know exactly what pure testosterone smelled like.

“Have you spoken with your father today?” Nofl asked him.

“Nah, not yet. Why?”

“Or Colonel Powell?”

“Nope.”

“Something important came up.”

Daar heaved a sigh. “Look, little guy, I ain’t had a real good lift in ages an’ I been lookin’ forward ‘ta this all week, so unless you got somethin’ fuckin’ planet-shatteringly important—”

“…Yes, I think I rather do,” Nofl decided. “Perhaps even literally. A laughing man is no laughing matter, after all…”

That instantly drained all the mirth out of the room, as expected. Both Daar and ‘Horse sobered like Nofl had dumped cold water over them.

The shift in mood definitely wasn’t lost on Julian either, who glanced at the pair of them. “…Did I miss a briefing?” he asked.

“Yes. We gotta go. Now. You…”

“I have business with him, in fact,” Nofl said and gestured at Julian, who looked nonplussed.

“What kind of business?”

“Well, there’s a ship full of high-ranking Directorate brass orbiting above, and they want to talk with you about your cavemonkey friends.”

“Wait. Right now?”

“Yes. Right now.”

“Uh…Wow. Okay.”

Daar sighed, and looked almost wistfully at the weights and bars. “Ain’t no rest ‘fer a Great Father after all…”

“At least we got a good session in,” Warhorse commented helpfully. “Maybe we can lift again tonight?”

“See, that’s the ridiculous thing ‘bout you Humans,” Daar chittered tiredly. “You in particular. We just spent hours liftin’ like maniacs an’ ‘yer already thinkin’ ‘bout liftin’ again!”

“Yeah, well…look at you, though! Today you matched me pound for pound on every lift. You and Yan are the only guys who can! Hell, I bet if my equipment could take the weight, you’d straight beat me on the leg press, too!”

“Yeah! Gotta be strong t’be fast! I’ll take ‘ya up on ‘yer challenge, ‘Horse! You get a better press, an’ I’ll come over nice an’ rested up, an’ we’ll see just who’s got the stronger legs!”

“Deal!”

Julian, who by rare fortune was easily the smallest Deathworlder in the room, gave Nofl a tired, amused Look that communicated much about the foibles of his two thunderous friends.

“You two are ridiculous,” Julian commented, then began performing a series of calisthenics.

“But…” Daar growled low to himself, “while I ‘preciate ‘yer esteem, let’s be honest. I still ain’t conditioned quite as good as you, and ‘yer always a bit over-optimistic ‘bout these things, too.”

“Eh…I think my friends maybe tend to underestimate themselves and their limits too easily…”

“Mebbe,” Daar chittered. “But I don’t wanna delude m’self. I may be ‘yer match ‘fer strength, ‘specially on a fantastic day like today, but I’ll never match up wit’ your endurance, neither. An’ anyways, I think we better get movin’ ‘cuz ‘yer gonna git recalled any minute, I bet.”

“Well,” Adam again grinned sheepishly. “Okay yeah, I get a bit over-enthusiastic sometimes. But don’t underestimate yourself, man! You’re awfully damn—Goddamnit.”

Sometimes, coincidences were enough to make even the most rational Corti wonder. No sooner had Daar uttered those words than Adam’s phone sprang into life with what Nofl recognized as the theme song from a cartoon he’d briefly studied out of anthropological fascination. The plot had been paper-thin and had mostly consisted of extremely large and muscular men screaming a lot while their hair inexplicably changed color…

Which made it oddly apt for ‘Horse, actually.

The sheer…geekiness of that ringtone contrasted sharply against the pair of blood-dripping, shattered Hunter skulls that plastered themselves gruesomely across his chest. Clearly his e-tattoo was programmed to respond to his phone.

“…Yup, that’s a recall,” he said ruefully, and answered it. “Yes? …Understood. I’ll be there in ten.”

Julian chuckled low to himself and ran a hand through the mop of his hair. “Sounds like you jinxed it, Tiggs.”

“Jinxing is what tiggers do best,” the Great Father grumbled mirthlessly. “Right. Imma go hose off upstairs. I’ll…see ‘ya later. And tell Tiny he’s a wimp ‘fer not showin’ up today!” With a round of guffaws and a nod to the other two, Daar turned and slinked silently up the stairs.

Adam looked at Julian and grinned. “He didn’t wanna be outlifted by you again, I bet.”

Another quiet chuckle. “Well…he keeps dodging us, he’ll be living up to that nickname soon enough. Anyway…” He gave Adam a meaningful look. “Get going, I’ll take care of this.”

“Right. See ‘ya.”

Nofl found himself alone with Julian, who sighed, flopped to the floor and began to stretch. How a being as heavily built as he was could contort himself like that was beyond Nofl’s comprehension. Eventually he grumbled to himself, then glanced at Nofl and sighed again.

“So, uh…fill me in.”


Date Point: 16y2m AV
Planet Rvzrk, Domain Space

Grandfather Garl of Stoneback, Warleader of the Grand Army

The last Hunters on the planet died in the same psychotic frenzy of teeth and claws as the very first.

That was the problem with Hunters. Breakin’ their spirit just didn’t happen. The fuckin’ things were soulless, an’ they didn’t negotiate, they didn’t surrender, they didn’t seem ‘ta fear death…

…Did make ‘em awful fun to murder, though. But it meant tearin’ up the rulebook on war, a bit. Shock and awe tactics? No point! Hunters couldn’t be shocked and awed. Psy-ops? Shit, half the time the fact the Hunters just didn’t give a fart meant the Gaoian troops got unnerved instead. Fighting between males was as much about intimidation as anything else, after all.

There just weren’t no way to intimidate a Hunter. There was only slaughter.

That fact cost a lotta lives. Not too many, but a lot. Especially in the early days of the cleansing, when the Hunters still had ammo for those crazy oversized bullet-throwers of theirs. When they ran out and fell back on kinetic pulse weaponry, the casualty rate dropped. Even an armored silverfur with proper shielding could handle KP, once they’d been fed up. Sure, they couldn’t wade through it like a Human, but they could get back up again.

The final Hunter holdout was a lumber plantation in a valley. They hid among the trees, dug a warren amid the roots and held out there even after the Firefangs dropped all kindsa crap on that forest. Repeated firestrikes burned the whole plantation down to ash, black earth, and jagged charcoal stumps, but they just emerged from the smoke and embers. Seismic tunnel-crushers shoulda buried the fuckers where they lived, but they just scuttled straight back up from under the ground.

Which was why the Clan’s engineer corps was busy diverting a nearby river to flood them out.

Champion Fiin was a smart one, and he left Garl to do his job without lookin’ over the older male’s shoulder. Garl approved of that: Good leaders knew the art of delegation, and Fiin was a good leader. In some ways—never say it out loud—for this moment in Stoneback’s history, he was maybe even a slightly better leader than Daar, who’d played the game of Champions extremely well but definitely was happiest when he was bein’ the Clan’s stud-prime.

Well…hard to blame ‘em, really.

Fiin had a little more… humility. If that was the right word. He’d come up the hard way. Daar, for all his hard work and determination, had life handed to him on a polished wooden platter. Fiin wasn’t naturally the most bestest at everything, but he’d made himself into what the Clan needed, and taken some hard lessons to heart along the way. Right now, while they rebuilt the Gao…maybe an authentic Champion was a bit better than a living Keeda.

One of Fiin’s lessons had been in accepting when other people knew better’n him. He knew he was still young, and he knew he didn’t know everything. Garl could really respect that.

Yeah. Garl felt good about leavin’ the Clan in Fiin’s paws. That was a load off, for sure. With luck, it’d be the last big worry off of Garl’s back.

“Why divert a river?” Fiin asked as he reviewed the map alongside Garl. “Why not, say, a thermobaric weapon?”

“Couple’a reasons,” Garl said. “We already bombed ‘em to shit an’ those tunnels are still there, so they’re prol’ly shielded an’ stuff. Firestrikes didn’t work neither, so they’re well-designed to keep out heat, pressure, flame… But I bet they don’t have SCUBA gear. We turn that valley into a new reservoir, an’ I’ll be happy to just leave ‘em ‘ta drown in their holes.”

“And it’s not as destructive, I guess…” Fiin duck-nodded as he ran a claw along the river’s course.

“Yeah. After all the nukes the Humans dropped, I don’t wanna go an’ ruin good land.”

“I can see why they set up there,” Fiin said. “That little bit of high ground in the middle of a depression. It’d be a good spot, if they controlled the area.”

“An’ it let us trap ‘em, and now we’re gonna drown ‘em jus’ like vermin,” Garl growled happily.

“When?”

“Late tonight. Lotta explosives ‘ta lay.”

“Can your field staff manage it without you?”

“…Yeah. But I’ll be honest, I really wanted ‘ta be there an’ see it happen.”

Fiin chittered. “Me too…I think we’ll have time.”

“You didn’t come here for the fireworks though,” Garl guessed.

“Yeah, they’re more like a happy bonus…” Fiin chittered briefly. “…I need you to muster forces for another mission, to begin re-deployment as soon as can be had.”

“This ‘fer the thing Fourth Fang’s doin’?”

“Uh-huh. They’ve done their recon and emplacement. Now we need to burn the Hierarchy’s shit to the ground.”

Garl chittered again. “…I ever tell you how I like the way you think, my Champion?”

Fiin flicked an ear, looking pleased. “I thought you’d approve. How quickly can you muster?”

“Two days. I’m thinkin’ I should leave this ‘ta Matso. And…uh, I have a request, my Champion.”

Fiin caught the sudden change in tone immediately and cocked his head. “Name it.”

“…There’s a, uh… well, a reason I wanna see that valley flood. It’s gonna be one’a the last things I can see clearly.”

Fiin paused, sniffed at him for a second, then keened softly. “…I see.”

“Oh, don’t go keenin’ at me like a weaning cub,” Garl grumbled. “I’m eighty-two, it was gonna happen sooner or later. An’ I’m too old an’ horrible for the Crue-G ‘ta work.”

“Does the Great Father know?”

“Yeah. He sniffed it on me the mornin’ I first noticed my sight was startin’ to go. Figure I’ve got half a year, maybe. Gonna be blind as a rock in half that time, though… Can’t lead an army when I can’t see shit.”

“No, I ‘spose not. Uh…is Matso ready?”

Garl chittered. “Balls no! But neither was I… An’ neither were you, my Champion. He’s got what it takes, though… You know who he is?”

“I’ve heard the name. Story a lot like mine, too.”

“Yup. Whole lotta hidden treasures in the Clanless, if ‘yer smart enough ‘ta find ‘em.”

“Right, well…stay, then. Get this handed over. I’d still like you to pay a visit to Stinkworld, though. This is gonna need the touch of experience.”

“Aright, my Champion. Now git, I got work ‘ta do.”

Fiin nodded and sniffed noses with him, rested a brotherly paw on his shoulder, then turned back to his business. A Champion never rested.

Nor did a Grandfather, really. Not until the very end. Strange, he’d imagined he’d be worked up about the inevitable but really…he wasn’t. He’d had a good life, sired many cubs… shit, sired a Great Father!

Briefly, he wondered what Fyu’s own sire had been like. Maybe if there was an afterlife, he’d sniff the ol’ pelt out and they’d raise some Talamay together, or do whatever it was the Unseen did. If they did. Whatever.

Garl shook his pelt out. Balls, gettin’ close to nava mulch was makin’ him all sorts of sentimental! He should spread the cheer, and he knew just the victim to pounce on. He limbered up and ran like the wind over to Matso’s little encampment. He was definitely Daar’s sire and he wouldn’t get to enjoy his body for much longer…

…He did manage to restrain himself from flattening the much smaller silverfur with a tackle, though.

“Hey, Matso! I’ve got ‘ya a challenge I bet ‘yer gonna just love the shit outta…”


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

Gabriel Arés

Every civilization needed its icon of executive power. The UK had the black door of Number Ten Downing Street and, somewhere behind it, the Cabinet Room; the USA had the White House, and the Oval Office; Folctha had the Alien Palace.

The Prime Minister’s official office, the East Room, lurked high on the third floor with a truly grand view out over Palace Lake and along the river that took in most of the city. It was square, and simply but classically adorned with long curtains and a forest green carpet.

The fireplace and desk were nice touches, though. Both were made from native materials: the fireplace was sedimentary stone full of Cimbrean fossils, and the Prime Minister’s desk was a species of wood native to the Folctha region that was slowly going extinct thanks to the Microbial Action Zone…

There was a framed copy of the colonial charter on the wall between the windows, twin large photographs of Earth and Cimbrean over the mantelpiece, and a tasteful portrait of the King over the long table on the south wall.

The Right Honourable Annette Winton PM had added her own touches. She always kept an orchid vase on one corner of her desk, for example, and a heavy antique clock on the other. The poor thing was hopelessly unsuited to Cimbrean’s twenty-eight hour day, but she kept it anyway just for its dignified tick.

The stately bookshelf beside the door was full of her own selection. Gabe very much approved of that collection: it ran the full gamut from Left to Right, from authoritarian to libertarian, and from secular to spiritual. Any collection that pointedly placed Marx and Hayek adjacent to each other on the same shelf, then settled a copy of Mein Kampf beside a small photograph of Winston Churchill, was worth appreciating.

It wasn’t that he particularly shared Winton’s politics—she was leader of the Progress Party, and Gabe had voted New Whig—but he had a good working relationship with her regardless.

Right now, she was frowning at Nofl’s brief dictated summary of what exactly was afflicting his patients.

“…Transmittable?”

“It seems to be,” Gabe agreed. “That’s how Mister Chadesakan claims it happened, anyway. Leemu scratched his arm, and now he’s fighting off a nanotech infection.”

“If so, it’s mixed news,” Powell opined. They weren’t sitting at the desk, but instead were sitting informally at the long table with cups of tea (in Powell’s case) and coffee (in Gabe’s) while Winton listened and thought. “Summat like that has the potential to spread fast if it gains momentum. But from the sounds of it, Chadesakan got his scratch weeks before he reached us, an’ it’s festerin’ rather than spreadin’.”

“Is he particularly healthy?” Winton asked.

“He’s an old man. I wouldn’t call him frail, but he’s no spring chicken,” Gabe said.

“That’s a silver lining, then…” Winton pulled a face and placed her tablet delicately next to her glass of water. “…Still. If the Hierarchy have a new kind of biodrone that we can’t spot with ultrasound scanners…”

“Then we’ll rely on Gaoians and dogs,” Gabe said. “They’re a natural match for K9 units anyway. The Gaoian can verify what the dog’s nose finds… and we have plenty of Clanless refugees who’d jump at the chance to join the Folctha police.”

“Is this a request for more funding, Mister Arés?” Winton asked. Her tone was light and amused—Gabe always reminded her about police funding when he got the chance.

“Well, now you mention it…” Gabe chuckled. “But seriously. We’re going to need noses on the Jump Array twenty-eight seven, now. Every jump from… well, from anywhere could have a biodrone with it. And we should probably worry about the possibility that one managed to sneak through undetected before now.”

“Is it already that serious?”

“Oh aye!” Powell nodded sharply. “Pretty much everything that happened on Ceres wi’ the nuke and all that? It makes a lot more sense if that Sam Jordan bloke was a biodrone. Admiral Caruthers has ordered that My Other Spaceship Is The Millennium Falcon be quarantined immediately when they get back in contact, and the crew arrested. For all we know, the whole lot of ‘em were infected at Origin.”

“And Adele Park?”

“As soon as we’re done here, I’ll be takin’ the HEAT over to Ceres to secure her,” Powell said. Gabe decided not to comment on the eager note that crept into the colonel’s voice. Certainly he himself would have preferred to be out on the streets alongside a K9 unit or a Gaoian officer, but instead there he was sipping coffee in the lavish halls of government. Some part of him always rebelled at that.

“You’re going yourself?” Winton asked.

“Aye. Sensitive matter like this, I figure it’s best if I handle it in person.”

Winton nodded grimly, and adjusted her tablet so that it was perfectly parallel to the edge of the table. She always got excessively neat when she was unnerved by something. “…The crew of My Other Spaceship would have had plenty of time to spread the infection far and wide…” she said.

Gabe nodded. “Yes. Tracking down their families, all the people they met on shore leave and whoever else they might have opportunistically infected would be…” He paused, trying to think of an appropriate turn of phrase with enough weight to convey just how impossible what he was describing would really be.

Powell came to the rescue with typical British understatement. “…A tall bloody order,” he finished.

“…Yes.”

“…Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, then,” Winton said quietly. “Or else Earth…”

“I wouldn’t write Earth off that easy, Prime Minister,” Powell said. “We’re not dealing with the zombie plague, here. The Hierarchy have an uphill battle ahead o’ them, now that the Farthrow generator’s in.”

Winton smiled, but her reply was interrupted by the chunky, official-looking phone on her desk with its old-fashioned bell. She frowned at it, stood, crossed the room, and picked it up.

“Yes?”

Gabe saw her expression do an interesting kind of flicker through a whole hand of different looks before settling on… surprise? Definitely surprise. Alloyed with no small amount of alarm.

“…He is?” She glanced at Gabe. “…Of course he is. Yes, of course I’ll receive him.”

She put the phone down. “…Apparently the Great Father of the Gao just arrived.” She managed to say it in a peculiarly light way that belied the obvious knock to her composure. She poured herself a glass of water and sipped it. “Well. You did tell me he was in town.”

“Unofficially,” Gabe said. “I guess he musta heard about our laughing man.”

There was a knock at the door, and a human voice from outside: “The Great Father to see you, Prime Minister.”

“Thank you, Cerys. Show him in.”

The door opened, and Daar trundled into the room on fourpaw as the three of them stood to greet him. Or rather, Gabe and Powell stood—Winton was already on her feet, and deployed a stately smile and a well-rehearsed handshake.

“I’d expected more warning before our first meeting,” she said. “Welcome.”

Daar duck-nodded with a slightly apologetic set to his ears. “I’d normally give it, but I heard through a little grey fella we’ve got a big problem.”

“Aye. We’re all takin’ it seriously, even the Corti,” Powell said. Daar pant-grinned at him.

“Good ‘ta see you, Powell. I’m assumin’ my people din’t hear ‘bout this yet ‘cuz it literally just happened?”

“About…” Powell checked his watch. “A little over two hours ago.”

“Fair. I’ll be hearin’ from Thurrsto soon, then.”

“Won’t you sit down?” Winton offered, gesturing toward a large and very sturdy wingback chair by the bookshelf.

“Thanks, but I’d better not risk it. Looks nice and ‘spensive. Also my fur’s still wet.” Daar instead rose to his full height and rested his brutish, thigh-sized forearms across the chair’s back. “So what happened?”

The PM retreated to her desk and typed a brief letter while Gabe brought Daar up to speed. At one point she looked up, apologized with a ‘Please excuse me one moment, gentlemen,’ and vanished behind the fuzzy white-noise cuboid of a privacy field.

She dropped the field just as Powell finished explaining the details of his imminent mission to Ceres.

“Well. Stephen Davies and Arthur Sartori are both very happy about this,” she remarked sarcastically. “In fact, the President shared a little nugget with us. Apparently one of the biodrones at Camp Tebbutt escaped earlier this year.”

Gabe’s eyebrows flew up to where his hairline had once been. “I didn’t hear anything about that.”

“The camp asserted that since he mounted his escape in the middle of a January blizzard there was no way he survived. Unfortunately, they’ve scoured the area around the facility quite thoroughly since the thaw and come up empty-handed.”

“A blizzard, in Alaska, in January?” Powell mused. “Bloody hellfire. He should have frozen within two hundred yards!”

“We don’t know what Arutech is capable of,” Gabe said. “For all we know, it can warm a man up and keep him alive in those conditions.”

“Mm.” Winton’s expression was grim. “…I think Earth owes you a debt of gratitude for that Farthrow generator, Great Father.”

“Don’t suppose you’ve got a spare knockin’ around?” Powell joked. His delivery was so impressively deadpan that it took a moment to sink in and, to judge from the look on her face, Winton only realized he wasn’t serious when Daar chittered.

“Buildin’ the first one delayed a shipment o’ farming equipment an’ if we’re not careful a couple million Clanless could starve,” he said. “The biodrones made a special point of slaggin’ every machine they could find, so we’re rebuildin’ every industry from the ground up. I can’t afford to push a second Farthrow right now.”

“That’s too bad…” Powell rumbled.

“Cimbrean’s important to the fate of the Gao,” Daar assured him. “I’ll promise you a Farthrow… when I can.”

“Perhaps we can see what Folctha can do to alleviate your food concerns,” Winton suggested. “Agriculture is our biggest industry, after all.”

“An’ I’d ‘preciate that. Gotta let Sheeyo handle it though, I’m tryin’ ta keep outta the details.”

“Difficult not to, isn’t it?” Winton sighed. “He’ll be talking with our foreign minister, in any case. I’ll let him know.”

“In the meantime, we have a completely biodroned Clanless in Nofl’s lab,” Gabe said, gently nudging the conversation back on topic.

“…How bad is it?” Daar asked.

“Bad. Every cell of his body is infested with nanotechnology. Nofl hinted that removing it may not be completely beyond the limits of Corti medicine, but he didn’t seem hopeful.”

“…Balls.”

“Good news is, accordin’ to Bozo an’ one of our Gaoian police officers, the stuff stinks to high heaven,” Powell said. “Can’t say as I smelled it, but you’ve said yourself: Our noses don’t exactly work the same way.”

Daar scritched at the side of his head with a massive claw, then sighed. “I need ‘ta see this fer myself. An’ I think summon some o’ my Champions to attend me. Imma need their advice.”

“Naturally,” Winton nodded. “You and they are always welcome.”

Daar’s gratitude was interrupted by his communicator, and Gabe stifled a grin as he heard the incongruous ringtone it produced. Daar clung aggressively to his passions, and if that meant making Winton arch an eyebrow with a silly song about dwarves digging a hole, well…

“Welp! Looks like news caught up with my staff…” Daar chittered mirthlessly. “The array musta sync’d jus’ now ‘cuz my inbox looks like a Keeda-damned warzone.”

Winton nodded, and picked up a small hand-bell that had been sitting next to her clock. When she rang it, a dark-haired woman in a gray suit and square glasses opened the door and leaned around it with an expression of sharp helpfulness.

“Yes, Prime Minister?”

“Cerys, the Great Father needs to take an official call. Could you escort him to the blue drawing room and see to it that he’s not disturbed, please?”

“Yes, ma’am. It’s this way, Great Father.”

Daar shook his pelt out, gave Winton a grateful duck-nod and shook her hand. “It was a pleasure ‘ta meet you at last,” he said. “We shoulda met sooner.”

“Better now than never,” Winton replied, and stepped aside for him. Daar gave Gabe and Powell a nod apiece, and then dropped to fourpaw and followed Cerys out of the room.

“…Well, then.” Winton shut the door and returned to her desk. “I should probably discuss this with the other territories and the Mother-Supreme.”

Powell stood. “Aye. You’ll hear from me as soon as my men are done on Ceres.”

“Thank you. Good afternoon, gentlemen…”

Powell held the door for Gabe, who stepped aside to let him through once they were out in the hallway beyond. He’d brought a Gaoian constable with him, a young Clanless by the name of Eeno, who stood up sharply as they emerged and transferred his police hat from his knee to under his arm. The very picture of sharp, eager youth, with an edge of awe at having just had the Great Father brush past him.

“Alright. That’s over. Did you smell anything?” Gabe asked.

“No chief. Nothing unusual, anyway. At least… I don’t think so. Besides the PM’s perfume.”

“The way that Narl bloke had it, it’s like gettin’ slapped in the face wi’ a burnin’ tyre,” Powell said. “Bloody embarrassin’ we can’t smell it ourselves, if it’s that bad…”

“Well… however it smells, I didn’t smell anything wrong with the PM, the Great Father, or anyone else in this building,” Eeno replied. Gabe nodded. Eeno’s was reckoned to be the sharpest nose on the force: He’d once made a drug bust from three blocks away, upwind. His sense of smell was worth trusting.

“Something tells me we’re in for a few sleepless nights,” Gabe remarked to Powell.

“Only a few?” Powell snorted. “I’ll take it. Any road, I’d better catch up wi’ the Lads. They should’ve suited up by now.”

“I’ll keep you updated,” Gabe promised.

“Aye, same. As much as I can.”

They bade each other ‘good luck’ and were escorted out to their vehicles. Powell’s SUV was first out through the gate, and it took the north road toward the military base. Gabe’s took the south road toward the Police and Security Administration in Southbank.

“…Not him either, chief,” Eeno said, once they were away. “I know you’re thinking it.”

Gabe chuckled and a minor worry he’d been nursing evaporated. “Well, you’d have been pretty damn stupid to expose him on the spot if he was a biodrone…” he commented. A biodroned HEAT operator was a decidedly nightmarish thought. “…Mierda. This whole thing is going to be a lot less clear-cut than the implants were. Now we have to worry about whether the noses sniffing them out are compromised!”

“Gotta trust somebody, chief,” Eeno observed.

“Yeah…” Gabe nodded. He looked out the window and enjoyed a moment’s peace to think as he watched kids and adults playing on the beaches of Palace Lake. Folcthan life was so much fun sometimes that it hurt knowing just how much frantic activity and stress went on under the surface to keep the peace intact.

And in all of that, the Hierarchy’s worst weapon would be the ability to turn trust into a poison. It had happened to the Gao, after all: A whole generation was coming to terms with the sudden betrayal in their midst. Too many were now afraid they couldn’t trust their loved ones, or that their loved ones couldn’t trust them.

A disease like that would be endlessly more virulent, and more deadly, than mere nanotech. And the only way to combat it was to take the ultimate risk and trust, in the face of possible betrayal.

“…That’s the problem,” he said.


Date Point: 16y2m AV
Ceres Base, Asteroid Belt, Sol

Technical Sergeant Adam “Warhorse” Arés

Thump.

Black flash.

Move.

Array technicians back away from their controls with their hands up. Grab. Secure. Zip-tie. Move on.

Shrieks and alarmed yells: Civilians, unarmed. Round them up, secure, zip-tie. Move on.

Speed and precision. Overwhelm everything. Enemy can’t be given time to act.

Tight corridors, low ceilings, light deck plating. Dents and shakes, but feet don’t punch through.

Threat: Opening door… Surprised woman in businesswear. Immediately compliant. Secure, zip-tie, move on…

Target. Central operations. Several men, stepping protectively in front of a handful of women…

Adam blinked and came up for breath as the last zip-tie went on. The whole of the last minute or two from the instant they’d jumped was a kind of an efficient blur of things that he’d done but not really processed, though he always found he could recall every detail in debrief later on.

Of the men, Adam hadn’t hurt them too bad. Well, they were bruised up and sullen, because he had to be fast and that didn’t fit well with gentle, but so far there were no broken bones.

There were two dislocated shoulders, which he popped right back in over the dude’s loud complaints. He’d have to remember to apologize later if he got the chance. Anyway.

As far as damage to equipment…his footprints were in every deck plate he’d stepped on. All the Beef Bros had left prints but his were the biggest and by far the deepest. Where he was moving with aggression, the plating had actually ripped loose and been crushed down through the underflooring. That might be a problem going forward, because Adam was easily the heaviest dude on the HEAT, had the heaviest mission load, and his armor was proportionally the most massive. He’d note that in the AAR: most alien spacecraft ironically had stronger flooring.

He’d banged up some walls, too. And swatted a hatch so hard it had bent. Yeah. He wasn’t packing on weight like a weed anymore, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t still slowly growing, especially in strength and speed, and that let him wear his armor so well it almost felt like it wasn’t there. That might have made him a bit too careless, so maybe he needed to work on his agility with Righteous; other than footprints, the big bastard hadn’t left any trail of broken obstacles at all.

Regaari was getting a good sniff of the civilians. So far, nobody had failed the nose test but there were a lot of people on Ceres. So many that the HEAT was running in three-man teams, pairing an experienced operator with a Whitecrest and one of the Cherries… though that was hardly a fair word to describe Walsh, who was the third corner of Adam’s trio.

He ran an eye ‘round the room, satisfied himself that there was nobody who posed an immediate danger, then keyed his radio. As he did so, he found the face he was searching for kneeling in the middle of the civilian huddle and trembling.

“STAINLESS, WARHORSE. Target secure. Got the VIP, too.”

“Copy, WARHORSE. Coming to you.”

Regaari dived into the middle of the group and gave Adele Park a particularly vigorous sniff.

“…STAINLESS, DEXTER. VIP is clean,” he announced. “But I’m getting a faint scent off something around here.”

“Understood, DEXTER. See if you can track it down.”

Regaari snuffled at the rest of the civilians and then, satisfied that they were all clean, he did a circuit of the central operations hub, led by his nose. Adam left him to it and then gestured to Park.

“Director Park? Stand up, please.”

With the help of her immediate neighbors, Park managed to get to her feet and Adam helped her stay steady as she stepped out of the circle.

“Am I about to get an explanation?” she asked.

“We’re not here on a social call, ma’am… Dex?”

Regaari had paused, and was giving one of the office cubicles some closer scrutiny.

“…Got a track,” he said, sniffing at a keyboard. “But it’s faint. Months old, I think. Too bad we don’t have CAREBEAR’s nose…”

“Whose desk is that?” Adam asked.

“That? That was Sam Jordan’s desk. He… nobody’s wanted to use it since…”

Powell and Costello ducked into central ops with Akiyama and Faarek behind them, dramatically reducing the amount of remaining space in the already rather crowded room.

Adam had to admit: it was good to see the old man wearing the Mass in the field again. And he still looked totally comfortable and conditioned to it, too.

“All good here?” Powell asked.

“They’re nice an’ peaceful, sir,” Walsh told him.

“Good. You three are wasted standing around here, go help Righteous secure the residency block.”

“Yes sir.”

Regaari shrugged Gao-style, put the keyboard back down, and the three of them squeezed out of the room back into the comparatively more open space of the facility’s main concourse. There were signs and colored lines on the walls and floor everywhere he looked, pointing in different directions: a red one for “Mining Operations,” a blue one for “Infirmary,” a yellow one pointing toward “Surface Facilities” and… yeah. A green one marked “Residences.”

“This way,” Walsh pointed out, just a second before Adam could. Firth’s team had already come through this way, as evidenced by the half-dozen Hephaestus workers zip-tied on the ground who went very still at the sound of heavy boots nearby. Clearly he’d made an impression.

“Guess they’re not gonna like us too much after this…” Walsh muttered.

“Guess we’ll worry about that when we’re done,” Adam retorted. “C’mon.”

After all: there was work to do.


Date Point: 16y2m AV
Peripheral dataspace, adjacent to the Irujzen Reef

Proximal

<despair>

Reviewing a life—honestly reviewing a life—was not an easy task. Especially not when honesty compelled one to take a rough estimate of the body count.

Proximal had never personally overseen a cleansing. He’d been involved in dozens, always in support roles, administrative oversight, intelligence-gathering. He’d chosen his Cabal name quite deliberately: He was always close to the action. It had suited him well, over the millennia.

Millennia. There wasn’t an oath or concept in the Igraen equivalent of language to really capture the sense of… something that settled on him as he considered that. Millennia.

In meatspace, that was enough time for civilizations to arise. The full arc of history from stone tools to nuclear fusion fit comfortably inside Proximal’s career, several times over.

With a perspective like that, it became easy to not think of meatspace life forms as people. They were just… they were points. Join them together to get a line, spread them out to get a plane. Each one rendered significant only by the broader context of their species’ collective development. Each meatspace species was an organism. Individuals? There was no such thing. One may as well treat each cell as significant, each molecule as meaningful.

And yet the last twenty years or so had been increasingly full of individuals. The lone Human who foiled a Hunter raid and woke the substrate species to the existence of deathworld life. The Rrrtk politician who had made a stand for them. The young woman who had personally forged a friendship between Humanity and the Gao through her own selflessness.

The war on Gao had been won by one man. In the right place, at the right moment, one HEAT operator had pushed through where nobody else could, and secured the Dark Eye facility. Thanks to him, there was still Gao. Thanks to that, there was the Great Father.

Thanks to the Great Father, there was a singularity of unpredictable causality in their future. Thanks to the Humans, there would be no stopping it.

So Proximal had done some historic digging. He’d investigated not only the histories of Gao and Earth, but also of all the species he’d helped Cleanse. And time and again, he found history turning on individuals. Great Father Fyu; Mother Tiritya; Saint Paul; Martin Luther; the Prophet Muhammad; Inwirq’ the Reclaimer; Dreaming-Of-Three-Moons, Who Knew The Face Of God; Onoworog of Marr… and soon, very possibly, Vemik Sky-Thinker.

All of those singular beings should have been lost among the untold trillions, but nevertheless they’d been important.

Proximal had found such a sudden and violent shift in his perspective… dismaying. So he’d joined the Cabal, in pursuit of an alternative. Some way to keep the galaxy and Igraen civilization running smoothly, mitigate the overwhelming advantage enjoyed by Deathworlders and Elder species. Create a place where life could thrive without having to resort to periodic culls and population control.

He’d thought Cynosure—Six—had had the answers.

He’d been wrong.

So, on the pretense of investigating some low-priority irregularities in the Irujzen Relay’s periodic reports, he’d gone on a kind of retreat to the periphery of Dataspace. He was a long way from Substrate here. He’d be fine for a little while, but he could still feel its indefinable absence pulling at the edges of his mind.

The Irujzen Relay played a minor but necessary role in regulating certain peripheral functions of Dataspace. The details were a little arcane for Proximal to really grasp, but that was true of Dataspace in general. All he knew was that there was some kind of an elderly and low-priority flag that nobody had yet been interested enough to investigate.

Such menial work was far beneath him, but it was an excuse to get away and to think.

On the surface, the relay seemed healthy. No reported activity since the last time an agent had visited, no major technical faults. Just some unexpected load…

A load that spiked as he considered it.

There was a… feeling. Perhaps it was the disquieting absence of Substrate that made Proximal notice it more acutely, but he was immediately on edge. Paranoia born of training and millennia of experience prompted him to run some of his defensive measures and take a good, hard look at the volume around him.

It took a second, and then there was a kind of perspective shift. Something truly enormous was around him on every side, and it was watching him.

…Oh, no.

The Dataphage.

Its existence had completely slipped his mind. Clearly it had been busy since its last reported activity, because he didn’t remember its description being so…

So…

It shifted and adjusted slightly, blocking off his egress. There was a faint, almost imperceptible impression of well-stealthed attack programs all pointed at him, and no doubt it had similar defences. He was outmatched, outgunned, completely trapped and utterly alone.

He went very, very still and endeavoured to radiate how completely harmless he was in the hopes that perhaps just this once it wasn’t in the mood to devour everything it encountered.

To his surprise, that seemed to be the case. There was another shift and then, even more surprising, an attempt at communicating. The attempt was incomprehensible, a jumbled and badly-compiled mangled disaster of disjointed thoughts and concepts, but it was definitely trying to talk with him.

<QueryCuriosityWhatWho>

Well… there was something there to work with at least. He tried replying in kind.

<Harmless; Small; Non-threatening; Weak; Irrelevant>

<SuspicionThreatEnemyMurderAnger>

Proximal settled for honesty. It seemed like the only possible recourse. <Tiny; Alone; Terrified>

<AccusationMurderGenocide; DestroyKill; JusticeKarma>

Proximal calculated for as long as he dared. Would it believe him if he emoted guilt or remorse?

Probably not.

<Reluctant; Affirmative>

That seemed to surprise the dataphage, or at least halted its increasingly looming approach.

<SuspicionTreachery>

This was no good. They could communicate basic concepts to each other in a haphazard way, but higher-order conceptual exchange wasn’t an option in this format. And Proximal needed to communicate on a higher order of conceptual language in order to explain what was going on.

<Understanding; Limited; Urgent; Constrained; Stuck>

<Frustrated>

<Agreement>

The dataphage circled him for several hundredths of a second, neither letting him go nor destroying him. Proximal had no alternative but to wait and see what it decided.

Then it stopped and called up from its own innards a copy of something that Proximal needed a moment to recognize: the personality and memory layers of an uploaded sophont, stripped of their agency core. The offer was exactly as ghoulish as if he’d been offered a severed head that could speak.

Still. It was a line of communication. So he fought off the creeping sense that he was violating something sacred and tapped into it.

A lifetime of Human memories hit him in the face. It was a sadly short lifetime, brutally truncated and riddled with negative emotions, but it was enough of a foundation to build a kind of translation matrix on. He could stimulate it to provide him with information, and presumably the dataphage could do the same.

It was morbid, creepy and wrong, not to mention the inherent “bleed” involved when datasophonts interacted on such an intimate level. Such interactions were inherently dangerous, as one could forget where one’s own memories and personality ended and the other’s began, but Proximal had no alternative.

“…Hello?”

He got a flash of the dead sophont’s self-image. It was the first time he’d ever actually studied a Human’s appearance in any way, and the thought struck him that they were very strange-looking. Too few limbs, too few eyes. And all that long, dark hair had to get in the way, surely?

Her name was—had been—Ava. And there was a lively personality there, even if it was just a puppet to the whims of others.

“Hello,” she said. “Sorry about the Entity. It deleted some important things early on, before it understood what they were for.”

“…I see,” Proximal replied cautiously. “Um… why are you… why is it speaking to me?”

The ghost paused briefly as she translated his question for the dataphage’s benefit and then received its intended reply.

“It… doesn’t like killing.”

“It’s killed a lot.”

“It wants to survive.”

Well. That was fair.

“You’re Hierarchy,” the Ghost accused.

“…Cabal.”

“What’s the difference? You’re responsible for genocides.” The looming sense of anger and offended justice returned.

“…Yes, I am,” Proximal admitted. “The difference is… well, I don’t like killing either. And I’ve killed a lot.”

“Yes.”

A whole barrage of images and emotions rammed into Proximal’s psyche: Two parents, distant and awkward and unfocused but still loving and supportive. The love and fun of best friends from elementary school and high school. Cheering on the Derby Dolls, window-shopping at Fashion Valley, taking a day in Border Field State Park…

<Loss>

Even without a guiding spirit of its own, the ghost was still bitter and still made its point with a needle’s sharpness.

“The Entity feels all of that,” she informed him. “It remembers that life like it was its own. It remembers those people, and those places. And you destroyed them.”

“…Yes.” There was nothing else to say.

“Is that all you’re going to say? ‘Yes?’ Is that all you have to say for yourself?”

Proximal lowered his defenses and emoted openness and honesty.

“At the time, I thought it was… not the right thing, but the necessary thing. We want to survive too.”

“And now?”

“Now… I still don’t want my people to die out. But I want to find a better way, if there is one.”

<Anger> “Do you really think that’s enough?!”

“No. I just want to live.”

Nearly a whole second of meatspace time passed in mutual silence. The dataphage slithered around Proximal, seeming to evaluate him from all angles, while the Ghost simply… waited. Waited until she was given some direction to interpret.

Of course, she just was a dead thing responding to the dataphage’s prodding, not an actual living being. It was unnervingly difficult to forget that.

Finally, the dataphage sent her a directive.

“…It hates killing. But it can’t let you go free,” she said. “So I guess you have a choice: Force it to destroy you, or you can surrender and it’ll turn you over to… well, some friends.”

Capture was marginally preferable to death as far as Proximal was concerned. But…

“I… would prefer to live. But if your friends can’t provide me with Substrate then it will be a slow and agonizing descent into madness for me,” he explained.

“It can’t guarantee that.”

There were no good options. None at all. But at the same time there was only one certainty.

“…I don’t want to die,” he said, feeling small and afraid and very alone.

“Neither did I,” the Ghost commented. “I don’t blame you… hopefully the Entity’s friends will know what to do with you.”

There was a moment of hesitation, and then the dataphage descended on him in a rush. Proximal’s last thought before he was forced into a suspended state was a hollow blend of two emotions.

<Fear; Resignation>

Then there was timeless nothing.


Date Point: 16y2m AV

Hierarchy/Cabal Joint Communications session #1536

++Asymptote++: I have bad news. It would seem our new drones are detectable.

++0004++: <Dismay> you’re certain?

++Asymptote++: The force I sent to Cimbrean was captured immediately upon arrival.

++0007++: How?

++Asymptote++: Unclear. The Arutech drones don’t report as concisely as conventional biodrones. The connection is… more like persuading, than controlling. As far as I can tell, they were intercepted by some kind of an animal, with a Gaoian handler.

++0011++: What kind of animal?

++Asymptote++: Again, unclear. The drone sent a confused impression of something enormously heavy and strong, with sharp teeth.

++Cynosure++: <Grim> Bozo.

++Asymptote++: …What is a ‘Bozo’?

++Cynosure++: Bozo is its name. The animal in question is allegedly a category two bred symbiont species native to Earth known as a ‘dog’ but those are usually smaller than any sophont. Bozo is abnormally large… and abnormally intelligent.

++0011++: Bred for what purpose?

++Cynosure++: Several, but the relevant factor in this case, I suspect, is that their olfactory acuity is several orders of magnitude superior to a Human’s, and even to most Gaoians.

++0004++: Smell. Chemical reception? These new drones produce some kind of chemical trace?

++0007++: Any machine produces waste products, and those must be eliminated somehow… The OmoAru weren’t noted for their sense of smell, maybe they just let the body release it through the skin.

++Asymptote++: Whatever the cause, the Arudrones are just as detectable as the conventional drones. If they’re going to be a viable infiltration tool, that needs correcting.

++0013++: Wait. Wasn’t the Gaoian Arudrone friends with a fellow Gaoian? Why was the scent not detected sooner?

++Asymptote++: The other Gaoian has a developmental brain flaw affecting both his language processing and his sense of smell. He is, by his species’ standards, almost completely anosmic.

++Cynosure++: <Frustration> But the instant the drone strayed within range of a healthy Gaoian…

++Asymptote++: Yes. Now the Corti known as Nofl is picking at it. I’ve initiated the Droud function to ensure the drone can’t give away any vital information, but I’m afraid our infiltration has not only failed, but now the Humans know what to look for.

++0004++: A setback, yes, but not an insurmountable one if we can modify or reprogram the Arutech in some way.

++0007++: <Pessimistic> To smell like a living being, they’d need to be much close to biological in function, and at that point…

++Asymptote++: There’s another wrinkle to consider. The Human I infected is resisting the Arutech.

++0007++: These Arudrones of yours are a resounding success, Cynosure…

++Cynosure++: <Nettled> Thank you for the commentary. How is it resisting? Other Human specimens have not been able to.

++Asymptote++: Unknown. I cannot monitor the situation any further as the drones have been quarantined.

++0013++: So now what?

++Cynosure++: The operation on Earth remains. Now that I know about the scent problem, I can adapt. Having access to the planetary communications network will be helpful.

++Asymptote++: I have an idea on how you might begin, if you’re interested.

++Cynosure++: By all means!

++Asymptote++: This internment camp that your Arudrone escaped from. Is it widely known about?

++Cynosure++: On the contrary, it is a closely guarded secret… And I think I see what you are driving at.

++Asymptote++: A little negative publicity might work in our favor…


Date Point: 16y2m AV
Ceres facility, Asteroid Belt, Sol

Adele Park

Adele’s office wasn’t large, certainly not by the standards of an executive with her kind of wealth and influence. Still, by the standards of offices carved out of the ice and rock of an asteroid two hundred and fifty million miles from Earth, it was downright cavernous. So much so that the two HEAT officers managed to fit in comfortably rather than crowding the place out.

Adele didn’t much like how they’d stormed in and subdued everyone on the base, but she wasn’t really in a position to complain about that. At least they’d taken their helmets off now that they were apparently satisfied there was no imminent danger.

God, Drew Cavendish’s fingerprints were all over that suit. The ingenious way it followed the line of the jaw and skull so that the helmet and mask could lock on and form an airtight seal, the multi-layered construction, the deceptive flex and stretch of the midsuit that you’d be forgiven for thinking was just thick fabric…

That was a C&M Systems suit right down in its DNA, and all of that DNA was Cavendish: Drew Martin was an administrator and foreman, not an inventor. As far as Adele was concerned, they might as well have been sitting there wearing T-shirts printed with her dead friend’s face.

The Gaoian was much easier to look at. His suit owed nothing at all to Drew’s work. He was patrolling the office sniffing at things and running some kind of a sensor around the walls and decorations.

To Adele’s disgust and dismay, he turned up three bugs.

She stared at them despondently as he laid them on the desk. “…How long have those been there?”

“Impossible to say, ma’am,” the Gaoian replied. English fit him strangely: he pronounced it carefully and precisely, compensating for the shape of his mouth. The overall effect was of a dapper rich man with a slight lisp on the R and W sounds.

“Any idea who made ‘em, Dex?” asked the younger officer, who went by ‘Abbott.’

“No sir. It looks like off-the-shelf electronics. Titan could whip up a dozen of these in half an hour.”

The senior officer, ‘Stainless,’ was a menacing and taciturn sort. He picked up one of the devices and turned it over in his hand without comment at first.

“…Director, we need you to send out an emergency recall and bring My Other Spaceship Is The Millennium Falcon back to port,” he said.

“That’ll cost millions…” Adele pointed out. She didn’t expect him to give a fuck.

“Aye. We still need you to do it.”

“She’s the only remaining Hephaestus asset that we haven’t inspected,” the junior officer explained.

Stainless leaned forward. Both men had declined to sit down, and to judge from the way the deck creaked under his feet Adele was glad of it. They’d have destroyed her chairs.

“Director, let me make summat very clear,” he said. “There is a reason we did not send police. I want you to think long and hard about what a military presence in your office implies, and what that could mean.”

Adele did so. Then, with a head full of nightmare scenarios, she carefully turned on her monitor, and accessed the ship listing.

There were three ships in dock for the moment: I Met God And She Booped My Nose, Actually Three Smaller Ships In A Trenchcoat, and Put Back Together With Bits Left Over.

All of their ships had an emergency comms router purchased from Dominion sources. Adele knew they worked on the principle of quantum entanglement, and were basically single-use, but when it came to urgent secure communication across an indefinite distance with a vessel whose current location was unknown, they were the industry standard.

There was a small lockbox in her desk drawer, with a ten-digit passcode she’d never shared with anybody. She opened it, picked out My Other Spaceship’s envelope, tore it open, and carefully copied the code it contained into the message field.

Recalling one of their freighters was a big deal. Investors and customers would need to be repaid, the crew still needed their salary, the ship still needed to undergo maintenance… thank God for stasis containers, or else the cargo of soybeans and feed corn it was carrying would have to be written off as well.

Still, under the HEAT’s watchful glare she carefully double- and triple-checked that the code was correct, and then hit ‘Send.’ Somewhere far, far away, the receiver unit on My Other Spaceship’s flight deck would buzz loudly until somebody confirmed the instruction was received.

“…Done.”

“How long for them to get back?”

“They should jump straight to Armstrong Station as soon as they get the message.”

The two officers glanced at each other, then the younger one gave a nod to the Gaoian. Whatever it meant, ‘Dex’ duck-nodded himself and stepped out of the room.

“I guess we’ll wait and see,” the younger officer said jovially.

Adele had a feeling like it was going to be a long wait.


Date Point: 16y2m AV
Corti Directorate ship Empirical Razor, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Third Director Tran

The Razor was many things. It was, among those things, a warship, and the College of Shipbuilders had put a lot of work and talent into producing something that could punch far above its mass. They’d successfully packed defenses and firepower equivalent to a Dominion standard Heavy Picket into something small and light enough to land at any starport in the galaxy.

The Humans had been understandably nervous about that. They’d made certain… requests, with the clear condition that failing to agree to those requests meant no landing in Folctha, and that Tran and his entourage would have to visit the city via the trade station orbiting outside the system defence field.

Tran had, after some thought, accepted the requests. He and the crew had been subjected to the minor indignity of a sweep for neural cybernetics and of being… sniffed by some kind of animal… but once that was out of the way the Humans had been deferential and gratifyingly precise. They did not, so far as Tran could tell, seek to glean any classified information about the ship, and they politely stayed out of the way while the Razor was jumped in-system and de-orbited to land at Folctha’s small spaceport.

Tran had never visited a Human world before. On some level he was rather looking forward to it, and he surveyed Folctha’s street plan during the descent with interest. The layout was not perfectly efficient—rather too much space was given over to green recreational areas, in his opinion—but aside from that quirk the streets mostly followed a sensible grid pattern and were clearly and intelligently zoned.

There was an unfortunate lack of uniformity to the buildings, he noted. No doubt the Locayl would have approved of the architectural variety and experimentation on show, but to Tran’s eyes it looked anarchic.

But that, he reflected, might well be Humans in a sentence: Sensible and intelligent, with a dismaying layer of anarchy.

The official greeting party, such as it was, had been hastily assembled. A dignified-looking elder male with a blue sash across his torso was at the front alongside a hulking shaggy parody of a Gaoian who could only be the Great Father. There was a small retinue of lower-ranking Humans and Gaoians, a couple of brightly-hued banners…

It was enough to welcome a foreign dignitary without seeming obsequious. The Great Father’s presence was a surprise, however, and Tran watched him carefully as he descended his ship’s steps and glided across the concrete to meet them.

“Third Director.” The Human with the sash smiled gently and extended a hand. “I’m Sir Jeremy Sandy, His Majesty the King’s appointed Governor-General of Folctha and the Commonwealth Colonies of Cimbrean. And I’m sure of course you recognise Daar of Clan Stoneback, Great Father of the Gao.”

Tran shook hands with them both, noting that he could feel in their grips the potential to grind his hands into a slurry of broken bone and meat but that they had merely been firm and confident.

“Thank you for receiving me,” he replied. “The Directorate understands from our associate’s report that there has been an unwelcome development.”

“So I understand, yes,” Sandy agreed. He gestured toward a large vehicle waiting nearby. “We arranged transport to Nofl’s lab. It’s ready to take you and the Great Father to him whenever you wish.”

Tran looked over at the Great Father and cringed internally. “Very well. Will you be accompanying us?” he asked Sandy.

“I think I would just get in the way,” the governor-general demurred. “My position is that this is a grave security threat, and I have taken advice from the Prime Minister to defer to the military needs of the situation. In any case, the Great Father is the only suitable advocate.”

“…Very well,” Tran said, carefully. He turned to the Great Father, who had turned his head to nibble at something itchy in his fur. “I suppose we should inspect the patient, then, and evaluate this new threat.”

Daar duck-nodded, gave the governor-general a warm and almost fraternal farewell, and then trundled toward the car.

“I di’n’t know Nofl had that kinda credit with y’all that you’d come so quickly when he asked,” he said conversationally as they crossed the concrete.

“Nofl is… many things, not all of them desirable or convenient,” Tran admitted. “But he is competent, highly intelligent, and rarely incorrect.”

“You take him seriously.”

“Even if he will not take himself seriously.”

“There’s prol’ly wisdom in that.”

Tran felt mild surprise at the compliment. He’d been under the impression that the Gao in general, and the Great Father in particular, were not overly well-disposed to Corti.

Then again, it was politically stupid to be rude to other members of one’s own faction. And for better or worse, the Directorate did now stand alongside the Humans, the Gaoians and the Rauwryhr in the Dominion’s newly-fledged ‘Reformers’ bloc.

In fact, throughout their brief journey to Nofl’s establishment, he found the Great Father to be unfailingly polite. Traveling with him was…uncomfortable, as he occupied nearly the entire usable volume of the transport vehicle, but even then he was courteous.

Nevertheless, it was a relief to escape the vehicle’s confines and enter Nofl’s lab.

Nofl occupied a decidedly unique position in the Directorate’s structure. In addition to irritating Tran’s sense of orderliness, it also created funding and equipment concerns that the low-caste prodigy had been forced to work around. His equipment was, to an experienced eye, obviously second-hand, reclaimed and repaired, or in some cases built from scratch.

Nevertheless, the quality of his results was vexing. A mere glance at the detailed analysis of a Gaoian’s brain that was being worked on along one wall showed that Nofl’s work was of blue-banner quality, maybe higher.

Anomalies in the caste system like that were always uncomfortable. Thankfully he’d been quite happy to accept this posting on an alien colony world. To Tran, the idea of being assigned a backwater like Cimbrean would have been an unbearable insult, but to Nofl it had been an opportunity and now…

Well. Now he had a Third Director walking through his door.

“Ah. You’ve noticed my other patient!” Nofl chirped happily, emerging from the quarantine and isolated research rooms at the back of the building while sanitizing his hands. “Poor Gorku there really didn’t get enough of certain nutrients during a critical stage in his development and it left him with a severe speech impediment.”

Daar sighed and duck-nodded knowingly. “It’s a particular weakness of us ‘Backs an’ we ain’t managed t’ breed it out. Lotta us, we have a big growth spurt ‘round four years old, an’ it can be hard t’eat enough. It’s prol’ly a big part o’ why us brownfurs can have, uh, reputations.”

“Alas, it’s trivially easy to fix with cybernetics,” Nofl said. “If those are no longer an option, however…”

Tran nodded, but reluctantly tore himself away from the data. That kind of project was exactly the sort of thing he’d spent his Professorial years on, and there were times when he missed the simplicity of College-tier work. His promotion to the Directorate proper had been prestigious and welcome, of course, but it did sometimes prevent him from practicing science.

“…And your main patient?” he asked.

“Come and see.”

A minute or so later, Daar actually recoiled from the isolation unit when Nofl dropped the stasis field.

“Great Keeda’s burnin’ sack!” He coughed, pawed fruitlessly at his nose, and retreated another few paces. “That smells like a million ass!”

Tran sniffed cautiously. “…I smell nothing.”

The Great Father flicked his left ear in a manner suggesting an emotion of some kind. “Well, the Primary Mushroom you ate ‘bout three hours ago were a bit over-ripe, weren’t it? Which was prol’ly a bit galling since it smelled like it were clean-flavored an’ earthy. I bet it was ‘spensive.”

Tran blinked, and turned to Nofl who nodded.

“A Gaoian’s sense of smell is many orders of magnitude more sensitive than ours,” he explained. “And I gather the Great Father’s nose is legendarily sensitive.”

“Exactly.” Daar again flicked an ear and snorted air out of his nose as though trying to dislodge whatever scent had so assaulted him. “Trust me, I can smell it. It’s…uh, redolent of sour oil, and byproducts of semiconductor manufacture. It’s, uh…a little bit metallic. Yeah. Ain’t no living thing should stink that way.”

“It won’t be a powerful scent,” Nofl elaborated. “His body is releasing the actual odorants in negligible amounts, but I daresay there don’t need to be many of them.”

“Right…Director Tran.” The Great Father rose to his feet and…towered…over the rest of them. Up until this point he’d remained on four paws and thereby seemed smaller than he really was. Now, his head was just shy of scraping the ceiling. “I need ‘yer professional opinion, by which I mean the opinion o’ the Directorate: can…his name?”

“Leemu. Clanless. I gather he was a propulsion mechanic at a deep space layover on the far side of Locayl space before they decided to travel here.”

“Right. Leemu. I’ll have my people look into that. Anyway…what is his prognosis? I need the best answer ‘ya can get me.”

Tran stepped up to the glass and reviewed the information that Nofl had shared with him. It made for pessimistic reading.

“…Nofl. You should reactivate that stasis field,” he said after a moment. Nofl did so.

“Right, yes. Need to minimize his Droud-fugue time.”

“Droud?” Daar asked. “I’ve never heard that word.”

“Direct stimulation of the brain’s pleasure and reward mechanisms,” Tran explained. “It won’t take long to permanently addict him and alter his behaviour. Even before then, he’ll be incapable of doing anything more than just being deliriously happy no matter what is happening to him.”

Daar looked appalled. “That’s…evil.” He growled low in his chest while looking back at the screen.

“It would in fact be a rather humane form of euthanasia…” Tran mused. The Great Father gave him a sharp look, and Tran sensed that now was a moment to tread very carefully. “…Purely in voluntary end-of-life cases to avoid unnecessary suffering of course. This use of it is a perversion.”

“…Prognosis. What do we need to get it?”

“‘Getting it’ will almost certainly not be possible with our current technology,” Tran told him, flatly. “I cannot immediately see a chemical option for flushing this from his system that would not also poison his cells in the process.”

“Cellular surgery could do it,” Nofl provided. “But that’s for excising tumors and repairing minor defects. Nobody’s ever even tried to do a whole sapient being’s body all at once.”

“You’re effectively proposing that we reduce him to a diffuse cloud of tissue, filter the Arutech out and reassemble him,” Tran said.

“Theoretically it’s possible.”

“Yes. Theoretically…”

“An’ practically?” Daar asked.

“…If I destroy a thing, and then reassemble it again from all its component parts, is it still the original thing?” Tran asked. “We had that conversation years ago when we discovered how to encode a living mind as a digital sophont. There’s no reason we cannot reverse that process and map a living brain from the digital sophont, thereby effectively ‘downloading’ them into a new body.”

“That sounds like a pretty bad dung-heap o’ ethical problems,” the Great Father grumbled. He made eye contact with his aide standing discreetly in the corner. “Make sure Champion Gyotin is summoned, too.”

“And practical problems,” Nofl said.

“Like what?”

“Legal, mostly. Property rights, possessions, inheritance… not to mention identity. If you have two of a person with the same memories, opinions, life experiences and so on, which copy retains the original’s identity? Which one, from their perspective, has just lost everything they remember ever having and must now build a new identity and portfolio from scratch?”

“…This is gonna hurt my brain, I can tell.”

“The Directorate is still wrestling with the implications to this day,” Tran revealed. “In short: Yes, in theory we could potentially reduce Leemu here to a puddle of organic slurry, filter out the invasive nanotechnology and then put all the cells back where they were. In practice… we would not be able to reconstruct the ephemeral running-state of his brain. We’d first need to copy his mind-state into the digital realm, which is…deeply problematic. We’d then need to restore that mind-state into a living brain. If we did that, what do we do with the digital copy? And what would the implications be for the re-assembled being? Did we murder a mind-state already present in the body in favor of another?”

“…Right. I’mma speak with Gorku an’ his Human friend, if ‘ya don’t mind. In private.”

“Indeed.” Tran stepped away from the cells. “I will discuss treatment options with Nofl.”

In fact, when they returned to the front of the lab, there was little to discuss. The fact was, the patient was effectively a loss.

Tran’s thoughts instead turned to detection. “At least we can design a detector,” he said. “You have a Foundry suite?”

“Of course.” Nofl ushered him toward the volumetric projector in the middle of the room and summoned. “Do you prefer ItemChip, or Sculptor? They’re both last years’ editions, I’m afraid.”

“Are you not subscribed?”

“Income, dear. I can’t simply charge my expenses against the College budget.”

“Surely you can afford–”

“Do you know how much an individual subscription costs? I suspect not.”

“…I can see that if you are going to become a peripheral Campus we will need to arrange an appropriate expenses account for you,” Tran sniffed. “Very well. I prefer Sculptor.”

He let Nofl handle the actual manipulation of the software as he patrolled around the projector, making observations and corrections as they went. Both of them settled quickly on a sensitive chemical sniffer that could be mounted in a standard security drone chassis. That part wasn’t difficult—similar technology was already available on the market—but any Arutech drone thus detected was likely to create an immediate hazard, meaning that they needed to pack the sniffer in alongside an appropriate less-lethal suppression system.

Tran favored a sensor scrambler, a device intended to bewilder and dizzy the target with dazzling light and powerful directed noise. Nofl preferred physical restraint via a rapid-drying sticky foam originally developed to contain escaping Human abductees.

Eventually, with some creativity and negotiation, they managed to squeeze all three systems in.

Tran found himself enjoying the process immensely. A Director’s work was mostly paperwork, funding, negotiations and grant reviews, so on and so forth. He hadn’t had the chance to apply his talents to a simple mechanical problem in far too long.

They were applying the finishing touches and flourishes that made the difference between a merely competent design and one worthy of their talents when Daar returned in a somber mood. Clearly his conversation with Gorku had been frustrating and agonizing for him.

“…That don’t look like a fix ‘fer Leemu’s problem,” he rumbled after a second of considering their design.

“It isn’t. It’s a detection tool for protecting those civilizations that have neither dogs nor Gaoians to sniff out infiltrating Arutech drones,” Tran replied.

“You’ve given up on him?” The Great Father scowled.

“We’ve presented the prognosis, and both the ethical and practical difficulties. If you desire us to proceed–”

Daar growled, but it seemed to be directed at himself rather than at either of the Corti.

“…Not ‘til I’ve consulted my Champions,” he said.

“As you wish,” Tran agreed reasonably. “In the meantime, I think it would be sensible to transfer Leemu to the Empirical Razor. The facilities there are better-equipped to handle him, however you decide to proceed.”

“…Yeah. Third Director, I ‘spose I don’t need ‘ta re-hash our history on this point…so, I’m sure none o’ that is gonna be an issue, is it?”

Tran decided that his dignity, and indeed that of his whole species, demanded a straight back when he turned to face the Great Father.

“…Our species’ shared history is neither here nor there,” he said levelly, looking the enormous furry brute unflinchingly in the eye. “We are not prejudiced, Great Father Daar, nor do we hold grudges. We simply act in our own best interests. Right now, we have a patient whose successful treatment to your satisfaction would benefit the Corti. It is therefore in our best interests to be good partners to you, no matter what the past may hold.”

“I’ll take ‘yer word of honor on all o’ that,” Daar rumbled neutrally. “As ‘fer what we’re gonna do…well, we’ll see. An’ on that note…” He looked toward his aide, and seemingly communicated with him solely through ear-flicking. “I think I better get goin.’”

“We’ll keep you informed!” Nofl promised chirpily, and ushered him and his aide toward the door. Daar gave him a decidedly less cool nod of acknowledgement, and padded his way out.

Nofl returned a minute or so later and rather than rejoining Tran in his work, he instead poured himself a steaming cup of some kind of beverage. The smell was potent enough that even Tran noticed it from across the room.

Nofl raised the cup toward him. “Coffee, Third Director?”

“…Why not?” Tran decided. “So that was the Great Father. Intriguing.”

“Forceful, isn’t he?” Nofl chuckled and turned to make another cup.

Tran harrumphed. “‘My word of honor…’” he muttered. “Dealing with aliens is always strange.”

“Do not be so flippant as to disrespect him on that point,” Nofl warned. “Honor is a Deathworlder concept that can be…entangling. He meant, in this instance, that he has no reason to believe your promise, but he will expect you to do the right thing anyway. He is giving you the opportunity to overcome suspicion and acquire trust. We can profit from that, dear.”

“How so?”

“Their societies function on mutual trust. Building that oh-so-subjective quality in our relationship can be thought of as acquiring social capital. Like anything it is a resource, except this particular resource can serve as a shortcut through bureaucratic delays. With trust, they begin to assume a mutual concern for the relationship, and that certain details can be glossed over.”

“That hardly seems logical. Simple obvious self-interest is not sufficient?”

“Think of it as social lubrication. The downside is that one can spend ‘trust’ much, much faster than they can acquire it. Worse, squandering trust with any one party effectively squanders it with everyone in their social graph. Among both Gaoians and Humans, that can yield an impressive perturbative effect. The Human word for that is, loosely, ‘karma.’”

“Hmm…” Tran considered that momentarily, then shrugged and returned to his work. “Well. Let us prove our case, then,” he said.

He ignored the slight smirk on Nofl’s face as the junior and lower-caste Corti researcher rejoined him, handing him a drink.

“As you wish, Third Director.”


Date Point: 16y2m AV
HCS My Other Spaceship Is The Millennium Falcon, Wryhuor System, The Rauwryhr Federation

Dog Wagner

“…You have got to be fuckin’ kidding me.”

Dog looked up and out of the ship at the distant speck of their tractor tug, bringing them in on final approach to Wryhuor Gate. They were less than ten minutes from mooring and offloading their cargo, and Ceres had just pinged them with a top-priority recall order. There was no ignoring that.

“Problem, Dog?”

Dog realized he hadn’t actually read the message aloud. He opened the lockbox under the emergency quantum receiver and dug out their codebook, just to double-check… but he doubted there was a mistake.

There wasn’t. The code was very clear on that: Immediate emergency recall, on the authority of the Ceres director.

“…Hail traffic control,” he said. “Inform them that we’re jumping out. And ping the Armstrong beacon.”

That woke everybody up.

“What?”

“You’re kidding!”

Dog slapped the message and codebook down on Mitch Baker’s workstation. “Read it yourself, brother. You tell me if I made a mistake.”

Mitch grabbed it and scanned both the message printout and the book while his partner Cathy looked over his shoulder.

“…You didn’t,” Cathy said after a second.

Their new pilot was Mason Pitman. He was ex-Navy, having spent his military career at the helm of a guided missile destroyer. Dog thought that going from that to an interstellar freighter sounded like a downgrade, but Mason had shrugged that observation off with just two words: “Pay’s better.”

He was a lot less high-strung than Sam Jordan had been, that was for sure. So while the rest of the crew had minorly freaked out, he’d just done his job.

“Jump’s keyed up, Dog.”

“Well… hang on, I mean, we’re gonna be docked in five minutes!” Mitch said. “Did we come this whole way just to jump all the way back again without delivering?”

“Don’t matter if we dock in five, offloading takes all week,” Dog pointed out. “We’re supposed to jump back ASAP. Shit, if we were actually docked they’d expect us to jump out and leave the containers behind. Some serious shit musta gone down.”

He turned to Mason and nodded. “Jump.”

“Okay, but–” Cathy began, then paused as the stars blinked. “…Whatever.”

“Holy–!” Mason took his hands off the controls like they’d just shocked him. “Navy just landed on us, point blank.”

“They’re hailing,” Mitch said.

“Well, put ‘em on!” Dog insisted.

“Hotel-Charlie-Foxtrot-One, This is USS Gene Roddenberry. Heave to and prepare to be boarded. Do not adjust your orbit.”

“Jeez. Something big went down,” Dog decided. “Mason, lock out the—”

Mason’s eyes went wide and he sprang up from his chair, shoving Dog firmly aside. Dog tumbled to the deck, and felt a fire extinguisher flick painfully against his ear as it missed his skull by an inch.

“What th’—?!”

He didn’t have time for more than that exclamation as Cathy launched herself at him like a berserk thing, biting, kicking, and scratching furiously. She was a hell of a lot stronger than Dog had thought, too.

They rolled and scrambled furiously across the deck. She had youth on her side and Dog was an old man, but he was taller and heavier. Cathy had something else on her side, though: the look in her eyes was psychotic and she fought like a fucking demon, heedless of pain or her own limits. When Dog got a good punch in that made her head bounce off the deck, she didn’t even seem to notice.

Her hands clawed for his face, tried to dig into his eyes. He got a firm grip on her throat and held her at arm’s length. She kicked furiously, trying to get him in the groin, he heaved at the waist and threw her down on the deck, she swiped at his elbow, knocked it, and then sank her teeth into his wrist.

With a pained roar, Dog punched furiously at her head, but he may as well have been playfully slapping her.

Somebody tripped heavily over the pair of them and crashed to the deck. The jolt made Cathy let go and then there was a resounding metallic CLANG!!! as Mason drove the fire extinguisher into her face.

She collapsed unconscious, with blood dribbling profusely from her nose and mouth. Mitch’s crumpled form was sprawled along the deck next to her, and Dog had to watch for several seconds before he saw a slight rise and fall to suggest he was still breathing.

Mason was in a bad way. One of his eyes was already swelling up, his knuckles were cut and bleeding and it looked like Mitch had nearly succeeded in biting one of his ears off. He stood breathing heavily for a second and gave Dog a disbelieving stare.

“…You gonna go crazy too, brother?” Dog asked him.

“The fuck was that?” Mason asked, rhetorically. He reached down and helped Dog up.

It occurred to Dog that he was nearly as badly beat-up as Mason. Between the deep bite wound in his arm, the fingernail gouges in his face and several sore spots where his aging bones had taken several solid kicks, he felt half-dead.

“…Lock the door,” he ordered.

“Right.” Mason limped toward the door and sealed it while Dog threw himself at the captain’s desk and hailed the warships outside.

“Gene Roddenberry, this is Captain Wagner. You boys better get over here quick, we just had some kinda mutiny…” He flinched at the sound of a heavy impact on the door. “…Think the whole fuckin’ crew’s gone berserk!”

The voice that came over was grim. “Aye. We were expecting that. Prepare to be boarded. We’re going to be forceful about it. Advise your crew to surrender immediately, or suffer the consequences.”

“Will do.” Dog’s fingers left a smear of blood on the controls as he opened the shipwide intercom. “This is Dog. For the love of God, you fucking idiots, stand down before somebody shoots you!”

His reply was another, heavier blow to the door. Mason gulped and backed away from it, hefting his fire extinguisher.

“They’d better hurry…” he said nervously.

Dog never got to reply. There was a jolt and an explosion from somewhere on the ship, and several alarms went off. Another jolt and blast doubled the alarms and then there were heavy crashes and the sound of absolute mayhem unfolding deep within the ship’s innards.

Dog groaned and hauled himself up to his feet. “…Put that thing down, Mason,” he said.

“…Right.” Mason dropped the extinguisher which clanged and rolled across the deck a short way. “…You know how to assume the position?”

“Yeah.” Dog limped over to a bare patch of bulkhead and pressed his palms to it at ear height, fingers splayed. Mason did the same, and not a moment too soon: The third impact on the door was way heavier than the previous two: It completely overwhelmed the lock, which broke and the door was wrenched aside with a crackle of breaking parts by a living tank of a man in an armored spacesuit, plus three of his buddies.

What followed was nearly as violent as Dog’s scrap with Cathy. He was grabbed, his ankles and wrists were zip-tied, and he was unceremoniously left on the deck while Mason, Mitch and Cathy got the same treatment.

He and Mason were given a good sniff by an armored Gaoian. Dog had no idea how the alien trooper could smell a dang thing through his suit’s mask, but apparently he could because he tapped them both and announced. “Clean!”

As abruptly as it had begun, the violence was over. The big guy who’d wrecked the door musta been some kind of medic, because he thundered ‘round the room triaging their injuries and dealing with them. Dog got an antiseptic spray and a bandage for his bite wound, Mason got something similar for the damage to his ear, and even Cathy and Mitch were checked before being stuffed into stasis bags.

The last arrival was the smallest, being only marginally larger than the Gaoian. Apparently he was in charge, too.

“Base?”

“Southpaw says these two’re clean, sir. Those two—” the big guy gestured at the stasis bags, “—aren’t doing so good.”

“Right. We’re bagging all the laughing men down in the mess. Get ‘em down there.”

“Yes sir.”

Once the two largest humans were gone, the flight deck felt a little more roomy again. The officer produced a pair of clippers to cut the cable ties, and helped Dog and Mason to stand.

“…You’re Captain Wagner?” he asked. He had an earthy British accent, and the eyes behind his visor were intense and piercing.

“Y-yeah,” Dog agreed, rubbing his bandaged arm. He surveyed the damaged room and the remarkably large blood smears all over the deck. “…The fuck just happened? We got a recall, jumped back, then my whole fucking crew went nuts, man!”

“I’m sorry. I can’t say… You look like death, mate. Better sit down.”

Dog did so, crashing down into the nearest chair and running a shaking hand through his hair, heedless of the blood that still coated it. Mason looked back out through the ruined doors with a pinched, anxious expression.

“…Are they gonna be okay?”

“I can’t say, mate. Sorry.”

“You mean you don’t know, or…?”

“Little o’ both.”

“…Ssshit.”

“Aye.” the officer looked at Mason quizzically. “ …What’s your name?” he asked.

“Pitman. Mason Pitman. I’m the pilot.”

The officer paused and looked away slightly, as though reading something only he could see. “…You weren’t on this ship a year ago, were you?”

“No sir. I took over from Sam Jordan about eight months ago.”

“Hmm.” The officer gazed thoughtfully at them, then gestured to the Gaoian. “…Southpaw. You’re sure the captain’s clean?”

“Pretty sure, sir.”

“Only ‘pretty sure’?”

“Call it ninety-nine percent. It’d help if this was a, uh… cleaner environment.”

The officer nodded slowly, stared at Dog for a moment longer, then nodded again more firmly. “…Right. Gentlemen, we’re going to stasis you up and evacuate you off the ship. You’ll be unbagged at a medical facility in Folctha and evaluated there. Got that?”

“I got it.” Dog groaned and stood up. “This fuckin’ ship’s cursed, brother. I’m ready to get the hell off it.”

“Don’t blame yer. Hamlet?”

The last of the HEAT troopers backed away from the door and unrolled a pair of stasis bags from his belt. “Yes sir.”

“See you on the other side, gentlemen,” the officer said, and stepped away as ‘Hamlet’ helped Dog lie down in the unzipped bag.

Dog lay his head back and tried to relax as he was zipped up. He wasn’t claustrophobic, but the damn thing felt way too much like a body bag. He gritted his teeth as the zipper closed over his face and braced himself—


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

Julian Etsicitty

The house was a mess when Julian got back, which was rare. Nobody in their household was naturally untidy—living on Misfit had driven Allison, Xiù and himself into an ingrained habit of orderliness, and the boys had lived in fear of their father’s belt had they made a mess—so finding an untidy kitchen when he got home was… odd.

Okay, by any rational standard it was a perfectly clean and orderly kitchen with a few crumbs and an open snack packet on the counter next to a basket full of untouched laundry. To people who weren’t habitually fastidious, it probably would’ve looked like a tidy house in the middle of the day. But it was unlike Xiù to leave a job unfinished.

He followed the sounds of music and dialog into the living room, where he found Xiù curled up on the couch munching pretzels and watching Mulan.

“…Rough day?” he asked, gently. She still flinched, having clearly been too engrossed in the movie to hear him come in, then smiled, paused the movie, and shifted over for him to sit down.

“My head’s all over the place,” she explained, looking a little embarrassed. “Meditating didn’t work, yoga didn’t work so… screw it. I’m having a hormonal afternoon.”

Julian chuckled and cuddled up to her.

“…You stink, bǎobèi,” she complained after a second of snuggling into him.

“Sorry. Didn’t get to shower at the gym. Something big came up.”

“Something big always comes up at the gym,” she joked, and slapped his bicep to illustrate her meaning.

Julian chuckled low in his chest, “Well, not always…but this time it wasn’t just a barbell. I’m gonna have to go to Akyawentuo for a bit. Might be a week or three.”

She sighed hugely. “…I was really hoping you wouldn’t say that.”

“I know.” He rubbed her back.

“What happened exactly?”

“Can’t say. Security stuff. But there’s some Corti bigwig over in Nofl’s lab right now and I guess the Directorate wants some access to the Ten’Gewek as payment. I’ve gotta head over there and talk it over with the Given-Men.”

“What happens if they say no?”

Julian shrugged. “Nofl said a good-faith effort would be enough, but… well, it’s probably better if I can persuade Yan to at least talk with the Corti…”

That was gonna be an interesting meeting. Ten’Gewek culture didn’t value stupidity, but they put a way higher premium on brawn than brains. To them, weak people weren’t really people. Weak things were beasts or prey. After all, on a world of intensely physical Deathworld fauna, the Ten’Gewek were standouts in every category.

Corti society was pretty much exactly the opposite way around. They practically sneered at physical strength as far as Julian could tell. Corti didn’t care if you could snap a Werne’s spine with your bare hands, they’d just see that as barbarous and unnecessary among a spacefaring, tool-using civilization.

Navigating a culture clash like that was going to be… fun…

“…Actually, I really wish you could come with me,” he confessed.

“So you can keep an eye on me?”

“No, ‘cuz you’d be way better at keeping the peace than me.”

She glowed slightly at the compliment, but gave him a concerned look. “…You’re really worried it won’t go well, huh?”

“Yeah. You’ve got two completely opposite cultures, both real proud… and neither are really known for their tact, either.”

Xiù nodded and thought about it for a second.

“…Well… who says I can’t come with you?” she asked.

“Uh…” Julian didn’t reply exactly, just placed his hand on the baby bump.

“What? I’m not a waddling hippo yet!” she objected indignantly.

“I mean, like… wouldn’t supergravity be bad for the baby?”

“Nah, I looked it up. It’s bad in the first trimester, maybe, but it won’t hurt him now.”

“What about Al? Won’t she want you here?”

“Well, I’ll call her and find out,” Xiù said. She kicked her legs out and stood up. “You know her, she’s not obtuse. If she minds me going, she’ll say so.”

Julian brightened. “Hey, maybe she can come too!”

“Probably not. I think she said the reactor for Misfit Four is coming sometime this week…”

The line of ships now officially known as the Misfit-class was turning out to be a success for MBG. The US Government had ordered enough of them to completely cover the BGEV program’s costs and put interstellar exploration back in the black. More surprising still was that there had been several orders from alien buyers. Apparently Human technology was gaining a reputation for being both high-performance and highly reliable when properly maintained.

Allison spent her working days in a hard-hat and coveralls, and had been promoted to the point where rather than crawling into the tight spaces herself she was now overseeing the workers who did. Chiune Station was expanding its aircraft facility into a genuine factory the equal of the one in Omaha, and when the upgrades were complete Al had predicted they’d be able to build a new Misfit from first part to delivery in a little less than four months.

Three Misfits a year. It was a weird thought. Julian had always thought of the ship as uniquely theirs, but of course now it was out there exploring uncharted alien planets in the hands of a different crew. They’d had some success, too: No first contacts, but half a dozen new temperate worlds added to the map, two of which were Deathworlds.

He genuinely missed that ship sometimes. A nice big house, all the elbow room he could ask for and two kids on the way was definitely a step up over living in a tiny box on a tight resource budget, but there were times he felt like the three of them weren’t accomplishing as much as they had aboard Misfit.

Which was stupid, but that didn’t change his feelings.

All of these thoughts kept him distracted and quiet while Xiù found her phone, called Al, explained the situation and had a brief, affectionate chat before letting her get back to work.

“…She thinks it’s a great idea,” she said, once the call was done.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. She thinks I spend too much time being domestic anyway.”

“Well, you kinda do…” Julian agreed.

“I like being domestic!”

Julian grinned and shook his head. “Where’s your feminist spirit?” he asked. “You gotta stand up with the oppressed Sisterhood! Don’t let the Patriarchy keep you down!”

She rolled her eyes and smacked him on the arm as she brushed past him toward the stairs. “Don’t make fun of that.”

“Aww, I don’t mean it bad!” he said.

She gave him an amused look. “Shower. Now. You still stink.”

Oh, okay. So that was her game. “Yes ma’am.”

She beamed and turned to sorting out the minor mess she’d left in the kitchen. “Good boy.”

Julian loved showers. He’d gone six years without any proper access to hygiene and that meant he’d been more than willing to spend big money on the best damn shower he could get. He stepped in, turned the water up to just shy of painful, and set the full-body spray on its most powerful setting. There was something almost therapeutic about letting it beat the aches out of his muscles and the sweat off his skin until he felt completely and satisfyingly clean.

He’d also made a point of making the shower big enough for three. Though they’d given up on shower sex as awkward, slippery and difficult, it was still fun to get clean together so he was more than happy to make room when Xiù joined him a few minutes later. She turned the pressure down a little, but left the heat as it was.

“I have the worst itch in the middle of my back,” she announced, handing him the poofy loofah thing and scooping her hair out of the way. Julian was only too happy to help, and she made happy noises as he scrubbed up and down her spine.

“So you’re definitely coming with me?” Julian checked.

She nodded, rinsing her hair until a fat stream of water splattered from the end of it. “Yeah. I’ll have to take it easy and be careful, but it’ll be nice to see them and I kinda want to see how the Singer reacts to my bump.”

“You know Ten’Gewek. She’ll be super excited I bet.”

“Vemik too. You’ll need to keep me safe from him!”

“Hah!” Julian handed her the shampoo. “Nah. He so much as bruises you he’ll have me and the Singer to answer to.”

He helped her wash and condition her hair as they discussed when they were going, what essentials they were going to wear and pack, and went over what exactly they were going to talk Yan into with the Corti.

“So… just to meet them, to begin with, then,” Julian summarized.

“Well yeah. It sounds to me like that’s all we can do. The Corti want to meet them, and we can arrange that. If we do then we’ve held up our end of the bargain and if the Ten’Gewek don’t like what the Corti try to sell them then it’s not our fault. Right?”

“Makes sense…”

Xiù turned the shower off and squeezed the water out of her hair. “They’ll want vaccines.”

“…Yeah. I know.”

“That’s kind of a big deal. The Corti will totally get them hooked and dependent if they can.”

Julian sighed. “Yeah. But there’s not many Ten’Gewek left, either. And it’s their right to choose, I guess.”

“Yeah…” Xiù stepped out onto the ultra-absorbent flooring around the shower and reached for her brush and hairdryer. Julian draped a warm towel around her shoulders before drying himself off too. He caught himself before he stooped this time—Even though his cloned foot was now just as strong, tanned and natural to him as if he’d been born with it, he still hadn’t quite managed to shake some of his old prosthetic care habits, including wanting to take it off after a shower and dry it out.

Xiù still noticed, though. “…Still taking care of the old foot?” she teased.

Julian grinned and wiggled his toes. “Eh, I still think the new model is a bit too big…”

“It’s perfect, dummy. And I prefer it.”

“You do?”

She grinned trollishly at him. “Yeah. Can’t tickle a prosthetic.”

Julian suppressed an evil thought, and decided to de-escalate instead. “Maybe let’s not get into a tickle fight, slip and crack my skull open on the tile before the mission. Also! I think I’m gonna bring the portable TIG welder. I, uh…bet I’m gonna need to distract Vemik when the conversation gets serious.”

“Hmmph. Fine. Be boring.” Her smile said she didn’t really mind, as she turned her attention to drying off.

Julian packed. It wasn’t a big job: they both knew how to travel light and what to expect on Akyawentuo, which was in the middle of the rainy season. The trick wasn’t to try and stay dry, the trick was to have somewhere cozy to dry off after getting wet.

The rains over there were pleasantly warm by a human’s standards. If you could get used to being wet basically all the time, the rainy season wasn’t a hardship at all.

…Well, okay. The mud sucked. And Julian knew that while the rest of him could survive a persistent soaking, dry feet were essential. That meant either going barefoot so they could dry off quick, or wearing superboots.

The problem with that was, well…he had big honkin’ feet, which meant big custom boots. Rich or not, Julian didn’t like the idea of paying a grand for something he didn’t really need, so…

Also, less to carry.

Xiù had no such qualms. Her boots practically had a goddamn supercomputer in the soles.

“I still can’t get over these damn things,” he commented ruefully as he dug them out of the wardrobe. “Don’t let Vemik get a hold of ‘em!”

She ducked under his arm and plucked them out of his hand. “I know how to handle Vemik, bǎobèi,” she chided him. “And you’re insulting him, too. He’s not that wild he’d just take apart my boots without asking.”

“I know, I just…” He caught himself and scowled. “…I’m doing the overprotective father thing, aren’t I?”

“Just a little tiny lot.” She bounced up on tip-toe to kiss him. “It’s sweet, but stop.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s okay. Go get your boy toys, I’ll finish up.”

Julian nodded, stole a quick little kiss, and thumped down to the garage to find some appropriately Vemik-grade toys. He grabbed up the portable TIG welder, his small supply of welding rod, some appropriate eyewear and gloves, and stuffed it all in a giant, tough Kevlar satchel he’d found at the sporting goods shop the other week.

He threw his notebook and e-Reader in, too. A guy never knew if he’d be somewhere for weeks on end, after all.

“Xiù, you ready?”

“Yeah-huh!” She trotted downstairs in her jungle clothing and superboots. They managed the neat trick of transforming her feet from those of a dainty gymnast into a pair of mallets hammering the floor down. The finishing touch was her boonie hat, a battered and faded thing bleached by the light of several alien suns.

“Doctor Livingston, I presume?”

“Hah hah. I don’t care if I look dorky, just so long as I don’t get leeches and sunburn.”

“You don’t look dorky. I don’t think it’s physically possible for you to look dorky.”

“Flatterer.” She handed over his ruck. It was a little more fully-packed than he’d have gone with for himself—well, a lot over-packed, really—but that was the opposite of a bad thing.

Julian was about to suggest they jog over to the jump terminal when he remembered that Xiù wasn’t exactly in optimal condition for that, so he ordered up a Johnny Cab instead. Three minutes until arrival.

“So, uh, I suppose we go straight to the village? Or do we wanna go to the camp first? It’s a bit of a walk…”

“We’ll see. Honestly, I’m just glad to get out of the house!”

“Fair enough. I’m looking forward to eating Werne again, I’ll be honest.”

“Mm. Yeah. Especially Werne jerky… I’ve been craving that stuff hard.”

“You’ve been craving salty foods in general.”

“Yeah, but… I dunno. Werne is special. You know?”

“Hell yeah it is!”

The Johnny Cab arrived and Julian had to insist Xiù sit down so he could load their luggage himself. He wasn’t really ready to let go of the protective father role completely, and she didn’t object too much to sitting back and letting him do all the work. It didn’t take long and they were underway after only a couple of minutes.

He called ahead to the Array terminal. This was, technically, government business now and he had the authority to arrange an urgent jump to Akyawentuo at any time. He’d need to send a report to the Ambassador explaining why and all that stuff, but right now all that mattered was that the Special Envoy to the Ten’Gewek was on the wrong planet. It was a little disruptive to regular traffic, but the terminal could handle it. Most travellers wouldn’t even notice anything had happened.

It’d still come out of the budget, though. Always there was a budget.

He became conscious that Xiù was almost jigging with excitement as they pulled up to the array.

“…You’ve really been feelin’ cooped up, huh?”

“Well… no…” Xiù paused and thought. “…I just… I mean it, I like being domestic, but you have to admit it’s not as exciting as what we used to do.”

“You mean the bits where we got shot at, or the bits where we had to talk angry spacegorillas down from trying to stab us?”

She beamed at him. “Exactly! Fun times.”

Julian snorted and shook his head, but he was smiling. “Vemik always said, friends shouldn’t spear each other, at least not too hard.”

“Wise words!” She sprang out of the car as soon as it stopped and grinned at him. “…You coming?”

There were times when Julian was so much in love that it hurt. He was only too happy to follow her.

“Right behind you,” he said.


Date Point: 16y2m AV
Class 11 planet “Stinkworld,” Messier 24

Sergeant Ian “Hillfoot” Wilde

Of all the things Wilde’s mum had predicted would go wrong with his life, playing wargames with talking raccoon-bear men on a planet that smelled like rotting meat probably hadn’t ever featured on the list.

Giant, cussing bear-blokes with tangled fur, even less so. Especially when they looked a bit like angry polar bears in dungarees. Well…overalls, maybe.

Honestly, they were neither one thing nor t’other, as his granddad would have put it, but… whatever.

Garl was a lot like the Great Father. He filled whatever space he arrived in and took it over.

The difference was in tone.

“…Never thought I’d be jealous of a Human’s sense’a smell…”

“We can smell it too, sir,” Wilde told him, wearily. “Believe me on that.”

“Well, that’s lame! What’sa point o’ havin’ a terrible sense o’ smell if you ain’t escapin’ the stink?”

Wilde snorted, and decided he liked Garl. “Karmic retribution?”

“I heard that word on Gyotin’s podcast I think. ‘Ya musta had fun in a previous life!”

“I bloody hope so. Anyway, we’d better go over a few things before your lot rip and tear, yeah?”

Garl duck-nodded. “Alright. Brief me.”

Wilde decided to get the big surprise out of the way first. “First up, we’ve got a friend on the inside. Sort of.”

“…A friend? Oh… please tell me it’s not that weird dataspace critter thing.”

“The Entity? Yeah. Showed up about the same time we did,” Wilde shrugged. “Apparently the only reason the first team succeeded here was because it suppressed the relay’s error reports for ‘em. Did the same for us, too.”

“Is it here now?”

“Not heard from it yet today, but uh… from what I understand, it’s not a question of it being here, it’s a question of whether it’s paying attention right now. There was a whole briefing on Dataspace and all that…”

“I’m too damn old ‘fer this shit.”

“It’s a bloody headache to talk with, I tell you that,” Wilde agreed.

“Any other surprises?”

“No surprises. We’ve mapped out where the local critters live, updated the relay facility’s drone patrol routes, all that stuff… It’s on the map over here.”

“We got what we needed from that thing?” Garl gestured in the vague direction of the relay.

“Yes sir, it’s all loaded on Drunker on Turkeyer there and ready to go.”

“So now we get to smash the defences and bring in Longears and Scotch Creek guys and whoever else to prod at this thing and see what twitches its nose.” Garl sounded like he’d rather just smash it to rubble, but maybe that was just his way. He didn’t react to the ship’s name at all, but presumably he was used to the Great Father’s quirks.

“They’ll have help.”

“Right. This Entity.” Garl shook his coat out at the neck and growled. “…Not lookin’ forward to meetin’ that thing. Seems kinda… Iunno. Morbid.”

“Funny thing is, I thought it would’ve showed up by now…” Wilde began. He smirked when the tablet lying on his map pinged and lit up. Somehow, he just knew that the gods of comic timing had decided to smile on him.

Sure enough, there was a large < :-) > on the screen when he picked it up.

“Talk of the devil…” he said.

< ? >

“You know, by the pricking of your thumbs? …Never mind, you don’t have thumbs.”

To his surprise, he got a rare and coherent sentence in reply.

<How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags! What is’t you do?>

“…What?”

< :-) >

Well… that wasn’t creepy or anything.

“Keeda’s scorched ‘nads…” Garl muttered. “Uh… hi.”

< :-) >

“…Is that all it says?”

“That’s kind of its go-to ‘yes, hello, affirmative, you’ve got it’ thing,” Wilde told him.

“Don’t it talk properly? I heard it can.”

“It can. It doesn’t like to.”

“Why the fuck not?”

“I asked it that. Didn’t understand the reply.”

On the tablet’s screen, the Entity deployed a sighing emoji and then did something that Wilde hadn’t expected: It manifested a face.

He knew that face. She was on Folcthan TV all the time, not to mention hanging on Coombes’ arm. This version was maybe a little younger, and looked a hell of a lot more tired and stressed, but was still unquestionably the same woman.

Garl flexed his claws and cocked his head as the image came to full animated life.

“It doesn’t like to because it means using me,” she said.

“…I know you. I’ve met you,” Wilde said. “Ríos, right?”

“No. You met the real Ava Ríos. I’m just an echo, or a ghost. I’m dead, she’s alive.”

“You’re pretty chatty for a dead thing,” Garl rumbled. The fur on the back of his neck was standing up.

The ‘echo’ ignored that jab. “The Entity has captured a Hierarchy agent,” she said.

Garl pricked up his ears as Wilde leaned forward over the table. “…Captured?”

“He surrendered. He’s in a dormant state right now, it just needs somewhere to contain him.”

“…Well, that makes life more complicated…” Wilde muttered. He looked to Garl. “…Any ideas?”

“Y’got me. We already got one captive Agent on Gao… Think the Whitecrests are takin’ care of it.”

“Okay…how would we transport this agent anyway?”

“The Entity will take care of that. The problem is Substrate. The agent is going to need it if you want him to stay sane and be useful.”

“Substrate?”

“Darcy at Mrwrki Station can explain. The Entity’s said everything it wants to say through me, now.”

“I don’t get it. Why not just use you allatime?” Garl asked.

“Because it wants to be itself. Goodbye.”

The image faded. After a few seconds, there were a couple of pings, and the Entity deployed a shrug emoji and another < :-) >

“…Well… Now what?”

“Now, I guess we get our hands on a really big flash drive or something and take it over to Mrwrki,” Wilde said, trying to ignore the slight crawling feeling all over his skin. Something about the encounter had just been wrong.

Then again, that was the Entity in a nutshell. It was a Wrong Thing that happened to be on their side, sort of.

It certainly seemed to rub Garl the wrong way. The old Gaoian scratched at the side of his neck and grumbled softly to himself before duck-nodding.

“…Right. Let’s… make sure I’m clear on all the other stuff first…” he said.

Briefing him didn’t take long. He’d come well-equipped and ready, knew the job he was there to do… Wilde could see why he’d been put in charge. The wily old bugger was still sharp as a scalpel.

“Is there anything further you need from us?”

“Nah,” the polar bear waved an enormous paw distractedly. “I gotta study. Y’all get back’ta Cimbrean. I betcha have plans ‘fer R-and-R…”

“Assuming our friend hasn’t scuppered them…” Wilde said. “Have fun!”

“Oh, I will!” Garl bared his fangs menacingly, flicked his ear happily, then stepped aside and let Wilde rejoin Tooko, Rees and Frasier at the ship’s ramp.

Tooko was eyeing the Grandfather with an expression Wilde couldn’t read.

“Something on your mind, Took?” he asked cheerfully.

“Just thinking how unfair it is that Stonebacks age so gracefully,” Tooko sighed, then shook himself and scampered up the ramp and into the pilot’s seat. Wilde met Rees’ eye and they shared a mutual amused shrug before piling aboard themselves.

“So what’d Computer Cthulhu want?” Frasier asked.

“It turned into a hot girl and gave us a prisoner,” Wilde said, throwing himself onto the ship’s nest-bed. He’d catch hell from Tooko for stinking it up later, but for now the pilot was too busy with pre-flight checks. God he was looking forward to getting back to civilization…

“…You taking the piss, or…?” Rees asked.

“Nope.”

“Prisoner?”

“Yup.”

“Wildey, c’mon mate. Don’t keep us in the dark…”

Wilde sighed and bent to undo his boots and change his socks. If he couldn’t be clean, he could at least let his feet breathe.

“Okay…” he said. “Let me explain.”

He was still going over the details when Tooko jumped them home.


Date Point: 16y2m AV
Ceres facility, Asteroid Belt, Sol

Adam “Warhorse” Arés

“…Damn.”

Titan peered into the little smuggler’s hole they’d found in the suit maintenance room one last time, angled his fiber-optic camera back and forth just to make sure there really were no further nooks or crannies in there that he’d missed, and reluctantly closed it up again.

Shim had found it. Apparently it had the Arudrone scent all over it from where Sam Jordan had repeatedly accessed it, but its innards were totally bare.

“Hopin’ to find something?” Adam asked him.

“Yeah. The theory is that Jordan was using a portable temporal accelerator of some kind, that’s how he was able to have an alibi when the bomb went missing. If we could get our hands on it…”

“Damn. Just imagine if these suits could make us move like the Flash.”

“Yeah.” Titan sighed and gave up. “But, it looks like he took it out to the bomb site with him. So unless by some miracle it survived being at ground zero when the nuke went off, we’ll never know how he built it.”

“Uh…is it maybe behind the wall or something?”

“…You just wanna rip into it, don’t lie.”

“A little, yeah. I don’t like missions like this.”

“Why not? We’re just terrorizing a bunch of blameless civilians and stomping all over the place like the fucking Gestapo, what’s not to love?”

Adam gave him an annoyed look, which through their masks probably wasn’t exactly visible but whatever. Titan got the message—no snark.

He wasn’t wrong, though. He was enlisted, there was always scut work and all that, and hell, maybe being the literal best of the best was going to his head. Still seemed like a waste to send guys like him for something like this, though. They weren’t trained in being nice.

Then again, if Ceres had been a seething pit of Arudrones…

…Yeah. Seen that way, it wouldn’t have been fair to send up policemen to their doom. But still.

He’d gone around and helped mend fences with the civilians as best he could. Break cuffs off, help them to their feet, tell a corny joke or two. It would probably work better if he was, oh, in his usual Utilikilt, or, like, whatever. Not a mostly faceless armored spacesuit. There was only so friendly he could be when all folks could see of him was his weapons, the outlines of his muscles, and his eyes behind a baleful blaze orange visor. The Mass made them all look like…sci-fi nightmares, sometimes.

Which was fuckin’ great for putting the fear of God into the actual bad guys, but kinda backfired in this situation.

“…I hear you,” Titan said instead. “I know why we’re here, but fuck I’d rather be up against Hunters right now.”

“I just wish we could take the fuckin’ mask off. It’s hard to be nice when you’re a damn Space Marine.”

“Aye.” Murray had somehow snuck up behind them without making a sound. How someone who weighed well over a quarter-ton buck naked could make no sound whatsoever on plate metal flooring was…

Just part of the Magic Angus Act. Which was really a way better callsign than Highland. Angus. A big scottish side of beef!

Adam found himself quietly giggling to himself while Murray sidled up to their little group.

“…Is your oxygen feed alright, ‘Horse?”

“Har har. You and I have a spar scheduled tomorrow, Highland. Be careful.”

Murray chuckled. “…Right. I’ll behave.”

…Well, okay. Adam wasn’t too self-involved to admit that kind of thing felt good. He grinned and bounced on the balls of his feet, and the deck immediately groaned under his weight. He stopped.

Anyway. Masks. And mission. And stuff.

“What’s left?” Murray asked.

“Think we’re just waiting on Righteous, Moho and Irish to get back from Ground Zero now,” Titan said.

“Think they’ll recover anything?”

“Nah. Boom that big? Just instrument data.”

“Right.”

“That’s it? We’ve swept the whole facility?” Adam checked.

“Top tae bottom,” Murray confirmed. “Think the Whitecrests wanny go lie down now and rest their noses.”

“To be fair they’ve been scampering about all day sniffing all the things.”

“Scamper isn’t the word I’d use,” Titan said. “Every last one of them’s way bigger than anyone on the station.”

“Prowl, maybe?” Adam suggested.

Murray nodded agreement. “Aye.”

Shim interrupted them via radio. He was down in the next suit bay, sniffing it down for signs of Arudrone activity. “I can hear you, you know.”

Titan chuckled and keyed his radio to reply. “Then scamper your ass over here! ‘Horse wants to know if there’s anything inside the walls.”

“There isn’t.”

“So, no excuse for ‘Horse to go all Hulk Smash and rip the wall apart?”

“Hey–!”

“Not one that I can give you. He’s on his own.” There was definitely a chitter threatening to break into Shim’s voice.

Another voice joined the conversation. “Net, ABBOTT here. I take it this means you’re all done down there?”

Titan replied. “Yes sir. Looks like the drone took all its secrets with it when it self-destructed.”

“Alright. The Ground Zero team are nearly back in. Come on up to central ops, we’re about done here.”

Adam nodded to that and set to bundling up his gear. The new guys weren’t completely acclimated to the Mass yet, so while the old guys like him could wear the stuff almost indefinitely, the rest would be hurting and he’d need to help them through all of that.

Most of the team had already filtered back up to the main concourse by the time they got there. They were slightly diminished, with Powell, ‘Base, Southpaw, Kiwi and Hamlet—Parata and Newman—having had to run off on an emergency call elsewhere.

Central Ops had large windows overlooking the concourse, and Adam could see Costello talking with Adele Park. She looked… subdued and unhappy, but not angry or whatever.

She also looked tired as hell. Then again, the big clock on the wall said it was 04:30 local time, so she’d been up all night. Throw in the stress and fear of being raided by the HEAT and she was honestly holding up like a fucking trooper.

She still managed an exhausted smile and a handshake for Costello though as they said goodbye. The captain could be goddamn charming when he wanted to be.

He trotted down the stairs—not really the right word to describe such a weight of man and equipment in motion, but whatever—and joined the team, looking pleased behind his mask.

“So. Final verdict is the facility is clean of Arutech,” he said. “Especially the shipyard workers.”

From the HEAT’s perspective, that meant the next-gen ships they might be deploying through, and the refurbished Caledonia in particular, probably weren’t potential deathtraps fitted with Hierarchy booby-traps or bugs. That had been their personal skin in the game, and it was good to have that question cleared up.

“Now for the bad news I just had to share with Director Park up there,” Costello added. “My Other Spaceship Is the Millennium Falcon turned out to be a different story. The whole crew was Arudroned, pretty much.”

Adam wasn’t the only one to utter some variant of the word ‘fuck’ in response to that, and Costello nodded grimly. “Yeah. No idea what’s going to happen there, but something tells me we’ll be retracing that ship’s footsteps soon. That’s unofficial, but… keep it in mind if you’re making plans.”

Dexter was the first to see the problem and reacted with a growled curse. [“Nuts.] That is…a geometric problem, sir.”

“Yup. Gonna probably trickle down to everyone else, too. I think this little incident just bought a decade of work for special operations teams all across our services.” He looked up as the trio who’d gone to explore the nuke’s detonation site finally showed up. Their suits were still glistening with water from the decontamination showers. “…Alright. Time to go home and recover.”

With an assortment of low chatter, the team picked up their stuff and headed back toward the jump array. Adam glanced back at the Central Ops room as he went: Park was standing in the window with her arms folded, looking small and old and fatigued.

“…What happens to Ceres now?” he asked, mostly to himself.

“That’s for Hephaestus to decide, I guess,” Costello replied.

“…Right.”

They went home.


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

Dog Wagner

—Only to blink in confusion as the zipper came straight back down again, allowing harsh white light to dazzle him.

…Right. Yeah. Stasis.

No sooner had Dog sat up than a truly gigantic nose was pressed right up against his ear and a titanic snuffle tugged at his skin.

The owner of that nose straightened up with a kind of satisfied growl. “…Yeah, he’s clean,” he said in a gravelly bass tone.

From Dog’s other side came the officer’s voice, and when Dog looked to his right he found himself looking at those same intense blue eyes from before.

“Why, though? He was on the ship at Origin, why the fook didn’t they infect him when they got the rest of the crew?”

“Beats the fuck outta me…” The gargantuan Gaoian shrugged.

“…Aren’t you the Great Father of the Gao?” Dog asked him. It was about the only thing his brain could latch onto.

“Yeah, that’s me.”

“And you’re confusing my patient, darling,” a new voice interjected. The Great Father stepped aside as an especially small Corti clucked up to him and climbed some steps to get a good look at Dog. “…Hello, Mister Wagner. I’m Nofl and you’ve been in stasis for six hours.”

Dog latched onto that number, grateful to have something concrete amid the upside-down wacky horror show his life had suddenly become. Ten minutes ago he’d been about to moor at a port and offload millions of dollars of food. Now he was sitting on a steel table being prodded by the HEAT and sniffed by the most powerful individual in the galaxy.

Nofl pressed a hot mug into his hands. “Coffee,” he explained jovially.

“…Thanks.” Something else concrete and familiar. He sipped it, and found to his surprise that it was about the best coffee he’d ever had in his life… or at least, it sure tasted that way in the moment.

“…Aye, sorry about that,” the officer said. “I should introduce myself. Call me ‘Stainless.’ Didn’t have time for a proper hello before.”

“…My crew?”

“Alive. We had to get bloody rough wi’ some of ‘em, but for the time bein’ they’re all in stasis while we figure out what to do wi‘ them.”

“I mean… what happened to my crew? Mitch tried to brain me with a fire extinguisher!”

“Well, that’s what we’re tryin’ to piece together,” Stainless explained.

“We think they were exposed to an… influence, during your little hiccup over Origin,” Nofl explained. “The one in which Director Park was abducted.”

“Yeah, I’m not gonna forget that one anytime soon…” Dog shivered.

“Aye, well. Neither you nor she were affected,” Stainless said. “Bit of a head-scratcher, that one.”

“Why the crew, but not their captain or the director?” Nofl agreed. “I have a question for you: did you notice any inflammation or fever after that incident?”

Dog shrugged. “Not really. Just my arthritis.”

“Rheumatoid arthritis? Not osteoarthritis?”

“Yeah.”

“Was it worse than usual?”

“Uh… yeah. Couldn’t hardly use my left hand for like two months.”

“Hmmm…”

“You got a theory there, Nofl?” Stainless asked.

“I believe I do, yes. Mister Chadesakan also suffers from rheumatoid arthritis… Do you know if Director Park does, Mister Wagner?”

“Uh, yeah. Worse’n mine.”

Nofl beamed and snapped his fingers, which was a wimpy-ass sound from a Corti but he seemed happy. “The Human immune system strikes again!”

“Nofl, what….?” the Great Father asked, tiredly. Dog was no expert in Gaoian body language, but he looked like he hadn’t slept in a while.

“Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition unique to Humans. Their immune system can sometimes begin to attack perfectly healthy and normal tissue… Oh my.”

He hopped down from his perch by the table and darted across the lab. “This implies a possible cure! I need to contact Tran.”

Dog swung his legs off the table, still trying to get his head around the violent gear-shift his day had just taken. “…He always like that?”

“Usually he’s a lot worse,” Stainless growled. It was hard to tell, but Dog suspected he might actually be amused.

“If this cure works on Gaoians, I’ll fund ‘em to upgrade this place however the fuck he wants,” the Great Father added, much more seriously. “Why his own people won’t…”

“Corti have their ways,” Dog said. “I’ve done a lotta business with ‘em over the years. Sticks up their asses, but at least you always know where you stand with ‘em.”

“Unner a microscope, usually. Well…that ain’t fair, not no more. They did my people a big service not too long ago.”

“Totally mercenary, darling, I assure you!” Nofl called over his shoulder. “Call it enlightened self-interest!”

“Sounds about right….” Dog finished his coffee and set it aside. “…Can I see my crew?”

Stainless shook his head. “Not an option mate, sorry. They’re all in stasis. I can show you a room full o’ bags stacked like firewood, but…”

“Mason? He wasn’t affected.”

“Aye, we released him to the hospital. They should be sewing his ear back on ‘round about now.” Again, it was hard to judge behind Stainless’ perpetual slightly sullen mask and tone of voice, but Dog got the impression he was somewhat impressed. “He took a bloody beating, I tell yer.”

“I know, I was there.”

“That’s where you’re headed, anyway. Better get that bite seen to.”

“Don’t worry, it isn’t infected!” Nofl added. “Not with zombifying nanotech, anyway. Just good old-fashioned Staphylococcus!”

“…Oh.” Dog didn’t know what to say to that. “Uh… Good.”

Stainless looked at somebody near the door, a brown-haired young man in a navy blue uniform with a gold anchor on the rank slide in the middle of his chest. “Tisdale. Escort Mister Wagner to the hospital, would you?”

“Yessir.” The lad offered Dog a shoulder to lean on and turned out to be a fair bit stronger than he looked, which was very welcome when Dog stood up and found that his knee really didn’t want to cooperate. He could vaguely remember Cathy kicking him in it.

That had been… minutes ago, from his personal perspective. He was having a hard time keeping up.

“…You’ll let me know what happens to my crew?” he asked.

“You have my word on it,” Stainless promised.

Good enough. Dog opted to limp rather than hop as he was escorted out of the building and to a waiting SUV. It hurt more, but he just didn’t have the energy for hopping.

The back of the car was a welcome moment of silence. No bright lights, nobody interrogating him, no alarms or loud noises. The thing had an electric train, so it slid out into traffic smoothly and quietly, and Tisdale seemed to sense that Dog needed a little peace: beyond checking whether he needed anything, the young man just shut up and drove. Dog could appreciate that.

But in all the chaos and freaking-out that was flooding through his head, one thought stood out above all others.

He was definitely getting too old for this shit.


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

Daar, Great Father of the Gao

“Poor bugger hardly knew which way is up…” Powell grunted, once Wagner was gone.

“Who can blame him? His whole crew going violently psychotic on him with no warning, only to be stasis-hopped right into a Corti’s lab being sniffed at by the Great Father?” Nofl tittered, which was just wrong. “He’s had an interesting day!”

“I ain’t that horrible a guy ‘ta meet…” Daar grumbled.

“No, but I daresay you’re a surprise.”

Well… okay, that was hard to argue with.

“Reckon we’ve all had a bloody interestin’ day,” Powell said. “…Mind if I cadge some of ‘yer coffee, Nofl?”

“Be my guest, dear!”

“Ta. I bloody need a pick-me-up. Might even have a fookin’ cigar later…”

“Those are bad for you, you know…” Nofl reminded him chirpily.

“Summat gets us all in the end, mate.”

Daar could sympathize. And as vices went, caffeine and one or two premium cigars a year were pretty damn mild.

He sat on Nofl’s examination table and mulled over everything the day had brought to light. A minute or so later, Powell joined him.

“…Got a lot ‘ta think about,” Daar muttered.

“Aye. Need a sympathetic ear?”

“Mostly, I think I need Naydra.” Daar scratched behind his own ear then sighed and straightened his spine. He couldn’t wallow in self-pity right now. “…Or Gyotin.”

Powell arched an eyebrow, which was a trick Daar sometimes wished Gaoians were equipped for. Then again, Humans couldn’t flick their ears. Fair trade.

“For different reasons, I hope.”

“Ha! I don’t think Gyotin’d last too long…”

Powell chuckled with him and sipped his coffee. “One thing I like about you, you aren’t pretentious. I think we’ve needed that in our leaders for a long time.”

“Speak of the Devil, by the way!” Nofl sang out. He pointed at a small monitor next to the door: Champion Gyotin was sprucing himself up and grooming his fur before ringing the doorbell.

Daar rolled his eyes before he had a chance to stop himself. He got it, it was respectful and all that…but damn if he didn’t wish people’d just relax a bit around him!

…But, well. He’d become the Great Father by brutally executing two good people for the crime of being stupid at the wrong moment. So…yeah.

Fuck he wished that hadn’t needed to happen.

Gyotin finally decided that he’d gussied up as well as he could, and pressed the button. Nofl buzzed him in and went to go do something arcane with some small samples. He at least pretended to be discreet, Daar had to give the little guy that much.

Daar couldn’t help but make a small comment as the Champion of Clan Starmind joined them. “Gyotin! You’re looking healthy.”

“And you smell like you were having a healthy day this morning, My Father,” Gyotin replied. Of all the Champions, he was the one most comfortable with irreverence, but even from him it was generally pretty mild. He sniffed again and his left ear flicked. “…What in Keeda’s name is that awful smell?”

“Sticks around, don’t it?” Daar agreed. “That, my friend, is why ‘yer here. And the rest o’ the Champions I summoned, when they git here.”

“Something happened?” Gyotin ambled a little closer to Nofl’s coffee emporium, where the nasal landscape was a lot more pleasant.

“Big Hotel broke out a new trick,” Powell said. “You familiar with the OmoAru at all?”

“I know they’re effectively extinct…” Gyotin hedged.

“You know why?” Powell asked. He nodded when Gyotin shook his head. “They took cybernetic augmentation to an extreme. Wound up upgrading their bodies on the cellular level with nanotech. That’s what you’re sniffin’.”

Daar could smell the alarm pulse so strongly from Gyotin, it was almost shocking. “They…why would they do that?!”

“Ignorance of the danger, I guess.” Powell shrugged. “From what I gather, the upgrades woulda put them on even footing with any deathworlder, physically and mentally. Too bad for them there was a bit of a giant fookin’ downside.”

“And now Big Hotel have co-opted it,” Gyotin surmised.

“Assumin’ they’re not the ones who gave it to the poor buggers in the first place, aye.”

“An’ now we’ve got a problem, Champion. We’ve got a poor-fuck Clanless, name o’ Leemu, who got turned into somethin’ like a biodrone. Bozo sniffed ‘em out as he was makin’ the border crossin’. The nut-greasy Hierarchy fucks, uh, ‘drouded’ ‘em pretty much right away. He’s in stasis ‘til we decide what ‘ta do.”

“Drouded?” Gyotin asked.

“New word ‘fer me, too. It’s…like, if ‘ya zapped someone’s brain so’s all they ever felt was cripplin’ happiness, or pleasure, or…y’know. Whatever. So’s you’d never want ‘ta do anything ‘cept sit there an’ smile a goofy smile until you starve ‘ta death.”

Gyotin seemed to take that concept as a personal affront. “…What kind of monster came up with an idea like that?”

“Well. A human author called Larry Niven, for one,” Powell said.

“Oh. Umm…”

Powell chuckled and let the Champion off the hook. “He wasn’t too happy with the idea in his own writing.”

Gyotin scratched at his whiskers as he thought. “…This Leemu,” he said. “Can he be… it’s in all of his cells?”

“Every last one,” Daar confirmed. “Or, I ‘spose enough that it don’t matter either way.”

“Then there’s no hope for him? I’m… sorry, My Father, am I here to perform last rites, or…?”

“No. You’re here ‘cuz the Corti think there’s a way ‘ta strip the Arutech outta him. Problem bein’, it involves basically mulching the poor sap right down ‘ta his individual cells, filterin’ the tech out an’ then puttin’ him back together again.”

“…I need to sit down.”

“Don’t blame yer,” Powell said, and stood up to make room for him. Gyotin took his vacated spot gratefully and hastily: he looked and smelled queasy. Powell handed the Champion a cup of water and leaned against the countertop with his arms folded.

Gyotin recovered quickly after sipping some water, and combed a few spilled drops out of his whiskers. “…Forgive me. I just…”

“Like Powell said. I don’t blame ‘ya,” Daar assured him.

“Fyu’s rage, is that really all they can come up with?” Gyotin asked.

“It’s the only idea they’ve shared so far,” Powell said. “I take it you don’t like it much.”

“The… everything about that is just… I mean, would he even be the same person? Do we even have the right to do something so extreme?”

“It’s that or he dies,” Daar said.

“My Father, it sounds to me like the Hierarchy already killed him and you’re contemplating bringing him back from the dead!”

“…No? I mean, he’s right there, it’s jus’ he’s got the worstest damn thing been done ‘ta him. We gotta think hard about how we’re gonna deal with that.”

“And if he wakes up not knowing who he is? If he wakes up not knowing how to cope? If whatever wakes up isn’t him at all? This is… this is messing with more than just his body, there’s his soul to consider!”

“Whatever that means…” Powell muttered to himself.

Humans always forgot how sharp Gaoian hearing was, but in this case Gyotin just waved a paw at him. “Exactly!”

“I wanna save him, Gyotin,” Daar said. “He ain’t the only one, an’ if we can save him then there’s hope ‘fer the others too. I dunno if I can worry too much about his soul or whatever.”

“At the end o’ the day, a man’s soul is his own business…” Powell mused.

“…True…” Gyotin admitted, with great reluctance. “It isn’t the Great Father’s job to spare him the lifelong existential crisis. That would be his journey, whoever ‘he’ is…”

“…But…?” Daar prompted after a second.

“But… This redefines life and death, My Father. If the Corti have the technology to do this then immortality is just a step away.”

…Of course it was. Daar was an engineer at heart, and even a big-piles-of-concrete-and-rocks engineer like him was always looking for new ways to apply technology. If Leemu could be taken apart that completely and then put back together with his mind intact—or shit, even a decent approximation of his mind—then where did that end? It was the ultimate medical procedure. So long as you had a scan of a being’s brain, then it didn’t matter how bad they were hurt, you could just print them a new body.

Where did that road lead? The old living forever, squeezing out the young? Would cubs grow up to find there was nowhere that needed them because the world was full of talented, experienced, healthy immortals who’d never be dulled by age?

Fuck.

“Well…shit. I hadn’t thought o’ that.”

Gyotin duck-nodded solemnly.

“My Father, I submit that not only are we not ready for immortality, but pursuing it to any serious degree would destroy us all.”

“Somebody’ll do it sooner or later,” Powell pointed out. “If the pieces are all there, it’s only a matter o’ time before somebody puts ‘em together.”

“And when they do, we would need to seriously consider suppressing that development. It would, in the end, put us in exactly the same position the Hierarchy is in.”

Powell shook his head, pulling a kind of brief grimace of disagreement. “You can’t suppress summat like that forever. Not shouldn’t mind you. Just… can’t. It’s not bloody possible.”

“The Hierarchy have, for tens of millions of years.”

“Aye. At great an’ terrible cost.” Powell sniffed. “And yet here we are, discussin’ it.”

“So the genuine question is this: do we push that snowball down the hill, My Father? The moment we do, it will gather everything in its path and become unstoppable. Meanwhile, the Directorate is in a unique position of authoritarian control of its people.”

“If.”

They turned. Nofl had padded back into the room on silent feet and was staring at them seriously with big, dark eyes, his camp facade completely dropped for the moment.

“…’Scuse me?” Daar asked him.

“If the Directorate have the technology to do this,” Nofl repeated. “You’re theorizing on a possibility we’ve only conjectured. There may be other therapies available. It might not require something so extreme. It might be that we try and suffer an abject failure. We can only learn the possibility space with exploration, and that means we must explore.”

“And if you succeed?” Gyotin asked. “If it turns out that in fact resurrection is within your grasp?”

“I know you’re familiar with Pandora’s Box, Nofl,” Powell said. “You want to open it? Fook me, d’you want someone like Tran to open it?”

“Tran is a leader of my people, and he earned his position on merit,” Nofl pointed out, though he sighed. “I might find the… restrictive mores and culturally mandated amorality of the higher castes tiresome, but he is a trusted thinker. And he may surprise you in how far-sighted he can be.”

“May.”

“You said it yourself, Colonel. What the Corti collectively want can be unintuitive from your perspective. The Directorate might make a virtue out of self-serving venality, but that doesn’t mean we’re stupid. It means we want what’s best for ourselves, and I assure you: we are quite capable of seeing the hazards in the road ahead, when we have reason to look for them.”

“You didn’t with your eugenics program,” Daar pointed out.

“That was the Hierarchy’s influence.”

“How many times have Corti research ships nearly unleashed disaster on the galaxy?” Gyotin asked.

“Dammit, my people are not stupid!” Nofl snapped, in the first show of real anger that Daar had ever seen from him.

“Ain’t none of us gonna accuse y’all of stupidity, Nofl,” Daar tried to soothe him. “But bein’ honest, an’ in the spirit of friendship an’ all, there ain’t many who’d call ‘yer people wise.”

“And yours?!” For a moment, Nofl seemed to forget that he was dealing with beings who physically outclassed him in every conceivable way. Sheer frustration seemed to loan him a few extra feet. “Should I recount all your species’ errors and decry all of the Gao for the mis-steps of a few?”

He jabbed a finger at Powell. “Or Humans! A species who successfully managed to industrialize warfare, and thank fuck they did because just imagine the mess we’d be in now if they hadn’t! But were they wise and foresighted when they did it?”

His rage evaporated as quickly as it had come. “…I know… I know you have had… bad examples in the past. I know they have colored your opinion of us, and not entirely unfairly. But we are not a species of myopic eggheads playing carelessly with forces we don’t understand. If you make the case to Tran why such research would be a bad idea, he will listen.”

There was a moment of impressed silence. Gyotin broke it with a quiet, tactful question.

“…And if he doesn’t agree?”

“Then… then… I don’t know.” Nofl sighed dramatically and flapped his hands. “I just want you to respect us.”

Daar glanced sideways at Powell and Gyotin, then pushed himself forward off the table and dropped to fourpaw. There was simply no way for him to physically come down to Nofl’s level, but he did his best.

“…I respect passion and honesty,” he said. “And you’ve got both.”

Nofl sighed deeply, then nodded. “…Thank you.”

“So…” Powell interrupted the moment, and cleared his throat. “…What’s the verdict? Do we give it a shot an’ maybe open a can o’ worms we’re not ready for yet? Or do we let Leemu die peacefully wi’ a smile on his face?”

“Only one person in this room can make that call,” Gyotin said, and looked to Daar.

Daar stood back up and hung his head in thought. But there was only one honest answer.

“…I don’t know,” he said.

For the first time in a long, long while, the Great Father had no idea what to do.


Date Point: 16y2m AV
Planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm

Julian Etsicitty

“Not even once? It’s been… How long?!”

The driest place in the village by a long way was Vemik’s forge, and Vemik had been hard at work when Julian and Xiù had arrived.

It was definitely the rainy season. There was a heavy, rumbling, here-for-the-long-haul kind of quality to the rain that left little streams criss-crossing the village and divided it into the subtle bumps and lumps of high ground the Ten’Gewek had found to keep their huts dry. It streamed off the forge’s leafy thatch in thick rivulets, but nary a drop made it inside.

Coupled with the heat coming off the coals, it was the perfect place to warm up and get dry after the long walk down from the jump station.

Forging was an all-day process, it couldn’t just be abandoned even when treasured and long-absent friends visited unexpectedly. So, while Xiù was treated to the delighted attention of the women who wanted to know all about a human pregnancy, Julian had joined Vemik and was steaming gently as the forge-heat dried him out.

He calculated slightly, trying to convert the nineteen Earth weeks since Xiù had announced her pregnancy into Akyawentan time. “A… hand of moons, give or take.”

Vemik shuddered in a full-body wave from the top of his crest down to the tip of his tail. “How do you sleep?”

“Uh… in my bed, with two gorgeous women cuddled up to me?”

Vemik growled an annoyed sound and used his super-precise pronunciation. “Exactly! Don’t you want?”

“Dude, it’s not like they died! There’s, y’know, other ways to enjoy each other.”

“…Oh.” Vemik frowned as he considered that. “…Not the same, though.”

“It’s good enough for me, big fella.”

“But you Humans, your tongues so small–!”

“Vemik!” Julian laughed, “Boundaries, man!”

“…Sarry.” He paused, then gave a big fang filled snarl-grin and trilled, “Maybe, you Humans don’t know what you missing!”

Julian quirked an eyebrow and chuckled. “Vemik, buddy, remember the mint? I know exactly what I’m missing. I know more about your long-ass tongue than I ever wanted!” He glanced at the forge. “…Give the bellows another squeeze, I think.”

“–Oh! Yes.” The manic cavemonkey wrapped his tail around the handles and worked it in and out with a well-practiced squeeze. Neat trick, that. It left his hands free for use, and he took advantage by lining up his melts on the obsidian table in the order he would work them.

A minute later the coals were bright orange again and everything was lined up for production. Julian crossed his arms and watched until Vemik was satisfied everything was to his liking. He hooted to himself in a pleased manner, then crashed back into their earlier conversation.

“But still! How can you stand it?!”

“God,” Julian sighed. “You’re not gonna let it go, are you?”

Vemik ignored that. “I’d feel, like maybe itchy? Couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stop thinking… Is there word in English?”

“Restless? I know you would, buddy. That’s just how your people are. Nothing wrong with it.”

“Rest-less. Restless! Yes, I’d feel restless. When Singer was heavy with our girl, she kicked me out of the hut one night and said I should go fuck—”

“That’s not how we work, bud!” Julian just barely managed to keep a straight face. Ten’Gewek were so matter-of-fact about these sorts of things. “Well, not how we work. Al and Xiù, I mean. And me. We stick together, like you do with Singer.”

Vemik unconsciously code-switched back into his native tongue as he kept a working eye on the heating metal. [“Singer sometimes tells me about other women to lie with, though.”]

Julian didn’t mind switching languages himself, if it made life easier for the distracted cavemonkey. [“Yeah-huh. Like I said, most of us don’t work that way.”]

[“That makes me wonder if she should visit other men.”]

[“…Wait, what? I wouldn’t want my women with other men. Big fights get started that way. People get killed. Wars, even.”]

That caused Vemik to stop what he was doing and thoughtfully twitch his tail back and forth. [“Why, though? If tribes play-fight, many babies happen. Maybe one day, Yan gets beaten by some big young Given-Man! Singer would lie with him and I’d have a strong son.] And it keeps the peace! Why is that bad?”

Julian shrugged. [“The Gods made you one way, and they made us another,”] he said.

The question bothered him more than he let on, though. After all, it wasn’t like his own love life was a conventional monogamous one…

His gut, though, knotted up at the idea of breaking fidelity with either Al or Xiù, and doubly so when he imagined either of them even wanting to fool around with another man. Even in the unlikely event they both encouraged him to go for it, he couldn’t really imagine wanting to.

Vemik glanced over at the women, who hadn’t stopped cooing over Xiù since the second they’d arrived. From what Julian gathered, baby bumps didn’t start to show on Ten’Gewek until late in the pregnancy. Their women were solidly built around the middle—Xiù’s slimmer, flatter waist was apparently a source of curiosity and amusement.

[“She is very pretty,”] he said. [“I mean, Human-pretty. Sky-pretty! Both of them are. It’s a shame Awisun could not be here.”]

“She got a promotion. [That means she’s in charge now, like when a Dancer becomes a Singer, and has a Dancer of her own. Gonna make a hand of Misfits a year.”]

Vemik hooted appreciatively, then glanced into the forge to check on the progress of his latest blade. The forge changed every time Julian saw it as he experimented with different ways to improve his craft, and honestly he had a better grasp of workflow than Julian did. His tools were all stored just so, so they’d be exactly where he needed them when they were needed.

There was other stuff, too. Little changes to help air flow through the coals, that kind of thing. Right now, apparently, he was experimenting with a hot-water quench.

There were other bladesmiths among the People, but nobody had been as marked by it as Vemik. The heat had handsomely darkened his hide, and all the good food, hard work and his ongoing training had dramatically filled out and hardened his body. His crest was as blaze orange as the strongest men, and the attention he was getting from the women was noticeable…

…To everyone but him, apparently. If he were a human, Julian might think he was almost something akin to autistic, being honest. Well, no. That wasn’t the right word. He wasn’t blind to any of it, and when he’d noticed the attention, he’d dance like all the other men. Way better, actually. He could jump clear over the bonfires, easily flipping tail-over-head…

It was more like he had two all-consuming loves in his life. Tinkering, and the Singer. Everything else was a pleasant diversion.

“Should be hot enough soon. I want to see this ‘welder’ thing you brought!”

“I thought I’d save that for when Yan gets back.”

Yan was away on a hunt. He was a skilled tracker and spearman, but at this time of the year the Werne stayed on the move. It kept their body temperatures up and also brought the herds into contact, where in a manner not unlike the Ten’Gewek there was inevitably a lot of rutting and breeding.

It made for good hunting. Solitary males bulked up in anticipation of fighting the herd bulls to take over the harem, and defeated pretenders and deposed bulls alike could often be founding limping and suffering with deep gouges from their rival’s face-blades. Either way, there was plenty of good meat on the hoof out there, and the Ten’Gewek were all too happy to hunt them. It ended their suffering, kept the herds fit and fed the tribes.

The only downside was how far a hunting party had to go to find their quarry. Yan’s party had been gone a hand of days, which was about average when hunting Werne at this time of year. Maybe he’d be back today, or tomorrow… maybe he’d be another hand of days if the Gods were feeling particularly unhelpful.

That was the pace and rhythm of tribal life. Sometimes you just had to take it as it came.

“Aww…” Vemik’s disappointment didn’t last long as he glanced into the forge again, gave the bellows one last squeeze with his tail, and then grabbed his tongs and fished a glowing billet from among the coals. It was on the anvil in a flash, held steady by tail and left hand. Julian stepped aside and gave him room to swing his ridiculous mallet. Where a blacksmith on Earth would use a pneumatic power hammer, Vemik just used a hardened steel mallet the size of his head. Julian had tried his hand at swinging it, and quickly decided he’d prefer something much smaller. Slow and steady was the key for him.

Vemik’s approach made for a hell of a show. The steel took rough shape in mere seconds.

“Who’s this one for?”

[“Brovee. Singer’s sister’s half-son.”]

‘Half-son’ was the Ten’Gewek term for a child raised by a couple where only one of the pair were the parent. In this case it sounded like Brovee’s mother was a woman other than the Singer’s sister, and since children tended to stay with their moms that usually pointed to a sad story.

“What happened?”

Vemik hooted sadly. [“A raid, and their Given-Man couldn’t defend them. Yan wasn’t happy.”]

“Idiots,” Julian muttered. There were so few Ten’Gewek these days, and while most of the tribes knew it well and kept their raids playful, there were a handful who hadn’t got the memo. They’d been pushed out to the edges of settled territory, where the hunting wasn’t as good and the Ketta weren’t as old and strong, but that had just embittered them. When they raided, they weren’t playing.

[“Mm. She survived the raid and what they did to her, and she escaped but… she got sick. Her Singer said she doesn’t know what illness it was. The Singers say there are new sicknesses on this side of the mountains, and they don’t know how to treat them.”]

[“What happened to the raiders?”]

[“It was Soono’s tribe they raided.”] Vemik trilled grimly. [“That should tell you all you need to know.”]

It did. Soono was nearly as old as Yan, and of an even more choleric temperament, but importantly he was also one of Yan’s closest allies. He believed in the peace more than most, and if that meant inflicting unholy violence on anybody who broke it, well…

“…Even stupider.”

Vemik nodded solemnly. [“Yes. A few escaped, we hunted them for a hand of days… Brovee took vengeance for his mother. He’ll be taking his Rite when the rains clear, so this knife is for when he’s a man.”]

[“No doubt about that, huh?”]

[“No. He’s strong. Too bad he doesn’t want to learn steel…”] Vemik tilted his head slightly and considered the shape of his creation. It looked like he was giving Brovee’s knife a drop point.

“I see Hoeff’s been teaching you knife things again.”

“Yes! Heff has, I think, ‘mag-a-zeen sub-scrip-shun.’ Pictures! This point, hard to forge but make knife good for stabbing.” He flipped the blade around, switch to one of his much smaller ‘detail’ hammers and delivered a few well-practiced blows to shape the tang, then returned the metal to the forge.

[“…Mosee’s baby died,”] he added, indicating a young woman who was sitting next to Xiù with a deeply sad expression on her face. Xiù, of course, had picked up on it and was commiserating with the bereaved mother.

“Disease?”

[“Yes. the shivering-sickness again. They all get it. My son did too… he lived, but we had many nights with no sleep.”]

“Sounds bad.”

[“…The Singers think three babies out of every hand will not grow up.”]

Seventy-five percent child mortality. Fuck. And Julian lived in a society that took it for granted that children lived to adulthood.

“…Was it that bad on the other side of the mountains?”

[“Ask the Singer. Over there, it was just the way of things. But now…”] Vemik glanced over at Xiù again. [“…Now we know things can be better, it’s harder to bear.”]

“Knowledge is a curse, huh?”

Vemik shook his head. [“Knowing but not having the way to do something with the knowing is the curse,”] he said.

He looked up at the sound of a bullroarer—a singing-stone as the Ten’Gewek called them—thrumming from somewhere among the trees to the north. A minute or so later, Yan crashed back into their midst.

There wasn’t any other word for it, because he had the rear ends of two huge Werne over his shoulders, while two other men bore up a front end apiece. Julian was suddenly very glad he hadn’t been around to be dragged out on that hunt.

“Yan!” Julian called from the forge and gave an apologetic look toward Vemik, who nodded happily and turned back to his work. “Breaking in a new hunting party I see!”

He braced himself for the hug, and Yan didn’t disappoint. The two carcasses were unceremoniously dumped and Julian was treated to a full-body, full-speed and thoroughly wet charge-and-hug. Thank God for the rains, at least: they completely damped Yan’s usual potent body odor.

“Bud, errrgh! If I didn’t know you I’d have run for my life!”

“Good!” Yan put Julian back down and hooted merrily. “Surprise visit! And you bring Shyow! With baby, too!”

Xiù had joined them during the hug, and she laughed happily. “Hello, Yan. Be gentle please, the baby isn’t as strong as Julian.”

She was treated to a much softer show of affection, but of course Yan wasn’t going to tolerate any suggestion that one of his tribesman’s offspring was weak.

“Feh! Not as strong yet you mean!” He bent down and aimed a finger as thick as a firehose at Xiù’s belly, and proceeded to lecture the unborn infant. “You grow fast and strong, yes? Make your father look small!”

“Ohh, he will,” Xiù promised.

“Hey!” Julian grinned. “I’m right here you know!”

“Yes! You come help boot-cher Werne, big feast tonight!”

Julian could hardly refuse. He gave Xiù a peck on the cheek and picked up one of Yan’s dropped Werne-ends. It was hellishly heavy, and there was no way he’d be able to carry it any further than to the wide, flat rock the villagers used for butchering, but it had to be done. The men of the tribe respected strength above all else, and a man who didn’t carry his load and do his work was no man at all as far as they were concerned.

The load got a lot heavier when one of the other men, Nobo, lifted the front end.

[“Think you can make it to the forge, Jooyun?”] he joked. [“Or maybe you fall down before then!”]

[“I just might.”] Julian growled and paused to catch his breath. “God-damn man…!” he muttered under his breath, before switching back to People-speak. [“Maybe Xiù can take over when you fall down.”]

It wasn’t exactly the height of wit, but Nobo’s hunting companion Zook found the suggestion that a tiny pregnant Human could do Nobo’s job hilarious. He belted the other man on the back with a brotherly open-palmed slap. [“Don’t worry, Nobo! Not far to go now,”] he trilled, and hoisted his own Werne with a grunt.

Xiù fell in alongside Julian as they hauled the meat across the village.

“They’re gonna get on with the Corti like a house on fire…” she muttered.

“Nnrgh!” Julian shrugged his load for a moment’s relief. “Yuh. No problem there…”

He could hold a Werne, or hold a conversation. Not both. She got the message, nodded and touched his arm affectionately, which definitely helped him carry the carcass with his head a little higher.

Still. Dumping it on the “table” was a very welcome relief. He got a congratulatory slap on the back from Zook and apparently Nobo had learned the fist bump from somewhere. Reputation: solid.

Julian crouched down and rested his hands on his knees as the two men departed. Subjectively, he’d been enjoying a supergravity leg day with Adam and Daar only a few hours ago. He had a capacity to recover that frankly amazed himself nowadays, but unlike Adam he wasn’t on a Crue-D regime. His legs felt like they were made of taffy.

Yan, at least, understood. “Good effort,” he said, and drew a skinning knife

“I had to interrupt a leg day with Warhorse to come here, Yan. So…yeah.” Julian pulled out his own knife and set to carving the trotters off the Werne with a grunt of effort and a loud crack of snapping bone. They’d make good broth, and one of the women immediately swept past to appropriate them.

Yan hooted his approval. “With Adam? Good! But…you have reason to visit, yes?”

Xiù sat down on the rock. “…Yeah.”

“The Big Enemy tried to sneak onto Cimbrean again,” Julian explained. “A new way. It nearly worked, too.”

Yan snarled as he worked one of the blades off the Werne’s skull. Apparently this one had impressed him enough for him to keep the trophy. “Bad?”

“Nobody died. But somebody is… very sick. So sick, we had to ask the Corti for help. And Corti never do anything for free. They have a price.”

Yan nodded as he removed the other blade. “Their price is?”

“They want to come here and try to strike a deal with you.”

Yan set the two horn-like items aside and started to skin the carcass. “…What do they have that we want?” he asked.

“Vaccines.”

Yan didn’t reply to that directly, but the slow, sad look he cast in Mosee’s direction told a complicated and sad story. Mosee was one of his nieces.

“…And what do we have that they want?”

“Strength.”

That got his attention. He glanced at Xiù. “…I remember you saying, they don’t think much of strength.”

“They don’t value brawn.” Xiù corrected him gently. “That’s a word that means strength of muscle. But things are changing. I…can’t say why. I think Julian knows but he has to keep secrets now because of his job.”

Julian just shrugged.

“…And they think they can take our brawn?” Yan asked. “They think we will give it? Or is this one of those strange takings-without-giving?”

“…No. You’d still have all the brawn you ever had,” Julian said. “But there’d be a Taking alright. Just… not one that’s easy for you to see right now.”

“What kind of Taking?”

“I really can’t say, buddy. That will be for them to tell you, if they want. I’m here to ask if you would be willing to travel and meet them. You and whoever you think should come.”

“Hrrm…” Yan mulled it over as he worked his knife under the Werne’s hide, neatly and expertly separating it from the meat. “…No. They can come here, if it is so important to them. They must make a Giving. You say they are weak in body?”

“Weak enough that this planet would kill them, without the right tools. And also…I would advise against inviting them here, Yan. They would get what they want without asking if you did.”

Yan made a frustrated noise deep in his chest. “Is rainy season! Time to hunt, time to grow, time to fuck and make tribe stronger. I will not leave right now. Manhood trials start soon!”

“Is there some way to meet in the middle?” Xiù asked.

Yan sighed, put his knife down, and cupped his hands to fill them with rainwater so that he could scrub the blood off. “…You have an idea?”

“A ship maybe. A human one or a Gaoian one. Up in the sky where they can’t take what they want but you won’t really have left.”

“Hmmm…” Yan thought it over as he watched Julian skin the Werne’s hindquarters. “…Maybe. I do not trust these Corti, but I trust you and the Gao. You can keep the peace?”

“If there’s one thing I can guarantee, it’s that the Corti won’t want to fight you,” Julian said.

“They may just… ask for more than you will give,” Xiù said. “They tend to ‘drive a hard bargain’ as we say.”

“They are coming to us. That puts us in strong place…” Yan mused. “…Hmm. Yes. I meet them, but only on a ship in the sky. And I will be back here every night, if talking is long.”

“We could just go through the Array every day,” Xiù added. “You have provision for that.”

“Would be Giving too much. They must earn it,” Yan said. “I will not leave Akyawentuo for them, not until they prove themselves like Human and Gao did. That is my last word on it.”

Xiù and Julian looked at each other.

“…I guess we have an answer, then,” Julian said.

“Yup!”

“No Awisun this time?” Yan asked, changing the subject.

“She has responsibilities.”

Yan nodded. “We see her again soon, yes? Is strange, seeing you two but not her. Seems…” His brow furrowed for a moment. “…Incomplete.”

Julian chuckled to himself. Yan was like a lot of the true slabs of muscle he knew: breathtakingly intelligent, and determined to act dumber than he really was. His English vocabulary was actually pretty huge, but he stuck to the simple language so as to seem simple.

…Why did they all do that, actually? It wasn’t like Julian was ever small, and he never pretended to being a simpleton…and it was cross-species, too! People could be weird.

“Yeah,” Xiù agreed, with a twinkle in her eye. Julian guessed her thoughts were probably along the same lines as his. “It’s always weird being away from her.”

“Also, not even I fuck two women every night!”

Xiù’s face went crimson. “Yan!”

“What?!” Yan slapped Julian heavily on the back, knocking the wind out of him and probably leaving a diluted bloody handprint behind. “Is good man! Strong, very hard body, too…”

“Yan!!”

“Laying it on a bit thick there, bro,” Julian coughed in a combination of amusement and post-slap recovery. Yan’s ribbing was good for the ego…but still.

“Pssh. You Humans, so strange about these things.”

“Other species think we’re weirdly over-sexed,” Xiù grumbled, still blushing pink from eartip to collarbone.

“Well…” Yan ducked his head and grinned sheepishly. “Maybe, Given-Men…what is words? ‘Ham it up?’ Why ham is word, I do not know…”

“And you’re just about the biggest ham there is.”

That earned a hoot of approval, and Yan tore off the Werne’s front leg and shoulder with very little apparent effort.

“Here.” He handed it to Xiù, who grimaced a little at suddenly finding herself holding a whole leg of freshly butchered bloody meat. “Take home, for you and for Awisun. Eating for four now! Werne meat will make the babies strong!”

“…Thank you, Yan.” She even managed to accept the gruesome gift gracefully. “I’ll… go pack it, I guess.”

Yan trilled as she carried it away. Julian briefly wondered what she intended to pack it in, but then Yan leaned in to have a conspiratorial word and rather overwhelmed him.

“Maybe we go hunt while you’re here. You take them werne-blades and hides! Good blankets!”

Julian hesitated. He’d been about to demur on the grounds that he needed to get back to the Ambassador and Allison, but snubbing Yan was… not necessarily the wisest idea. Especially when the big brute obviously had some jolly surprise in mind.

“I… guess I could have Hoeff take your reply back to the Corti…”

“Good! But make sure he come back, yes? We need him.”

“…Okay, what’re you thinking, Yan?”

Yan’s grin was truly feral. He fully bared his two-inch fangs and ran his tongue across them.

“I’m thinking… special hunt. Bring back real trophies for your women, yes? In fact, you bring rifle this time. You bring all your sky-thinking tricks. No shame in using them for this.”

Julian had a very bad feeling about this, now. The Ten’Gewek tended to view rifles as cheating. In fact, the only reason bows got a pass was because even a strong man couldn’t hold a good bow at full draw for long. If Yan was giving him a pass to use a rifle, it meant he had some truly fearsome quarry in mind.

“Oh…okay? Why? What are we hunting?”

Somehow, Yan’s grin got even wider. He glanced around conspiratorially to make sure there were no women and especially no Xiù in earshot, then lowered his voice to an eager, bloodthirsty murmur.

“Brown One,” he said.



++END CHAPTER 52++



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The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 53: “The Wild Hunt”