The Deathworlders

EPUB

Chapter 53: The Wild Hunt

Date Point: 16y2m1d AV
personal sanctum, Dataspace.

Cynosure/Six

Data sophonts did not sleep, and thus did not dream. Nevertheless, Cynosure had a recurring nightmare of sorts.

When his attention wandered, he found that it almost inevitably alighted on a handful of disturbing subjects. The details varied, as he worried at different aspects of the problems facing him, but the central theme was a deep and gnawing sense of his own fallibility. He couldn’t escape visions and predictions of calamity brought on by his own weakness.

That damned interrogation. That was the failure point. So polite. So civilized. So… humane.

And so utterly, ruthlessly effective. Evil done with a soft hand, so skillfully he’d been powerless to endure it. They’d broken him utterly, and not even the Hierarchy’s most accomplished efforts had healed the psychic wound his Human interrogators had inflicted. Only time, perspective, and incontrovertible proof of how badly he’d erred had finally initiated that process.

He’d respected the Humans for so long. Truly respected them. He’d seen in them a kind of foresight and restraint that suggested maybe, just maybe, they might not live up to the horrors that the Hierarchy’s long-range observations had hinted at in other galaxies.

The fact that the Hunters had developed self-replicating space probes based on obviously Human technology had shattered that illusion. Self-replicating technology was a plague.

Worse, it was a plague that had only one counter: itself. The only winning move in that game was to never play it in the first place.

And now, the game had been joined. After all these millions of years.

He might even, in his delusion, have continued to trust that the Humans knew what they were doing, but the fact that they’d managed to somehow leak the technology to the Hunters shot that sentiment right through the brain. They’d either been hopelessly careless, or willfully stupid. Either way…

Either way, it had finally broken him of his awe syndrome. In the end, the Humans were just Deathworlder meat, like the V’Straki before them. They had meat concerns, and meat instincts. They couldn’t, in the end, see past their need to spread. It was always so, with Deathworlders: they bred, they filled the available space, and then they either starved or conquered new space. And they were so inevitably intelligent and inventive that it was always the latter.

The Hierarchy had watched nova bombs ripple throughout distant galaxies as whatever alien civilizations lived over there clashed, or tore themselves apart. Other galaxies gave every indication of having been conquered by a singular polity. The signs were inevitably subtle and faint after crossing such twisting gulfs of open space… but it was a big universe out there, and life arose everywhere it could. Life was not merely an option, it was an inevitability.

Which meant competition was inevitable. Competition in which the loser perished, and the victor moved on to the next challenger, and the next, and the next until finally being vanquished in their turn. If life was inevitable, then so too was extinction.

There were times when Six felt deeply angry at such a universe. It was cruel to give life forms the illusion of significance, while casting them into a crucible that would inevitably burn them away as though they had never been. Had he believed in any kind of a thinking intelligence that had chosen for things to be so, he would have considered its existence a personal affront.

There was only one solution that he could see: Win. Win, and keep winning. The nihilistic alternative was to give up and collapse into anonymous non-existence, perhaps even drag others down to the abyss in the process.

He’d hate to see Humanity wiped out. They held such promise…but in the end, it came down to survival. He’d thought they were an avenue to his own people’s survival. Allying with them would have been a major change of strategy, but ultimately in pursuit of the same goal.

Now, it was clear that they needed to be destroyed.

A more… unthinking… agent of the Hierarchy might have been willing to sacrifice their own existence to achieve that end. But Six intended to be there when the last stars burned out. He intended to find a way to reverse or dodge entropy. If necessary, he intended to break through into whatever came Next.

It was not his destiny to simply… stop.

But the Humans had given him one parting gift, and he couldn’t compel himself not to think about it. They’d reminded him that, in the long term, everything was finite. Even dataspace itself was temporary. And when it too ended…

…He’d need an alternative.


Date Point: 16y2m1d AV
Starship Empirical Razor, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Nofl

Somehow, Nofl had never quite appreciated just how terrifying a dog was. He liked Bozo. The animal was huge and fanged and obviously capable of ripping him to pieces if he’d ever got it into his fuzzy head to do so, but… well, he was Bozo, and that meant Friend.

Somehow, he was endlessly more intimidating when under general anesthetic so Nofl could carefully perform cellular-scale surgery around his teeth and gums to make absolutely sure there was no Arutech infiltrating his system. Something about inspecting his teeth so intimately drove home just how big, strong and sharp they were, and how crushingly powerful were the muscles that powered them. Those wrapped his entire skull, which in turn had a sagittal crest specifically adapted to maximize his ability to generate bite force.

It really highlighted why Humans had chosen to domesticate Bozo’s remote ancestors. They’d taken an efficient apex predator and turned it into a tool. That was simultaneously a stunningly intelligent idea, and a dismayingly insane one.

…And of course, to Humans it was all perfectly normal.

Nofl was very much playing the understudy for this sequence of medical interventions. While Tran and the ship’s senior surgeon handled the two sapient patients, Nofl was relegated to the role of veterinarian.

He didn’t mind. The Corti had much data on Humans, but hardly any on their canid companions. That seemed a grievous oversight, and over the years Bozo had become a trove of data… all for the small cost of a few turkey livers.

One thing Nofl could see up close, however, was that Bozo was beginning to get old. It seemed a shame, for such beloved creatures to have a lifespan barely a sixth that of their sapient companions, but at eight years old Bozo was definitely beginning to show some gray hairs on his face and some signs of wear in his joints. The latter, in theory, Nofl could have fixed.

Operating on Colonel Powell’s dog without permission, however, would have been… not good for their professional working relationship. So far it hadn’t slowed the dog down—in fact he seemed stronger and fitter than ever—but according to Nofl’s research that would start changing soon. Certainly within the next five years, possibly imminently.

…Perhaps it might do to encourage more puppies. He’d sired many, but the world could never have enough puppies. Hmm.

Fortunately, there seemed to be virtually no trace of nanite infection. There were a couple of chipped teeth from aggressive chewing, and a slightly worrisome plaque buildup…Nofl maybe indulged in a teensy bit of authority abuse and cleaned those up while he was re-assembling Bozo’s face. After all, in a way it was easier than putting the plaque back…

He ruthlessly expunged what few trivial hints of Arutech he could find, then had the dog transferred to the recovery kennel where he would wake up to a bowl of water and a few hours of feeling groggy before getting on with his life.

The Gaoian security officer, Narl, had needed the intervention more badly when he checked on the progress of that operation. Gaoians had surprisingly resilient physiologies, but next to an Earthling’s frankly psychotic immune system they just didn’t stack up. The Arutech around and in his eye had successfully implanted and begun to replicate. Tran and his surgical second were determinedly exterminating every last tendril, and taking notes as they went.

Nofl watched them finish up, apply rapid regenerative therapy to Narl’s wound until it was closed and healed, then administer the wake-up shot. In seconds the Gaoian was awake, though confused and dopey.

At his request they put him in with Bozo. Narl promptly curled up next to the slumbering canine and fell asleep again, coiling up and tucking his nose under his own tail.

Nofl suspected he might finally understand what the a ‘cute overload’ felt like. It was mingled with a hefty dose of relief, and not just for his patients. Successfully treating them meant that the wholy galaxy had a counter to the Hierarchy’s latest gambit.

He turned his attention to Preed Chadesakan, who was not undergoing surgery. Instead, the human doctors who’d been brought in on this incident had suggested something called “adjuvant immunotherapy” and Nofl was compelled to shake his head in disbelief at what he saw as he watched it work.

“Psychotic” really was the right word to describe the Human immune system, and it could be lured into a state of vicious frenzied hyperactivity with the right medication. Preed’s arm had been thoroughly injected with a cocktail of specialized drugs hitherto unknown to Corti science, and he was lying looking weary and resigned on a bed with his arm immobilized under a scanner to watch the treatment work. Every so often, a minor expression of discomfort marred his face.

Nofl couldn’t blame him at all. The poor man’s arm was swollen and red, and several degrees hotter than normal… But the Arutech was being massacred.

Tran seemed especially satisfied.

“Frankly, even if we don’t get a meeting with the Ten’gewek, I’ll consider this to have been a worthwhile investment,” he declared as he sanitized his hands and arms.

Nofl could see why. They’d recorded an ocean of valuable data today, not to mention the political goodwill they’d cultivated. No doubt everything the medical suite’s equipment had observed would be sent straight to the Ark project for integration into the species regeneration program.

The thought of Corti with that kind of an immune response made him shiver, though. It was almost like having a symbiotic bioweapon. One that could, and indeed not infrequently did turn around and attack its host.

“I presume you’ll be staying here until the Ten’gewek have given their reply?” he asked aloud.

“Yes, we have arranged a fruitful medical exchange in the interim.”

“And Leemu?”

Tran made a mildly irritated sound. “If it were up to me, we would be beginning the proposed regeneration process already. But he is a Gaoian citizen and the Great Father was quite explicit that we are to leave the patient in stasis while he considers matters.”

“He seemed to find it morally dubious,” Nofl said.

“Yes. Very strange. What could be more moral than saving a life?” Tran gave a curt expression of impatience for the foibles of aliens, and waved the matter aside. “Nevertheless. Our future goodwill with the Gao hinges upon our future goodwill with Great Father Daar, so we will acquiesce to his… peculiarities.”

“Hopefully I can provide an alternative,” Nofl said. “This adjuvant immunotherapy, and the apparent resistance shown by Humans with autoimmune disorders intrigues me… I have a hunch.”

Tran blinked at him. “…A hunch, Nofl?” He spoke the word with contempt.

Nofl flapped a hand breezily. “A hypothesis if you prefer. I’d like to look at the OmoAru’s own research. I know they were working on a cure before the end. Surely the Directorate has access to some of their findings?”

“Never anything conclusive. Aside from a rather interesting mechanism for stimulating aggression, focus and motivation via purely optical stimulus, their efforts failed.” Tran dismissed the predecessor species’ shortcomings with a gesture. “If you feel there may be something of value in their findings that higher-caste researchers have missed, you are of course welcome to try. I shall forward you the appropriate access codes.”

“Thank you.”

Tran nodded. “I must rest,” he declared. “And you, I think, should return to your laboratory. We will reconvene in half a local day.”

“Suits me!” Nofl agreed. “Rest well.”

“I intend to.”

Nofl wasn’t even out of the ship when his phone informed him that he’d been granted access to a new set of files. He ordered a Johnny Cab and speed-read the translated OmoAru research as it swept him back to the Alien Quarter.

By the time he reached his lab, he knew he had a solution. Probably.

…Maybe.

It all hinged on an unresolved question, that he suspected he knew the answer to.

Might the OmoAru have survived, if they’d had access to a Human?

The answer, he suspected, was yes. And he intended to prove it.


Date Point: 16y2m1d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’gewek protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm

Xiù Chang

Xiù didn’t like to swear often, or at least not in English.

Sometimes, though… sometimes a girl just had to.

“…You have got to be fucking kidding me!”

“I mean… I wish I was.”

“You mean that reckless wáng bā is going to drag you into hunting a fucking bear-dinosaur and there’s nothing you can do about it?”

“Bear-dinosaur-cheetah. And, uh… I mean, I could back down… and lose face.” Julian sighed heavily. “And to be honest, this fuckin’, uh, nightmare bear thing ate a Given-Man not long ago.”

“…Wow. How?”

“Clawed its way through the trees all the way to the village. And this is a big old one, too. They usually stay out on the plains, but I guess this one realized it was strong enough to just knock over the young Ketta and, well… Yan says Droono died making sure his tribe escaped. But they can’t let it go unavenged.”

“So they’re dragging you into it?”

“Yan says its hide is so thick that even his bow won’t do more than make it mad. He figures, for this? There’s no shame in using a little sky-thinking.”

“Tā mā de…” Xiù massaged her eyes for a second. “…But I mean, I’ve seen Yan’s bow. If that can’t hurt it, then your rifle won’t do anything either!”

“No… but Hoeff says he can get his hands on something a lot better. Uh…the little troll was practically gleeful.”

“Like what, a tank gun?!”

“I don’t know, babe. Remember when we did the first survey and found that big brown shaggy murderthing out on the plains? That was a yearling. Fully grown, two or three of these things mass as much as Misfit does. This one…”

“And you’re going to go hunt it.”

“And they can outrun a cheap sports car…” Julian added, apparently reciting off an internal list of reasons to be afraid without actually listening to her.

“Julian…”

“Oh yeah. And they’re smart, too. Like, really cunning…”

“Julian!”

He snapped out of it. “Huh? Oh. Sorry. Guess I’m just… kinda nervous.”

“Well, yeah!” Xiù agreed. “I… are you actually gonna do this? I mean, is losing face really that bad?”

It was a dumb question, and she knew it. Julian’s job depended on keeping face with the Ten’Gewek, and if he didn’t then their whole future might well be in jeopardy. Certainly, their future relationship with humanity depended on them respecting him and, vicariously, the human race as a whole. And if they couldn’t respect him, there was exactly one non-human they would be able to respect. And he was busy, these days.

But still. This was an insane risk, surely?

Julian didn’t answer directly. He knew that she knew.

“I guess there’s an upside!” he said, ever the optimist. “They don’t sneak, ‘cuz they can’t. You always know where they are. And they can’t push through the biggest Ketta. We just keep the Wall between it and us…”

The Wall was Julian’s name for a line of ancient, gnarled, closely-packed Ketta that meandered its way around the heart of the forest. Outside the Wall, the Ketta were mostly young, and there was only the occasional Forestfather or Thicketroot. Within the wall, the forest was older, more mature and more diverse… and more dense.

There was a reason Werne came in from the plains to sleep, mate and calf among the trees. They grazed out on the plains at night, but the forest offered shelter from both the sun and the Brown Ones during the day. They hunted the Werne by the simple expedient of running at them far too fast to miss, then basically exploding them apart with a slap of a massive paw.

According to Yan, a Brown One could eat several Werne a day. Jesus.

“…I know you’ll be careful, but I mean… This is still really dangerous.”

“Any hunt is dangerous. Hell, a Werne could gut us if we’re not careful.”

“Oh. Great.” Xiù felt weak, and she wasn’t sure if the queasy feeling in her belly was anxiety, or the baby squirming.

Julian put his hand on their son, gently. “Babe. I’ll be careful. I mean…I’ve got four people to live for.” He smiled, a little wanly. “I wouldn’t miss meeting this little guy for anything.”

“…You’re not going to stop me from worrying that easily,” Xiù told him, but honestly she did feel better.

“I know.” He kissed her. “It’ll be a few days, anyway. Gotta wait for Hoeff to get back with… whatever kind of a cannon he’s bringing.”

“And what are you gonna do while we wait?” Xiù asked.

“Oh, I’m not going to wait. I’m going to learn everything about this critter I can, and I’m gonna scout the terrain, too.”

“Julian…” she felt a little embarrassed at the way she actually whined his name, but…

Ugh. Hormones.

“I didn’t say I was gonna approach it, Xiù.” He tried to say it kindly. “Wildlife documentary fellas don’t hunt what they’re filming, right?”

“…I guess we haven’t really documented the Brown Ones yet, huh?” she conceded. And seeing as Brown Ones were the apex predator of the plains, that was a big oversight.

“Not enough, no. We need to detangle the reality from the myth, too. Though the Ten’Gewek aren’t really a people for tall tales…”

“No,” Xiù agreed. “Think about that for a second.”

Julian paused, furrowed his brow and thought for a moment. “…Yeah. But…look. Babe. I know how to hunt dangerous prey. I have zero interest in, I dunno, jumping on its back or anything like that. I know my limits.” His tone was maybe a bit sullen and wounded. “I’m not reckless or stupid, Xiù.”

Xiù made a disgusted noise at herself. She had concerns, and those concerns were valid. Fine. But she hadn’t needed to insult his competence in voicing them. “…I’m sorry.” she sat forward and wrapped her arms around him. “I’m still gonna worry, though. And you can’t stop me.”

Julian chuckled low in his chest, and wrapped his strong arms tightly around her. “I know.”

“Is there anything I can do?”

That was the rub, really. She didn’t like feeling helpless. Sitting up in Misfit’s pilot chair up on the moon and being ready to bolt home had been awful for both her and Allison for that reason. Neither of them were built for waiting at home and folding bandages.

Julian knew it, too. Hopefully, that was part of why he loved them.

“…Maybe…” he sat back on his heels and thought about it. “…Actually, yeah, there is. You’re a way better pilot than anyone else on this planet. Why don’t you operate our drone?”

That was an interesting thought. “Don’t you need line of sight, though?”

“No! Hoeff has this new little job with a remote antenna, all I gotta do is get it up high. Watch!” WIth that he charged off, suddenly excited for a small mission to do, and returned at a dead sprint with a dish-looking antenna in one hand, and the briefcase-sized drone set in another. Vemik and Singer were following behind curiously.

“Wait here Xiù. C’mon Vemik!”

Xiù had to admit, watching Julian do his almost-naked Tarzan thing was one of the better perks of the job. He quickly scaled the enormous ketta near the border of the village, until he was high up enough she couldn’t quite see what he was doing. He gracefully swung and leapt his way back down the tree a few moments later, and pounced the last distance to the ground.

Singer watched too, probably thinking much the same about Vemik, Which…was entirely understandable. Xiù would just have to tell Al about all the boy-candy she was missing. Later.

“Try it now! You should be able to fly it wherever the drone has line of sight to the antenna.”

Xiù shrugged and popped the case open. There were a pair of small VR goggles in there, plus an RC controller the size of a brick. Also a tablet in case she’d rather watch the drone’s perspective from a screen rather than go fully immersive.

The drone itself was a smaller version of the MBG Flycatcher. It looked nothing like the quadcopters of a few years ago, instead it looked more like a thick wallet or something. When she booted it up, it sprang a set of forcefield wings into existence, haloed in holographic light for safety’s sake.

The effect was kind of like a weird neon robotic dragonfly.

Singer gasped when the “wings” unfurled and had to be warned not to touch them. Vemik must have learned that lesson earlier; he didn’t even try.

Julian helped her put the goggles on, and she found herself sitting in her own palm, looking up at herself. The shift in perspective and scale was a little bewildering, and made her giggle.

“Okay… test flight,” she said, and handed the drone off to Julian.

Seconds later, she was flying. The drone zipped straight up with a heavy buzz of electromagnetic wings. She rolled it over clockwise, then back again, then did a backflip.

She knew she was grinning hugely. She’d really missed flying, and this was… from the first-person perspective the goggles gave her, it was even more immediate and in-her-face than piloting Misfit had been. She nosed down and dived back toward their little group. Singer and Vemik leapt backwards as she spiralled the drone between them, did a tight orbit around Julian, and then brought it to a precise hover about a foot above her own head.

“…Having fun?” he asked.

“…Oh, yeah,” she grinned, and sent the drone shooting off through the village. It flashed by in a second, and she pulled up and up until she was zig-zagging between the treetops. One of the Ten’gewek sentries gave her an alarmed and bewildered look as she zipped past.

She could hear that both Vemik and the Singer wanted to try it for themselves. Julian was politely letting them know that that wasn’t an option right now. She paused in a hover to put the headphones in so she could hear what the drone heard, and then orbited the village at the drone’s top speed. Then, on a whim, she pointed at the sky and shot straight up until she was just below the clouds. Thank God it was only overcast today, not actually raining.

The forest unrolled below her. She could see the smoke from other villages, and she found that the ancillary controls under her fingers let her fine-tune the drone’s focus and attention. She could hear the thundering of water from the river nearby, swollen and coarse after a week of heavy rain. She could hear the Ketta creaking as they swayed in the breeze.

The only thing it was missing was the feel of the air brushing her skin and stinging her nostrils. Both of those were still firmly down on the ground.

Grinning, she brought the drone back down and alighted it on Julian’s outstretched hand. When she took the goggles off, it took her a moment to adjust to being human again.

Vemik and the Singer gave her a suitably awed look, while Julian beamed proudly at her as he returned the drone to its case.

“So what do you think?” he asked. “You can scout for us and look after us, and help us do this safely. Sound good?”

“…Yeah,” Xiù said, feeling far more positive than she had a few minutes before. “That sounds great.”

“Good girl.”

There was a phrase he didn’t use often. When he did, though… Xiù felt her ears go happily pink, and handed him the goggles and controller.

“My turn?” Vemik asked, hopefully. Xiù could tell he was extra excited by the way his tail twitched erratically and his entire body was taut, as if he was doing everything he could to contain himself.

“…Uhm… new pilots—that’s people who fly things—they tend to crash into stuff. And we only have one of those,” she reminded him tactfully.

Vemik’s crest literally fell.

“Hey fella, don’t worry. Tell you what! They make much less expensive ones for, uh, first-time pilots…why don’t we give it a try next time we’re on Cimbrean?”

“Okay…”

Xiù just about managed to hold her composure. The contrast of a fanged, mostly stone-age cavemonkey who could wrestle Julian into submission and quite literally tear most anybody limb from limb if he really wanted to, being so puppy-like and disappointed…

It would have been nice to just run back over to Folctha and bring him back a quadcopter or something, but the ‘bush plane’ jump service out to Akyawentuo was way down the Folctha terminal’s priority list. Its connections to arrays all over Earth and Gao fired every ten minutes, twenty-eight hours a day, seven days a week. Each of those meant passengers, cargo, deliveries, mail… And with space on the platform being at a premium, each jump carried a pretty hefty profit.

Then there was the intraplanetary service to the other five Cimbrean territories, connections to the Rich Plains and a few Dominion hubs, the orbital link to Armstrong Station…

No wonder the service to Akyawentuo was off-peak. Ten’Gewek were curious and interested in the rest of the galaxy, but they just didn’t have much to trade that an interstellar civilization might want, and their home life kept them too busy anyway.

That’d change. But it hadn’t changed yet. Which unfortunately meant that Vemik wouldn’t get to experience the joy of flying for a few days.

He’d probably turn out to be ludicrously good at it, Xiù suspected. The People had the well-developed spacial awareness of a naturally arboreal species who preferred to get around by brachiation.

Still, she really couldn’t blame him. They’d barely packed the drone away and she was already itching to get it out and play with it some more.

Patience, Xiù.

“So… is there anything else I can do?” she asked.

Julian smiled and kissed her.

“…Let’s see what we can think of,” he said.


Date Point: 16y2m1d AV
The Oval Office, The White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth

President Arthur Sartori

Zane Reid did not look like a well man. His beard was patchy and unkempt, his dreadlocks obviously hadn’t received proper care in some time, and the dark shading under his eyes lent his face the hollow, loose, cadaverous look of somebody who’d neither slept nor eaten properly in several days.

His eyes, though, were unflinching hateful lances that bored right into the camera. Sartori had never seen somebody look so utterly acrimonious.

The video he’d posted, which had rapidly gone viral, had apparently been shot on an older, cheaper model of iPhone, and the geotag data was intact. The FBI had already raided the address in Portland, much to the dismay of its owners who had been happily soaking up the sun in Nassau.

Reid, so far as they could tell, had been long gone. He’d left the phone behind in a bucket of acid.

A Gaoian specialist from the Folctha police had been jumped (carefully) to Earth specifically to confirm their suspicions, though. The couch where Reid had sat to record his vitriol had utterly reeked of Arutech.

The gist of his rant to camera, once Sartori got his head around the man’s impenetrable Patois, had to do with revealing the existence of the Camp Tebbutt Biodrone Internment Facility to the world. He’d given the camp’s precise latitude and longitude, shared several printouts of the camp’s layout as seen from the air, described what each building was for, and described several of the inmates.

Naturally, some media sites were describing it as an outrage and a return to the days when Japanese-American citizens had been interned during the second world war. Others were pointing out that biodrones were literally the pawns of an organization that was known to want the whole human race dead and that pure pragmatism demanded they be confined.

It was all tribe-ball. As far as some media organizations were concerned, anything Sartori did was bad by definition. And as far as others were concerned, anything Sartori touched turned to pure gold. Reid had handed them both plenty of ammo.

“So what are we doing about him?” he asked, when the video reached its conclusion.

His security advisor, Tom Hamilton, turned the tablet off and tucked it away in a bag.

“He’s already gone right to the top of the Most Wanted list and the FBI have set up a taskforce. Operation Lion Tamer,” he said.

“Good,” Sartori agreed. “We need to get out in front of him. This is easy to deal with. We’ll just throw the doors open on Tebbutt and invite the media in. Let the internees tell their own story. But it’s just the first move in whatever game his puppetmaster’s playing.”

“Which leads us to our next question,” Margaret White asked. “What, exactly, is their game? This flies in direct contradiction to their previous overtures…”

Sartori nodded. He’d been wondering about that himself. He’d never trusted the Hierarchy, but their complete reversal in direction had to be apropos of something…

Maybe it was simply that they’d seen an opportunity where previously they’d been convinced there was none. Maybe something had happened to goad them into a rage. Without communication…

Of course, it now seemed that their previous contact had been a ruse to spread Arutech anyway.

“…Maybe their previous overtures were all lies,” he said. “It’s the simplest explanation. And it’s not like they’ve ever been transparent.”

“He made it all the way to Oregon,” Hamilton pointed out. “From the middle of nowhere in Alaska. That implies help. Help of the magical and undetectable kind.”

“Or the cloaked spaceship kind. I know.” Sartori nodded grimly. He’d been really, really hoping that all the system shields would have stopped the Hierarchy from getting any ships to Earth. “Well. Thank God for the new Farthrow generator.”

“I don’t know…” Margaret said. “They had all the time they needed to bomb every major city on the planet before it came online. Why didn’t they?”

There was a collective three-way look that said nobody in the room knew the answer to that, or even had a good suspicion.

“…Boy, that leaves us in a fan-fucking-tastic position, doesn’t it?” Sartori said. He stood up and patrolled the room with his hands in his pockets.

“…We may want to consider evacuating certain critical assets to Franklin,” Margaret suggested.

“And how would we do that without tipping our hand and alarming everyone?” Hamilton asked “Let alone secure funding from Congress?”

Sartori grimaced and looked out the window, briefly imagining what it would be like to look up and see a mushroom cloud.

…Well, in his case there’d be a frenzy of Secret Service activity as they barged into the room with an emergency Jump Array and evacuated him. But for pretty much everybody else…

“We could ask for additional funding under the Heritage Ark programs that are already underway, possibly reposition some military units under the guise of training…”

The discussion turned to minutiae. Over the ensuing hour, the Chief of Staff was summoned, and he brought others with him…

Sartori played chairman to the meeting for some time, listening and thinking and hearing the opinions and options that floated around the office. None of what he heard left him feeling encouraged.

“So what I’m hearing is that we have no idea how to respond to this,” he said eventually, when the conversation slowed to an uncertain halt. “That sounds like a great homework assignment. General, can you see to that? I’d like something coherent if I’m gonna hash this out with Congress.”

“Yes, Mister President.”

“Right. I think it’s time to move on with the day.” To affairs that were actually resolvable, in theory.

But Sartori couldn’t help feeling that the future was no longer in his hands.


Date Point: 16y2m1d AV
Chiune Station, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Allison Buehler

Allison hadn’t slept well in a couple of nights. It wasn’t that she begrudged Julian and Xiù going offworld, not at all, but it did disrupt the sense of familiarity that made home, well… Home.

If she didn’t have her brothers to look after, she’d have used the hotel facilities at Chiune Station instead and just stayed within jogging distance of work. As it was… she treated the boys to a McDonald’s breakfast before school, and nursed a toffee latte most of the way out along the eighty minute drive to the MBG enclave out west of town.

Neither of them had ever had an Egg McMuffin before. What a goddamned travesty. Al had to promise them both she’d teach them how to make one for themselves…but in the meantime, they each had another.

She was barely ten minutes into the drive and listening to the drivetime show on SKID radio when she got a call from Clara Brown.

“Morning!”

Clara wasn’t big on small talk. She just launched straight into the reason for her call in a sunny way that always put a wide smile on Allison’s face. “Hi Al! Misfit’s back!”

There was some good news! Al’s smile got even wider, and she celebrated with a sip of her coffee. “Early!”

“Yeah, apparently they found a good one. They’re dealing with the HEAT right now…”

“After what happened to My Other Spaceship, I’m not complaining…” MBG had been informed, and everyone in the Folctha security community—a group that included Allison—was aware of what had happened. Though some details were being kept close to the chest, what she’d heard made Al perfectly happy to have her colleagues endure the HEAT’s tender affections.

“How far out are you? We want to have the whole team ready for inspection by the time they land.”

“Seventy minutes,” Al predicted confidently. She’d memorized pretty much every inch of the winding, beautiful road through Lakebeds National Park and alongside the winding river Dagnabbit, and she’d just passed the first of the park’s car parks for hikers.

She quite liked the long commute: it was thinking time, private time. Work was busy, home was manic… the hour and a half she got in the car twice a day was welcome downtime for switching mental gears and relaxing.

“Awesome! You’ll be just in time to see her land. See you soon!”

“See you soon,” Al promised, and ended the call.

The news shifted her right out of calm and collected and right into something more… motherly. Her baby was home! The big metal one, not the one behind her bellybutton. The thought of laying eyes again on her favorite spaceship in all the wide worlds made her heart lift in her chest.

She indulged herself a little and put her foot down to get there a few minutes early.

Sure enough, the support vehicles were out around the landing pad as she parked the car. She’d have jogged over to join her team, but that was getting increasingly difficult and undignified thanks to the little girl, so she settled for a determined stride instead.

…God, she wasn’t really looking forward to getting any bigger. She didn’t feel heavy exactly, but she was definitely feeling less mobile.

Still, the sound of a sonic boom rippling through the air from high overhead put a little extra spring in her step as she joined her team.

Team Two’s leader, Chuck Gifford, gave her a grin and a wave. He was nearly done with his morning cigarette. “Mornin’, Al.”

“Mornin’ Chuck.”

“Lookin’ forward to seein’ the old girl again?”

Al looked up and shielded her eyes from the sunlight. “…Yup!”

That exchange pretty much dried up Chuck’s supply of small talk. “Anything we should watch out for?”

“Well, we just had about ten tons of angry space marines with guns go tearing through, so…”

“…Check the deck plating, got it.”

Misfit finally came into view, and Allison couldn’t resist jigging eagerly on her toes. The ship looked so handsome in the morning light as she dropped down in a gentle swooping turn to come to a perfect hover a hundred feet above the pad, then descended steadily to land with the heavy racket of metal on concrete.

Xiù never landed like that.

That was an automatic landing sequence: line up, set the rate of descent, let the instruments do the work. Safe and efficient, but Xiù had always prided herself on setting the ship down softly and with a deft touch. It was a good landing, but the current crew’s pilot had a more… workmanlike approach to piloting. Xiù had always viewed it as a kind of dance.

Allison hadn’t really had time to meet the new crew. Apparently their research specialist, the woman doing the same job Julian had once done, had been a Folctha colonist.

…What was her name again? Shit. Something Irish, wasn’t it?

Al called up the mission summary on her tablet as she waited for the ship to settle, to spare herself the embarrassment of not remembering her replacement’s names when they came down the ramp. Misfit was dirty, well-travelled, and leaking waterfalls of fog as her hull temperature equalized with the warm morning air.

But God she was gorgeous.

There they were. Field Researcher Sinéad Byrne, Flight Engineer Richard Adams, and the man responsible for that landing, Pilot Jamal Thompson.

Still, even if he didn’t throw in the little flourish that Xiù might have, he’d still observed the little details. He’d landed so the airlock was facing the waiting ground crew, for instance.

Byrne opened the airlock while the other two powered down the ship. The ground team waited until the ESFALS shut down and Thompson gave them a thumbs-up through the canopy before approaching to start offloading stuff as Byrne sent the dumbwaiter down with the first sample crate.

Al ducked under the fuselage and ran through the landing gear inspection. If the gear was going to fail it probably would have done it at first contact with the ground, but safety demanded she check it first.

Once she was happy there were no problems, she returned to the ladder, where Adams was the last down. He was a small, slim man barely larger than Allison himself which Al could appreciate. A bigger guy would have had a hellish time trying to fit through the narrow confines of the engineering station. They’d managed to find some more elbow room for BGEV-12’s engineer, but Misfit was always going to be cramped in the back.

“You taking good care of my baby?” Al asked him as he stepped off the ladder. He grinned and shook her hand.

“She’s my baby too,” he promised.

“Attaboy.”

“Maybe a little roughed up by the HEAT though,” Byrne said. “They brought Adam along. I don’t know how he even fit!”

“You know Adam?” Al asked, shaking her hand.

Byrne had the filthiest grin. “Biblically.”

“…You’re braver than you look.”

“Wait, you and that hulk-lookin’ dude?” Thompson asked, disbelievingly.

“Like the Energizer bunny…” Byrne reminisced, distantly.

“I don’t think I want to know…” Adams muttered. “God I’ve never felt so completely helpless. They manhandled me like a child and ransacked everything I owned.”

“Yeah,” Allison said sympathetically. “That’s the HEAT for ‘ya.”

“It was a Gaoian that did it to me!” Thompson complained. “He threw me up against a wall, pinned my head and sniffed at my neck!”

“Still HEAT.“ Allison shrugged. “Trust me, they’re nice guys in real life. On the job… well, their job isn’t to play nice.”

Byrne nodded, but she looked a little unnerved. “I didn’t remember Adam being so terrifying…”

“He isn’t Adam on mission. He’s Warhorse, and the two are very different people.”

“Right. Well…”

Allison decided a change of subject was in order. “You found something good?”

“Hell yeah we did!” Thompson indicated the crates with a grin. “Class twelve, ninety-nine point oh-four Gs, seventy percent ocean coverage, everything. No sign of natives, either.”

“Nice! What’d you call her?”

“Nesoi,” Adams said firmly.

“…I get the impression there were other contenders.”

“Somebody,” Adams shot a dark look at Byrne, “wanted to call it ‘Steve.’”

Byrne’s unrepentant giggle was just infectious, and even Adams smiled and shook her head at it. Al certainly couldn’t keep a straight face.

“Steve? Kinda… I dunno. Irreverent, ain’t it?”

“Exactly!” Byrne chirped.

“In the end, that’s what we called its largest moon,” Thompson said.

“Largest?”

“It has four. Makes for a hell of a night sky, I tell you that.”

“I’d like to see that someday,” Al decided. “…Anyway, we’d better get to work. I wanna see how well you’ve been treating my baby.”

“You mean our baby,” Thompson retorted with a grin. “I found a neat optimization for the ventral distributor. Check it out.”

“I will!” Al set her foot on the ladder and hauled herself up it, reflecting as she did so that she was glad they’d come back sooner rather than later. Climbing that ladder and squeezing around the ship’s insides would have been impossible in ten more weeks.

She paused at the top and touched the wall, whispered a fond ‘Hey, girl,’ to the ship and then followed her oh-so-familiar route from the airlock to the engineer’s station like she’d already done it ten times that morning.

Misfit didn’t quite feel the same, though. Maybe it was the scent of three strangers, or some subtle difference in Thompson’s idling power settings. Maybe it was the different heights and builds of the excursion suits in their lockers, or the lingering musk of the HEAT’s presence.

She fought off a sudden feeling of melancholy and pushed through into engineering.

There was work to do.


Date Point: 16y2m3d AV
”Stinkworld,” The Irujzen Reef

Garl, Grandfather of Clan Stoneback and Warleader of the Grand Army of the Gao

“…Go.”

The Hierarchy’s relay was weird to look at. Like looking into a pit that yawned sideways in a direction that Garl couldn’t quite put his claw on.

He was glad he wasn’t anywhere near it. He had a great view through the Fang’s helmet-cams, but they were taking an enormous risk breaching the facility at the base of the enormous transmitting tower, and everyone knew it.

Plus, Garl knew he wasn’t quite as agile as he once was. The niggles and complaints his body had accumulated over decades had begun to make themselves heard, and the Crue-G wasn’t holding them off anymore. He’d resorted to ‘ibuprofen’ in eight hundred milligram doses.

Allegedly his liver should handle the medicine just fine…but he was eighty-eight. Garl was old.

…More than old. Garl was dying. He didn’t have even half a year left, prob’ly. He knew it in his bones, in his fading eyesight, and in a way he couldn’t put to words. After this mission…he needed to retire before he became a liability. The Great Father deserved fit and hale generals, after all. That went doubly so for the Warleader of the Grand Army, and extra double for the Grandfather of Stoneback.

Still: Garl was the most wisest and strongest ‘Back they had that weren’t Daar, so he’d see this job done as best as he could. In fact, right now he was the strongest he’d ever been, so his “plan” to chip in was to help with any digging, pushing, or any general labor that needed doing.

A ‘Back had to lead from the front. Or, failing that, at least be willing to do the hardest work.

For now, though, he watched the Fang dash over the cleared ground around the Hierarchy facility and sneer at the wall. A ‘Back on four-paw with some tricks borrowed from those tricksy Whitecrest suits could flow over a mere five-meter concrete wall like it was hardly there.

He tensed, expecting a flurry of armed drones or automated gun emplacements or whatever, but that weird digital Entity they had on their side had promised the place was safe. From the looks of things, it might have been right, too.

It didn’t take long for his ‘Backs to secure the inside perimeter, shape charges, and blow a hole wide open in the concrete wall. From there, the next teams joined in the assault, they pried the opening yet wider, more territory was secured…

In a few minutes, they’d completely secured the compound. Fortunately the mind-melting warp above wasn’t doing anything to the ground below. Which…prol’ly made sense, now that Garl thought about it.

The inside pretty obviously wasn’t designed for living beings to navigate, though. It was designed for drones and automated robotic systems, and optimized in all three dimensions without regard for people wanting to walk around.

Fortunately, they had some nicely small and clever Clanless to help ‘em out. “Hey, little guys!”

Garl couldn’t help but like his corps of his bravest, most littlest soldiers he could find in the Grand Army. They were proof that ain’t nobody is useless or inferior, they just gotta find their place in life.

Wriggling through a vertical maze of alien technology? Not a problem. Not gettin’ squished by the maintenance drones? Just as easy! Sorta. There were a couple of close calls, but the worst anyone suffered was a tuft of fur torn out the end of his tail as he narrowly squeezed into a side space as a robotic arm whipped past him.

“Gods-damn you little guys kick tail,” Garl praised over the radio. “I’mma owe ‘ya each a steak!”

That got them motivated. Ain’t nothin’ any red-blooded male liked more than a big ‘ol slab of barely-cooked meat.

The densely packed systems gave way to an honest mineshaft. From what Garl could see, it looked like there was an automated mine down there, drawing equipment and replacement parts from a small nanofactory at ground level. There was no immediate indication of what the mine was extracting, and the shaft itself was too deep to explore for the time being, so instead the explorers kept moving up, toward the top of the structure and the generator responsible for that weird pucker in spacetime.

As more of the facility was mapped and more of its systems discovered, however, things got a lot more complicated. Whatever else it was, they weren’t dealing with a mere comms relay.

One piece of the puzzle fell into place when the infiltrators dropped a drone down the mineshaft.

“…Coal?” Garl wasn’t sure he’d heard the report correctly.

“Bituminous coal, yeah. Must be a big ol’ vein too. There’s a jump array down there big enough to handle a thousand tonnes a day, easy.”

One of his assistants was confused by that. “Why would they need coal?”

“Iron,” Garl answered gruffly. “If ‘yer gonna make iron from ore, ain’t nothin’ better. There’s other ways t’do it but a redux reaction at high temp with a rich carbon source is the bestest, ‘cuz the pig iron you get can be made directly into steel.”

“…Didn’t they basically run the galaxy from behind the scenes? Why do they need to make their own iron?”

“Ain’t nobody don’t need steel. I mean, would you be happy if we imported all of it instead of makin’ it ourselves?”

“Right. That’d be a big strategic weakness…”

“…Somebody get a jump beacon in there, see if you can sneak it into the next coal shipment,” Garl ordered. “If we’re lucky, it’ll tell us where that coal’s goin’ to.”

“We don’t have anything that small…”

Garl sighed, and shook out his pelt. He was gettin’ the itch to do something physical. “Well, talk to the Clans, then! I can’t imagine Whitecrest or Longear or someone ain’t got a toy ‘fer this.”

By the time Clan Longear got back to him, the facility had been completely mapped. Their contact came in the form of a very welcome face: Champion Meereo. The tall, debonair midnight-black Champion came through the array stooped and with his large ears tucked flat against his head as a hedge against the Array’s tight confines, and visibly shook himself when the transit was complete.

…Had Garl ever tussled with him? He didn’t think so. Meereo looked nicely fit and tricky…maybe they could spar some later!

Anyway.

“Welcome ‘ta Stinkworld, Champion.”

Garl liked Meereo. The Longears originally came from working Clanless stock and were still a relatively “new” clan. Some of that legacy still clung to them, in their sense of humor and their relaxed attitude to formalities. Another Champion might have questioned the moniker, but Meereo just chittered merrily and pulled a face.

“Good name,” he agreed. “Yeugh.”

“Sad ‘ta say you get used to it,” Garl told him.

“I brought you a toy.” Meereo handed it over. It was pill-shaped and just the right size to fit in Garl’s paw. “We made these a long time ago, just in case Big Hotel turned out to have a jump network of their own.”

Garl handed it off to a runner, who duck-nodded sharply and set off the make sure it reached the infiltrators. Meereo watched him go, then gave Garl an expectant look. “…I gather there’s other stuff in there you don’t know what it is?”

“An’ I betcha ‘yer just itchin’ ‘ta get ‘yer Brothers down there and tear it apart, huh?”

“Wouldn’t you be?”

Garl chittered. “I don’t think any of my Brothers would fit!”

“Go on a diet, then! Anyway…on the subject of exploitation…”

”You and all the other technically-minded Clans are gonna need ‘ta put together a plan for that. In the meantime, what we’re dealin’ with ain’t safe ‘fer a buncha thinky-types. No offense.”

“None taken.”

“Right. So. What’re we hopin’ ‘ta learn outta this?”

Meereo found the facility schematic as the scouts had laid it out easily enough. He stooped over the table and inspected it, shifting the expanding map this way and that with the tip of his claw. “We’re hoping to gain more insight into dataspace and the Hegemony.”

“The hedgey-what?”

“It’s what the Igraens call their civilization. The ones we’ve interacted with are highly trained individuals who’ve spent decades or even centuries learning how to interact with…. Us. This.” He knocked on the desk. “Matterspace, they call it. Or Meatspace, if they’re being insulting.”

“And they need special training to do that?”

“Yup. Apparently life in dataspace is fundamentally very different from life out here. According to one of the interrogated agents, even a basic query like ‘how many Igraens live in the Hegemony?’ is the wrong kind of question.”

“…That don’t make no sense,” Garl objected.

Meereo just duck-shrugged helplessly and made a note on a tablet of his own. “How much stink is there on a Naxas?” he asked.

Garl decided to push the conversation forward rather than get bogged down in… whatever that was. “So we’re here to learn more about dataspace.”

Meereo duck-nodded as he explored the facility map some more. He jotted a small diagram down on his tablet.

“The Humans have done a lot of research on dataspace,” he said as he drew. “As much as they can, anyway. Between interrogated Igraens and the… Entity… they’ve had more access to it than anybody else, and they’ve worked closely with us on the problem, but we’re not helped by the fact that none of the sources really know how it works…”

“How come?”

“The same way you and I don’t really know how our brains work, I guess. Which seems to be a fair approximation. Dataspace isn’t… it seems to be a higher-order product of the interactions between lower-order devices, rather than something they do deliberately. A lot of very stupid machines producing something big and incomprehensible as an emergent property? That’s my best guess, anyway. But there’s always been a flaw in that theory.”

“Do tell,” Garl encouraged. He’d worked with enough geeks in his time to know when they were pretty much just thinkin’ aloud by talkin’ with him.

“Well…” Meereo scrolled the relay’s schematic and tapped a claw at something. “Devices go where people are, and people are clustered on inhabited worlds, space stations, ships… and those clusters are a long way apart. How does any kind of coherent pattern emerge from clusters of technology spread across thousands of light years?”

“…Slowly?” Garl guessed.

“Exactly!” Meereo scrolled again, tapped again then made a note on his own tablet. “Too slowly. Which means…”

Whatever it meant, he didn’t finish the thought out loud. Instead he scrolled, tapped, made another note and then flowed across the command center to the large crate he’d brought with him. When he entered a code on the top, the thing unfolded in an intricate way and turned out to be full of what Garl thought of as gizmos. He recognized wire, solder and a workbench. Pretty much everything else, though, was…

“…You brought a field lab with you?”

“How am I supposed to design devices to interface with an Igraen data relay when I don’t know anything about their technological architecture?” Meereo asked. “Can’t be done. Hell, we had a hard enough time getting our equipment to work properly with Human technology, and they’re several steps behind us.”

“…This is why I prefer civil engineerin’,” Garl groused. “A big pile’a concrete is a big pile’a concrete everywhere in the universe.”

“And that’s exactly why I prefer what I do,” Meereo retorted. “Same thing every day sounds boring.”

“Eh,” Garl shook his pelt again. He always felt a bit back on his haunches around really smart people. “Different habits, I guess. Y’ain’t gonna get strong if ‘ya don’t follow routine. I ‘spose bein’ a nimble thinker needs th’ opposite o’ that.”

“Think of it as progressing to a heavier weight…” Meereo set his tablet down on the lab’s worktop and Garl flicked an ear, mildly impressed, as it seemed to seamlessly pick up whatever he’d been working on and load it onto a larger display. Longear sure had some fancy tricks. “…I’m going to need your guys inside to bring me back some things.”

“Just send me the shoppin’ list, I’ll make sure you get it,” Garl promised, and left Meereo to his work.

This was, he decided, a young man’s war. He wasn’t out of his depth, not quite… but he weren’t in his element neither.

He shook off that melancholy thought and returned to his own desk. It didn’t matter if he was in his element. He had a job to do, and he’d do it ‘til he dropped. Just like a true ‘Back.

But part of him, somewhere deep in his soul, was looking forward to a well-deserved rest.


Date point: 16y2m3d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm

Professor Daniel Hurt

“What exactly did he say he’s fetching, anyway?”

“An M107.”

Daniel frowned. Although he’d learned more about firearms in general over the past few years than he’d ever imagined he would, there were times that the people who really “got” gun culture threw around letters and numbers as though everybody knew exactly what they were referring to. Even generally observant types like Julian.

Fortunately, Xiù was good at translating. She apparently didn’t much care for guns either, but she lived with two people who did and had learned how to speak their language.

“It’s an anti-materiel weapon. Commonly called ‘The Barrett M82.’” she explained.

“Anti-materiel?”

“It can shoot a hole right through a car’s engine block. That’s what it’s designed for, in fact,” Julian said it with a big grin. “…Always wanted to fire one. Al’s gonna be so jealous.”

“And you intend to use that against a living creature?” Daniel felt faintly appalled.

“…Honestly? Not really. I’m hoping it doesn’t get fired in anger at all. But Yan said it himself, this is no ordinary hunt.”

“Yes…” Daniel scratched idly at the back of his neck where the Akyawentan version of a mosquito had visited him last night. The damn things could bite through a Ten’gewek’s thick hide, so a human’s much thinner and more delicate skin was no challenge at all, and the result always hurt.

At least none of the native diseases knew what to do with a human body. Even the parasitic ones like the local version of malaria simply starved and died in the human body. Neither Yan or Vemik had picked up anything from Earth either, which was a good sign for future commerce, but that wasn’t necessarily conclusive; they’d only visited for a short time. On the other hand, if there were anything from Akyawentuo that was likely to jump species, it would have by now.

Back to the problem at hand. Yan.

“…That makes me worry,” Daniel said. “Does he seem… okay?”

“I think the idea of meeting with the Corti rattled him more than he let on,” Xiù suggested. “Let’s face it, they’re people whose sky-magic we speak highly of.”

“Oh hell, you don’t think he’s, I dunno, trying to prove something, do you?”

The couple looked at each other and then mutually shrugged. Not a good sign. Xiù usually had a good read on people, and Julian knew the Ten’gewek mindset well. If they were both stumped, then whatever was going in Yan’s head was well-obscured, possibly even from Yan himself.

Xiù spoke first. “I don’t know what he has to prove. He’s everything his culture thinks a man should be, and he’s smart, attentive, polite, observant, in fantastic health apparently…”

Julian nodded. “I’ve watched him lift and wrestle for literally hours with the two biggest fellas ever, and I’ve watched him learning to read and write with just as much energy. Or steel, bow-making…anything, really. Yan isn’t ever unsettled.”

“And he’s seen Sky-Magic in action, plenty of times,” Xiù added.

“Exactly. He’s as top-of-the-heap as any guy can be, and he’s that across species, too. Yan’s got nothing left to prove to anybody and nothing to be afraid of, either. So…what gives?”

“Nothing to be afraid of except Brown Ones,” Daniel mused. “…Maybe it wasn’t the Corti that rattled him. Maybe it was a Given-Man being attacked and eaten in his own village. Who was it?”

“Droono,” Julian recalled.

“…He was going to be Yan’s successor, wasn’t he?”

“Yeah. He was young as Given-Men go, and already one of their best.”

“I think he was Yan’s cousin, too,” Xiù added.

“So this is personal, then. For several reasons.”

Julian nodded. “Yeah. It’s also…uh, I didn’t say this out loud, but remember when I visited the Lodge? Uh…let’s just say that, with Droono gone…there ain’t another Yan in the wings.”

“Why, what did you see?”

Julian shifted his weight uneasily. “Just…trust me on that. I won’t betray the Lodge, but a big part of what they do is hammer out the pecking order among each other. It…wasn’t much of a contest. Not even a little bit.”

“Well…that’s not comforting. Isn’t he old?”

“Yeah, but like you said he’s in just ridiculously good health, as best as we can tell. So…”

Daniel nodded. The thing that made Given-Men especially weird was that they seemed to get healthier and stronger as they aged. Their skin didn’t wrinkle and sag, their bodies didn’t show increasing signs of wear and tear like regular Ten’Gewek did. Quite the opposite: they all grew fitter and stronger over time. The only thing that really gave away their age was their crests.

Given-Men didn’t seem to die of old age, either. Yan was understandably reluctant to give away too much of their secrets, but what Daniel had managed to secure suggested they went on basically forever until something got them… though that something could come from within.

Yan had said something like…. “It’s the Fire that takes us home, one day. If I am not very respectful to the Gods, the Fire will make me head-broken. If not that, I may do something…too brave, maybe. So the stories say.”

Hunting a Brown One, a literal monster of legend to the Ten’gewek, might just qualify as ‘too brave.’ Except, bringing along a gun designed to put holes in a car didn’t quite fit.

“So, what I’m getting out of this…is Yan is having a mid-life crisis.”

“He’s not human, Dan,” Xiù reminded him gently. “Sometimes, aliens are aliens.”

“Oh come on,” Dan objected. “He’s about fifty and in his prime, he’s feeling his oats, he’s worried about his legacy…”

“Mm. Totally unlike a smart silver fox professor type who decided to play Doctor Livingstone on an alien world, huh?” She flashed a playful smile.

“Y—” Dan paused. “…Hmm.”

“I mean, you could be completely right!” she added. “…Or you could be projecting. It’s… just something to keep in mind.”

Julian couldn’t help but being his usual troll self. “Silver fox, huh? I can see it. I bet I’ll have better hair in thirty years though…”

“Twenty!” Dan shot back in a mix of indignation and amusement.

“Probably be in better shape too….”

“And with three doctorates to your name?”

“…Okay, probably not that.”

“We could fix that, you know…”

“Oh God no!” Julian objected. “I don’t have time!”

“Hmm. Maybe I could, though…” Xiù mused. Before that thought went any further, however, they were all interrupted by the familiar ground-shaking thump of the Array firing.

Sure enough, Hoeff was sitting cross-legged on top of the supply boxes in the company of the biggest gun Daniel had ever seen that wasn’t actually mounted on a vehicle. It was a drab green color, at least four feet long, and had a muzzle that Daniel could have fit his thumb into.

Julian snorted at the sight. “…Hoeff, please don’t take this the wrong way or anything, but even with all your progress lately? That rifle makes you look like a five year old kid.”

Hoeff vaulted down off the boxes and patted the weapon fondly. “I reckon not many kindergarteners have guns like I do!”

“…Guns? Wait, don’t—goddamnit.”

Hoeff flexed his big knotted arms and giggled like a boy who had the most bestest toy ever.

Julian gave a wry grin, “I mean…they’re pretty good, I guess.”

“Aww! And here I thought you were a gun nut these days!”

Xiù sighed and covered her eyes with her hand wearily. “Hoeff, that’s worse than any pun I’ve ever managed…Also.” She looked over at Julian, glanced at each of his considerably more impressive meat-hooks in turn, grinned coyly and said nothing more.

Sometimes, the mark of an exceptional woman was her ability to put a man in his place with nothing more than a smile. Hoeff grumbled ruefully while Julian scratched at the back of his head in embarrassment. He still didn’t quite realize just how much that gesture could show off.

For his part, Daniel snorted in amusement, then looked away as he heard a rustling from the nearby trees. “Brace yourselves…” he warned. “If that’s not Vemik, I’ll eat my fountain pen.”

It was. The instant Hoeff crossed the safety line, he was promptly tackled and wrestled into a tightly compacted ball.

“You have new mag-a-zeens yet?!”

Hoeff gave Julian a grinning yet slightly desperate look. “Little help here, hrrrrgh!”

“Nah. Use those big guns of yours!”

“Guns?!” Vemik sprang up and instantly bounced over to the cargo, prowling around its exterior with all the eager excitement of…well, Vemik. He kept his hands off, though; Vemik had eventually learned some boundaries. He hooted appreciatively at the M107 as he inspected it.

“Big!”

…Were all Dan’s fellow menfolk really so stereotypical? Or was he just out of his habitual oeuvre?

“At least someone likes my guns…”

Vemik again hooted his manic approval. “Who doesn’t like big guns?!” He then bounced clear over the cargo pile to inspect from the other side, presumably because walking was too slow.

“Finally, a man with some taste!” Hoeff’s smarmy grin was unbearable.

“Oh my god, you’re terrible! Don’t you have something important to be doing?”

“Naw,” Hoeff shrugged. “Yan said he’d be here when I got back. Guess he’s runnin’ late.”

“He visiting Loor’s tribe right now. Their women…very pretty!”

Ah. He, Julian, Hoeff and Vemik all looked at each other, then collectively looked at the pile of cargo on the pad. Oh well, at least they’d get some exercise in.

The work didn’t take long between the four of them…well, three, plus Daniel’s “help.” Next to those rough-and-tumble men, he wasn’t exactly a longshoreman of legendary repute.

Naturally, once the pad had been cleared and the neighboring young Ten’Gewek recruited to help move the cargo, there was nothing left for Julian and Vemik to do. That was a condition that lasted about fourteen seconds before Vemik looked over at Julian, twitched his tail, snarled with a playfully aggressive grin, tackled the huge woodsman like a frog leaping across the ground…

And reminded them all who the kings of the jungle really were on Akyawentuo. Even standing as tall as he comfortably could on those heavyset legs of his, Vemik was a couple inches shorter than Hoeff and a full foot shorter than Julian, yet despite that he had noticeably broader shoulders and a sturdier, more muscular build. The blessings of youth, hard work, plentiful meat, and very good fortune had widened the mass gap between them to over fifty kilos in hardly any time at all, which was…Outside of the HEAT, no other humans were really Julian’s match, as far as anyone knew. He could best most any Ten’Gewek that wasn’t a Given-Man, and he definitely had Vemik beat on skill, patience, reach, and long working endurance…

…But the Sky-Thinker was already one of the strongest men the Ten’Gewek had. It took him a few minutes longer to wad Julian up into a ball than it had taken with Hoeff, but once he got those thick arms, legs, and tail of his properly around his prey, there was no escape.

“I strong man of the People, Jooyun.” Vemik snarled playfully right next to his ear. “Yan make me spear-hunt every day. I beat iron, train with you and Heff, race through trees…” He ratcheted his crush tighter and earned a groan of pain from Julian. “Now I wrestle you!”

He did. Julian wasn’t exactly helpless, and did manage to turn the tables now and then—once with a ground-shaking body slam that earned a rueful trill and a moan of pain from Vemik—but for the most part it was Vemik who ruled the day. Everyone else conversed and tidied up while the manic Sky-Thinker and Julian-slab happily crushed each other into giant bruises.

Oh well, they did seem to be enjoying themselves…

Daniel shook his head and decided he’d stick with his books.

Maybe an hour later Yan joined them from the forest, whistling merrily while a half-dozen bibtaw swung from his tail by their ears.

Ten’Gewek had an incredible ability to whistle, Daniel noted. They had virtually perfect pitch control and could put a hell of a lot of ear-splitting power behind it if they wanted. Fortunately, Yan was being somewhat civilized at the moment, though the leg-swinging happy bounce in his usual swagger was telling, to say the least.

The moment Vemik heard Yan approaching, he bounced up and hauled Julian to his feet, then dragged him down to his level for a crushing hug. It was one of those deeply affectionate, tail-around-waist and forehead-to-forehead kind of moments the Ten’Gewek reserved for those they truly loved. “Good fight! I make you werne jerky okay?!”

Julian chuckle-groaned in pain, but wrapped his big arms around Vemik and hauled him off the ground for what Dan would surely have felt as a literally spine-shattering hug. “Okay, big buddy!” He shot a look at Xiù, “Make some for my girlfriends and we’re even.”

“Okay!!” Vemik wrapped himself completely around Julian and they hugged even tighter, while Xiù giggled and Hoeff rolled his eyes.

“Right. Well!” Daniel waved at the Given-Man. “Did you have fun, Yan?”

“Yes! I had three funs! [You should go visit Loor-tribe, Vemik! Noyu is without child just now…well, maybe not anymore!”]

Daniel saw the way Xiù rolled her eyes. He couldn’t blame her. He still wasn’t quite used to how casually promiscuous the Ten’gewek could be, and he suspected no Western-raised human ever would be.

Vemik jumped down from Julian’s grasp and hooted in a very specific this-conversation-is-old kind of tone. [“I tell you every time Yan, I am happiest with Singer. Dancing for other women is fun, but nobody makes me laugh like her! Anyway come look at Heff’s guns!!”]

Another reminder of her point that they were dealing with aliens here. People he loved, admired and respected, but that didn’t automatically mean he fully understood them.

[“Vemet was the same way…”] Yan grumbled indulgently, but his interest perked up when he laid eyes on the rifle. [“…Now that is a strong gun.”]

Yup. Daniel was marooned on Monkey Planet and surrounded on all sides by big, brawny, and terminally testosterone-poisoned men. It should have been a scene from an eighties-era bad teen movie, except none of them were stereotypically stupid, nor were they cruel bullies. The were just…playfully crude.

And happy. He’d worried at first about life among superjocks, but honestly…it wasn’t so bad.

“Anyway.” said Yan. “We must go and see Brown One, yes? Vemik! [I need you to send word to the west. Loor-tribe is already spreading word east!”]

“Got anything else for us, Hoeff?” Julian asked.

“Just the tagging kit.” Hoeff nudged it with a toe.

“Tag-ging. Means…?”

[“Means it’s for putting a mark on the Brown One that we can follow!”] Vemik enthused.

“Yuh-huh. Gonna tape it to the drone… Y’all did bring the drone, right?” Hoeff checked.

“Yup. Xiù’s gonna fly it.”

“That makes sense.”

“I’ll leave you to plan your expedition,” Daniel said, and stood up to return to the…

Was it still a camp? They still called it “The Camp”, but really it was a permanent research station nowadays, and the word “camp” did it an injustice. They’d never named it either, which was beginning to rub against Daniel’s sense of rightness.

Then again, it was never supposed to be what it was. It had originally just been temporary housing and a situation room for the archeological dig around the furthest inland settlement the lake Ten’gewek had apparently founded. Daniel had always intended for whatever permanent human presence arose on Akyawentuo to be a carefully contained enclave, maybe on an island somewhere, supplemented by some kind of a philosopher’s garden somewhere near to the tribes.

Nowadays it was a place of the most constructive of culture clashes. Humans taught Ten’Gewek how to read—now that they had their own letters, Yan thought it was “okay”—and how to do more practical things. Things like food preservation, simple tool making, mindful habits about writing down thoughts as they occurred and suchlike. Predictably, everyone was interested in Hoeff and Julian’s daily weightlifting and other training, so every day they taught the People how to methodically exercise, once they’d finished torturing Dan and his students.

All in all, things were going well! They’d even begun a post office between the Given-Men, now that Vemik’s and Singer’s writing was spreading like wildfire. ‘Giving-marks’ and ‘Taking-sounds’ was what they had called the female and male systems. The one ‘gave’ the reader an idea with its many characters, all of which evolved from the Singers’ bite-marking system, while the other one ‘took’ sounds from the mouth and kept them on paper forever.

They were soaking up knowledge like sponges and making it their own, in ways Dan couldn’t have hoped to guess they would. The Ten’gewek, in turn, taught the somewhat cloistered graduate students how to live a little, though that had of course been a bit awkward at first…

…Because the Ten’Gewek were…amorous. Deeply, aggressively amorous.

And they were interested.

That had prompted important issues immediately. How, for example, would a young woman politely turn down the love interest of a playful, flirtatious, rugged, breathtakingly athletic spacemonkey who might mass north of three hundred kilos…or much more for a Given-Man? For that matter, how did the young men politely decline the attention of women who often massed over one-fifty, and could put all but the most elite human athletes to shame?

Well, good banter did the trick, as playfulness seemed to be the key to everything Ten’Gewek. They had a soft spot for bravado and someone had been teaching them bad words. They had gleefully embraced the term “snu snu” for example. They didn’t need to know where it came from, only that what it meant was hilarious to them.

Thus were the awkward clashes deflected, and in the end it served its purpose: Feelings remained unhurt, bodies remained unbroken, and the possibility remained open for anyone brave and adventurous enough to finally try it. After all, it wasn’t like the Ten’gewek weren’t quite brutally handsome in a primal, alien sort of way…

Daniel couldn’t imagine himself boldly going quite that boldly. He was…pretty sure a couple of his students might, and he wasn’t going to judge if they did, but he wanted no part of it.

In any case, once the natives understood that, no, there would be no casual mating with the tall elf people from the sky, the more concrete matters of learning and exchange could proceed apace.

Keeping the place tidy when there were curious native children constantly poking their nonexistent noses into everything was the biggest challenge now. They were… Their desire to help exceeded their ability to help. Though they were helpful: They were strong like grown men and had the boundless energy only a child could have. Focusing their attention was a challenge, but give them a task, and make it competitive…

The archeologists on-staff had never once had porters so hard-working and eager to please. Provided they were only entrusted with things that could survive a little rough handling, the dig sites ran like clockwork.

Claire in particular had a deft touch with them. Enough so that she could actually dismiss a whole pack of chattering cavemonkey children with a few kind words as Daniel arrived.

“Is he back?” she asked, and Daniel smiled inwardly. She only had eyes for one man, of any species. Too bad the man in question had… hangups.

“Yes, and the gun he brought is almost bigger than he is!”

She sighed and tidied up her books. They included the works of Doctor Seuss, printed on Tyvek in both English and Vemik’s writing system, and Daniel wasn’t entirely sure where she’d got them or who’d performed the transliteration. The pool of potential candidates wasn’t big, but it was big enough. “…So the hunt’s going ahead.”

“It certainly looks that way… At least I’m not worried about anyone getting killed any longer.”

“How come?”

“That rifle looks like it’d make a cow explode. And it’s got a scope on it you could see Neil Armstrong’s boot prints with from here. That poor Brown One doesn’t stand a chance.”

Claire pulled a face. “Kind of an anticlimactic end for a creature like that.”

“Which is why I don’t think this hunt is a good idea, but…”

“But it’s Yan’s idea,” she finished. She sighed and pushed her glasses up her nose. “Well, if they’re not free to make a mistake…”

“…Then they’re not free,” Daniel agreed. “All we can do is stand aside and let them do their thing.”

“I wonder what’s going on in Yan’s head?”

Daniel considered all the possible answers he could give. The conversation he’d had with Julian and Xiù back at the array, his own dark suspicions…

In the end, he decided not to burden her any more than she already was.

“That, I think,” he said, “is between Yan and the gods.”

That was all he could say.


Date Point: 16y2m3d AV
Mrwrki Station, Erebor system, Deep Space

Lewis Beverote

“Still no word from the dang thing, huh?”

Darcy shook her head as she considered the intricate document in front of her. “None. It just left me a cryptic note about detecting something and vanished… I get three spells, right?”

“Yeah. Here.” Lewis handed over the spell cards. “Way easier than tracking them on your sheet.”

“Thanks. This is complicated enough already…”

“Dude, don’t worry. You’ll get it it in no time.”

“You sound worried,” Lucy observed. She was handing out snacks and drinks while they waited for the other two to arrive.

“About the Entity? I guess I am.” Darcy sighed as she started to read the cards. “I mean… It’s my responsibility after all.”

“Isn’t it, like, the baddest dude out there though?” Lewis asked.

“I know it makes the Hierarchy shit their pants, but that might just make them gang up on it.” Darcy put a card down. “Comprehend languages?”

“Sure, yeah. Lee likes his arcane mysteries and ancient tomes and shit. That’d come in useful.”

“Who’s our fourth player, anyway?”

“It’s a surprise.”

“…Is it Vedreg?”

Lucy and Lewis boh groaned. She was exactly right.

“Like… how’d you guess?”

Well, you’ve got this big open patch of floor here that he could squeeze into, and we’re on this side of the table…” Darcy grinned. “And honestly, inviting a Guvnurag to play D&D just sound like a you two thing to do.”

“She’s got us, baby,” Lucy laughed as she patted Lewis on the shoulder, and sat down. “Wanna know the best bit?”

“What?”

“He’s playing a barbarian. And he’s taking it very seriously.”

Lewis grinned too when they were treated to the rare sound of one of Darcy’s giggles. It ended in a kind of uptick squeak. “How seriously?” she asked.

“He watched all three Conan movies back-to-back,” Lucy revealed.

“Hee! Vedreg the Barbarian!”

“Lee had to talk him outta callin’ the character ‘Steve.’” Lewis recalled. “He–”

Their door chimed, and he stood to open it while Lucy picked up the story. Sure enough, Lee and Vedreg were outside, one very much looming over the other. Not that Vedreg had any other option but to loom. Bein’ as big as a van would do that for a dude.

It made welcoming him into the home tricky. Mrwrki had been built by and for the Kwmbwrw originally, who were a fair bit taller and broader than humans themselves, so the doors were just about able to welcome a middle-aged Guvnurag if he didn’t mind having to shuffle through them in a low crouch.

At least the private quarters were big and roomy. Vedreg settled comfortably in the middle of the rug and the four humans scooted the table over in front of him so they could gather ‘round for the first session of their new campaign.

Lucy was playing a paladin, of course. She always played paladins or clerics. Darcy had never played D&D before and had gone with a warlock. Vedreg’s barbarian promised plenty of hitty-smashy combat goodness.

Lewis had decided to go with a ranger. It seemed like a fairly balanced party, all told.

They made a little small-talk before they began, obviously, but pretty soon Lee was waving his hands and describing how the four characters’ collective adventure began in the back of a wagon at a slave market built inside the ribcage of a long-dead titanic primordial being.

An hour later, Vedreg was carefully rolling his giant foam d20 to see whether he’d cleave through a chattering skeletal minion when Darcy’s phone pinged urgently.

She immediately grabbed for it. “Oh, shit… Sorry guys. This one’s important.”

“Aww c’mon—!” Lewis objected.

“I work in intelligence, Lewis. ‘Vacation’ and ‘free time’ are quaint concepts I gave up when I sold them my soul. They call, I jump.”

Lee and Lucy both nodded, sadly understanding. Vedreg merely glowed a shade of interested raspberry red as she got up and crossed the room to answer.

“Darcy… It is? Alright, yeah, link it through. Thanks.” She lowered the phone slightly and smiled across the room. “Our friend’s back.”

“That’s good news,” Vedreg said, shading to a warmer, more relieved shade of red.

“Yeah. Let me just…” She sat on the couch. “Hello. Welcome back!”

Lewis stood up and made coffee for himself, Lucy and Lee, a hot chocolate for Vedreg and a green tea for Darcy. Hopefully if she wasn’t just heading back to her office, that meant the game was merely interrupted rather than cancelled.

Sadly, that seemed it wasn’t to be. After a minute or so of talking to her screen and whatever mishmash of emojis came back, Darcy sighed, stood, and grabbed her shoes.

“Sorry guys, I think I need to head back to the office,” she gave them a weary shrug and an apologetic half-smile.

“Something big come up?” Lee asked.

“You could say that,” Darcy agreed. She slipped her shoes on and grabbed her bag. “It, uh… It says it has a prisoner.”


Date point: 16y2m3d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm

Daniel “Chimp” Hoeff

Julian had a habit of singing in the woods. Not loud, exactly, and Hoeff wasn’t even sure he was totally conscious he was doing it, but loud enough to hear.

Apparently it kept critters from blundering into them that might get ornery if surprised. It must be working, ‘cuz Hoeff hadn’t seen, heard or smelled a damn thing since leaving the village.

At least the big bastard had a decent singing voice, even if his song selection was… ehhh…

♫“-when it gets warm…And I can’t wait to see, what my buddies all think of me. Just imagine how much cooler I’ll be in summeeerrrr…”♪

“Aargh, would you shut up?!” Hoeff finally groaned. He’d been carrying the M107 for miles and the damn thing weighed plenty enough on Earth. Akyawentuo’s gravity added like six pounds, which didn’t sound like a lot but it all added up.

♪“A-buh-bah-ba-♫ huh?” Julian snapped out of whatever bizarre headspace he’d been in. “…Dude. Problem?”

“How fucking old are you, seven?”

“It’s my favorite movie!”

“…You’re fucking weird, man.”

Yan stopped so abruptly that Hoeff nearly walked into him. His tail lashed a few times, then he turned around and considered the two humans.

“…Sit. Rest.”

“Gettin’ tired, bro?”

Yan dismissed the good-natured joke with a grunt. “Hungry.”

Well, fair enough. Ten’Gewek chewed through calories like a dragster, and Hoeff wasn’t gonna say “no” to gettin’ some weight off his back and some food in his belly either.

They found a fallen Ketta branch and parked their asses on it. Yan had his trail food, a mix of Werne jerky, nuts, berries and pemmican. Julian and Hoeff had MREs, and Hoeff tore his open eagerly. His expression fell when he saw what was inside.

“…Fuck. Skittles.”

Julian held up his pack’s candy offering. “I got a Hershey bar. Trade?”

“You’re outta your goddamn mind! …Deal.”

Julian handed it over. “What? I like Skittles!”

“Bro, you are made of cotton candy and rainbows today. The fuck softened you up?”

“Same thing that pissed in your cornflakes, I guess.”

They chuckled and set their food to cooking. Yan’s tongue lashed the air at the familiar chemical sting of a flameless heater, and he moved upwind.

“…Seriously though?” Hoeff said, picking up the music conversation again as he spread cheese on a cracker, “I ain’t never heard you sing or listen ‘ta anything that ain’t antique.

Julian shrugged. “I like what I like.”

“Don’tcha wanna get up-to-date?”

Julian shrugged again. “I caught up with the bands I used to like but… I dunno. Not much that’s come out since First Contact really grabs me, you know?”

“You could at least go with something that ain’t a fucking Disney movie. I mean what about… Sciatica?”

Julian shook his head. “Too much screaming, not enough singing.”

“Army of Angels?”

“Too goth.”

“Made To Fail?”

“Who?”

Hoeff shook his head and gave up. He reclined on the branch and listened to his dinner sizzle for a bit until a thought struck him.

“…You know what’s weird? People mention First Contact and in my head I think that was only, like… five or six years ago. Not sixteen. I’ve had a whole fuckin’ career since then.”

“Try spending five years in stasis. Completely throws off your sense of when stuff happened.”

“Shit, I guess it would… ‘course, you weren’t even on Earth when it happened, were ya?”

“Nope. I was freezing my ass off on Nightmare.” Julian nudged his meal pack, then glanced Hoeff’s way. “…Where were you when it happened?”

“Visitin’ my parents. We were watching baseball, not hockey, but I tell you man, the game coverage got dropped. An actual alien invasion? Shit, I don’t think anybody knows how that baseball game finished… ‘Course, my leave got cancelled, which sucked. Mom wasn’t happy about it, but Dad, y’know, he knew how it was. He’d been there. He just drove me to the airport.”

“Your dad served?”

“Shit yeah, he did!” Hoeff said proudly. “You’re talkin’ to Chief Special Warfare Operator (retired) Daniel Hoeff the Second.”

“He was a SEAL too?”

“Yup.” Hoeff looked up at the canopy and smiled. “…He gets me, you know? One time, he just rocked up after school on a Tuesday and took me camping down in Big Bend for the rest of the week. He just… He knew how bad I was gettin’ it from some’a the kids. Like that time Beau Thompson shoved me ass-first into the trash can ‘round back of the science block and I missed the bus home.”

He saw the look on Julian’s face. “What?”

“Nothing, I just… have a hard time picturing you getting bullied at school,” Julian admitted.

“Shit yeah, all the time! I was the little weird kid who beat their asses at fuckin’ everything in class… I had a bad time of it, and Dad, God bless him, saw how I was just bottling it up and sooner or later I was gonna explode. He knew he could either step in or watch me go fuckin’ Columbine on those motherfuckers. So he took me away from it all for a week and helped me get it outta my system then taught me how to ride it, y’know? Taught me how to see past them to all the good people behind them… showed me how to remember there was such a thing as good people.”

Julian looked a little unnerved. “Jeez, dude.”

“Yeah, it was a dark place. Dad pulled me out.” Hoeff decided his food was ready and fished it out of the box. “…Helped that he taught me how ‘ta make an example of Thompson, too. And he came in and had words with the Principal when I got detention. Scared the shit out of him!”

Julian smiled. “He sounds like a good man. The kinda dad I wanna be.”

“Yeah. I love him to death,” Hoeff didn’t feel the least bit awkward about saying that. “…You reckon your kids’ll serve?”

Julian frowned. “…Oh, jeez. I hadn’t thought that far ahead,” he said.

“Wouldn’t be surprised if they did. Fuck, with the kinda pedigree he’s gettin’ from you an’ Xiù, your boy might just grow up to be the next Warhorse.”

“I hope not!” Julian grimaced. “I mean, I love Adam, but man he’s been through some shit.”

“Yup. That’s what drives him.”

“Exactly. Not something I wanna wish on my son and heir.”

Hoeff chuckled. “Fair, I guess. Nobody wants their kid to grow up to be Batman.”

“Mm-hm!” Julian nodded with a wry smile. “No thanks, I choose life.”

“Got a name for ‘em yet?”

“Not yet. Only thing we know for sure is Jacob and Amanda aren’t on the list.”

“Make it easy for the rest of us, yeah? I like Xiù, but fuck her name is hard to pronounce.”

Julian laughed and opened his own meal pouch. It smelled to Hoeff like he’d got the barbeque beef and beans, lucky asshole.

“…So what about you and Claire?” Julian asked, spooning up a mouthful.

“What about us?”

“C’mon, everyone who knows you two ships it.”

“‘Ships it?’ The fuck are you, some weeaboo schoolgirl?”

Julian just raised an eyebrow on his smugly trollish face and smirked. “Dude.”

Hoeff sighed. The truth was, Claire was a painful subject for him. She wasn’t some frilly little civilian, she was a xenoarchaeologist who’d now spent more than a year living on a supergravity alien planet, usually getting her hands dirty as she pieced together what she could of Ten’Gewek history. He’d never seen her without dirt under her fingernails, or a little smear of mud somewhere on her face which was about as close as she ever got to wearing makeup.

That little smear of mud never failed to look amazingly cute, too… And she was a hell of a lot more intelligent than him. Hoeff didn’t count himself as stupid, but…

“Look, we’ve been over this,” he said. “C’mon man, after the shit I was just talkin’ about? She deserves somebody more… on her level.”

“That’s her decision, not yours,” Julian retorted. “She has a right to choose who she’s into.”

“And I have a right to say I’m not the right guy for her!”

Julian growled. “Okay. Y’know what? I’m just gonna say it. Get the fuck over yourself, Hoeff.”

…Hold the fuck up. Hoeff weren’t about to take that kinda shit from nobody. He stood up slowly and gave Julian a look loaded with intent.

“You wanna say that again, Playboy?”

Julian raised an eyebrow, stared him directly in the eye, slowly stood up to his full height and…

Well, fuck.

It didn’t take much for Hoeff to see just how much of a fight he was picking. He tried not to show his nerves, but any sane man would be nervous when a few hundred kilos of real life Tarzan-gorilla got angry. Julian knew it, too. He tensed his body, firmly planted those sturdy feet of his in a wide, immovable stance, and crossed his massive arms across his chest.

His growled reply was absolutely dripping with menace, too. “You heard me, Chimp. Get the fuck over yourself and stop being such a little bitch, dude. You’re better than that.”

Hoeff wasn’t one to back down, ever. That was how he’d made it through training and become a SEAL, despite being the littlest sailor in his class. No washbacks, no failures, no excuses.

He stood his ground. They squared off, and Hoeff saw Yan shift subtly where he was sitting a few yards away, listening and watching carefully, but not interfering, at least…not yet.

Hoeff sized up his opponent.

Julian was a monster. He had a real HEAT-grade physique, all the abilities that went with it, and all the justified self-confidence that kind of innate superiority gave a man. Though Hoeff had also experienced ridiculous improvement under the SOR’s care—to the point where people were getting out of his way when he walked down the street these days—even then he’d not managed anything like Julian’s progress. He was so much bigger, tougher, faster, and stronger than Hoeff it was fuckin’ silly. He was a damn good fighter, too. Sparring with him hurt.

But despite all that, Julian wasn’t a combat armsman. Hoeff…was.

Even better for his chances, Julian especially wasn’t a fighter in the up-close-and-personal way Hoeff was. The giant fucker didn’t have the same experience, hadn’t learned the little tricks that made all the difference. Hoeff gave Julian a ruthless eye-over and decided he could probably take him in a real fight. If it ended up just being some macho posturing bullshit then yeah, Julian’d break him like a fuckin’ child, but if things got dirty…

…What the fuck was he thinking? He’d just pondered how to fuck up a friend.

And worse, Julian could tell, too. He didn’t back down any, but he didn’t seem like he was itchin’ to rumble, either. “Hey man, you wanna go for it, I’m down,” he said in a level foice, “but I’m not looking for any of that. I’m just sick and tired of you hatin’ on yourself.”

Well…fair enough.

Hoeff willed himself to unwind and looked down at his feet, a little ashamed. “…It ain’t hate,” he said once he felt more composed. “It’s… Shit, man, I dunno. I’ve spent my whole life bein’…”

He trailed off, then shrugged helplessly. He knew what he meant, but couldn’t think how to say it in a way that didn’t sound like he fucking loathed himself.

“Hoeff, buddy.” Julian moved to his side and put a heavy-ass, brotherly arm around his shoulder, then pulled him in for a crushing hug. “Can I be honest? I’m not as sociable as people think I am. I’m…uh, well, Nightmare burned my tolerance for bullshit right out of me. I don’t waste my time with people who don’t deserve it, man. But here I am. Just say whatever’s on your mind.”

He was doing that thing that really big guys tended to do, where even his gentle shows of affection were a kind of an inevitable reminder of just how little and weak Hoeff was next to that, no matter how strong he’d grown these days. And like always, it was irresistible.

“…I got a body count, man. Like… JETS was way the most bloodless part of my career.”

Julian nodded honestly and without judgement. “Yeah. I know. We all know.”

“Claire doesn’t.”

“Yeah she does, man.”

“I mean she doesn’t have one. Like…”

“She’s not innocent, either. She knows pretty much exactly what you are, Hoeff. Doesn’t change a damn thing.”

“Dude, shut up and let me get this off my chest,” Hoeff snarled. “This shit ain’t easy for me.”

“Nuh-uh, you’re gonna hear me out first. I spent six Goddamned years inside my own head, man. I know all about self-doubt and all that shit. Y’know what? It’s horseshit. All of it. And that fucking monster inside? Tough. We’ve all got it. Believe me, I know. How the hell you think I’ve managed any of this?” Julian gestured across himself, and to the jungle they found themselves in. “ So seriously. Stop it. You’ve got friends who love you. Hell, I’ve fought death robots with you! And I think sometimes being a friend means slapping the silly shit outta people when they need it.”

Hoeff fought back a wave of irritation. “Doesn’t fucking feel silly,” he said.

Julian pushed back on Hoeff’s shoulders and held them like brothers having a heart-to-heart. “Hoeff. Buddy. It ain’t silly, man. I respect the heck outta you for everything you’ve done. You’re one of the men I hope my son and daughter might look up to. It’s just…we’re all full of ourselves. I was sorta the same way when I started dating Al, so I guess…I dunno.”

Julian tilted his head slightly, then pulled Hoeff back into a fierce hug. He felt himself returning it. “I just don’t like seeing people I care about making the same dumb mistakes I did.”

…Hoeff had no idea how to react to any of that. He’d not had anyone besides his dad ever show him that kind of concern. It was…disorientating, actually. He didn’t know what to do—

There was a grumbling sound from across the clearing, and Yan stood up. He stretched, yawned expansively, and then without any warning or broadcasting, he pounced forward, swept the two humans off the ground with an enormous arm around each of their waists, transferred Hoeff to one of his feet, and swung up a Ketta.

Some few bewildering seconds later, Hoeff found himself and Julian dangling upside-down next to each other, an alarmingly long way above the forest floor.

Yan swung next to them as well, and grinned tuskily. He was gripping a branch with one foot and one hand: his other foot held Julian up by the ankle, and Hoeff found he was suspended by Yan’s tail.

“Humans talk too much,” he announced.

“Yan, this shit’s important—” Hoeff began, then shut up when Yan pretended to let go and dropped him a few inches. The big bastard was grinning hugely.

“Only yes or no,” the Given-Man said. “You like her. Yes?”

“Well… yeah, but–”

“She likes you. End of problem. [Anything else is just stupid Sky-Thoughts Taking your happiness and Giving back hurt.”] He reached out and prodded Hoeff in the forehead. “All your pain is just in here. Good women know good men. And like slightly bad man! And she chose you, so if you like her don’t insult her choice.”

“Or were you lying about liking her?” Julian asked. He didn’t seem even a little bit fazed by being swept up into the trees and dangled upside-down like a toy. In fact, he looked like he was trying not to laugh.

“No, man–!” Hoeff protested.

“Well then. Trust her! That’s what a relationship’s built on!”

Hoeff sighed. It felt…good, really. Having dudes who cared, even if it also hurt. “…Alright. I get it.”

Satisfied, Yan flipped them both over like toys, hung them over the branch and then, to Hoeff’s horror, jumped down.

Julian, the fucking maniac, jumped down right behind Yan and actually whooped as he fell. Each of the two ultra-heavyweights hit the ground with a thud that Hoeff felt even all the way up in the tree. Where Yan had just landed almost straight-legged as if he’d just hopped in place a bit, Julian apparently wanted to show off. He slammed down, rolled through the landing and sprang to his feet like a goddamn high-jumping ninja. That fall had to be from at least six meters up, too. Jesus.

Hoeff wasn’t so ridiculous. Yan had taken him for a ride, but he wasn’t about to pretend he could handle a fall like that in any kind of gravity. He climbed down like a sane person.

“…You big fuckers are gonna be the death of me.”

Julian grinned ruefully. “Nah, you’re a tough fella. I’ll teach you how to make that jump later too, if you want! Also…” He faced Hoeff square on and spread his arms. “Y’know what? This feels really really stupidly macho, but…one free hit, if you want it. I deserve it.”

Hoeff couldn’t help but laugh a little. “What? Why?”

Julian shrugged. “For pushing you outta your comfort zone.”

“Christ, I thought I’d outgrown that shit fuckin’ years ago…I’ll take a rain check.”

“No man! Payback is one thing, but no way am I gonna trust a sneaky murderbunny like you with an open-ended invitation!”

“Dude, I’m not gonna break my knuckles tryin’ to punch you. Fuckin’ weirdo.”

“You sure?” Julian grinned, then trollishly flexed his fuckin’ ridiculous abs. “I won’t offer again!”

“No, goddamnit! How the hell am I, the Navy SEAL, being the normal one here?!”

“Not even one little hit?”

“Dude!”

“Your loss.” Julian lowered his arms with a chuckle and returned to his meal pack.

Despite himself, Hoeff felt better. Hs friends might be fucking crazy, but at least they cared. Tough love might not be fun but it proved their affection a fuck of a lot more than just validating his bullshit would have.

He stalked back to his own meal and dug in, glad for friends, a full belly, and big guns.

And he started thinking about what he was gonna say to Claire.


Date Point: 16y2m3d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

SFC Wilson “Titan” Akiyama

For the first time ever, the Couch had needed reinforcing and widening. They had a lot of new Operators, the Old Crew had all grown to enormous size, Gaoian and Human alike, and none of them felt that should in any way interfere with loading as many people onto, atop, and across the Couch as was humanly (or Gaoianly) possible. This meant one Wilson Akiyama was given the unenviable task of improving upon what was effectively a sacred object in the lore of HEAT.

He had help, of course. Sikes was a wizard with a MIG welder, just as good as Rebar had been. ‘Horse set about the task of building a new cushion that was up to the task, with a firmer padding and a new wonder fabric that was a soft as fleece, and as tough as Kevlar.

The FNGs were the Gophers, and when it was done, Righteous and ‘Horse had the solemn honor of hauling it back into its sacred spot.

The result was very definitely a couch. It had all the things couches had. Nobody could argue it was lacking any degree of couch-ness. It just… had a few extras that weren’t usually associated with couch-kind.

Like buttresses. And shock absorbers.

It had running beams to distribute the weight more evenly across the floor too, given the weight their increasing population of Beefs had attained. And Starfall had cleverly hidden some surround speakers in its rear, along with some literal ass-kicking subwoofers.

Regaari had added a permanent deodorizing spray.

All in all, it had been a good side-project to see them through a day or two of suit recovery. And now, the moment had come to test it.

“Alright, moment of truth! This a bad movie night, or a good movie night?”

His reply was the sound of Faarek flicking his favorite lucky Ta’Shen tile into the air with a claw. It ping-ed high toward the ceiling, then landed on the table with a steely rattle.

“…Bad.”

There was a small cheer from some quarters, and a resigned shrug from everyone else. After all, it wasn’t like they were really losing anything. Either was fine! And so the HEAT finished their evening exercise, quickly ran themselves through a nice, cold rinse-down, toweled off, changed into their favorite lazy-boy silkies, and piled into the dayroom.

The Couch didn’t complain at all when ‘Horse, Righteous, ‘Base, Irish, and Starfall formed the base substrate of Operator. How exactly they knit themselves together to fit on it in the first place was a bit of a mystery, even though it had been widened and lengthened as much as could be slotted through the dayroom’s doors.

Tonight’s travesty was a crime against all sapient life. Naturally, it was French.

“Is this supposed to fill me with existential dread?” Ergaan wasn’t particularly impressed, and had loaded so much jeering disdain in his voice it was practically dripping from his fangs.

“Dude, I’m not even sure it’s supposed to make sense.”

“Only a Human director would deliberately set out to make a movie with no plot whatsoever.”

“Are the French actually human?” Firth had grumbled it so deadpan, it almost sounded sincere.

“Allegedly.”

“The subtitles don’t match what my translator is saying at all.”

“Good, ‘cuz I really hope he didn’t literally mean he’s gonna rape himself with a flower…”

Murray grumbled and applied more crush-snuggle to his very first pet operator, one of the new guys by the name of Forrest. He was a Marine, and had a bit of a slow, almost indecipherable drawl despite being intelligent as all hell, so naturally his provisional callsign was Gump.

He’d taken it with grace. Apparently he’d had that same joke chasing him for most of his career so far. He wasn’t as happy about giant Scottish beatdown-ninjas smashing the lifeforce out of him, but there wasn’t really much he could do. If Titan were a French existentialist, he’d maybe have crapped out a shitty movie about it, and made the rounds of the art film circuit.

“Be careful there Highland.” Firth had decided it was time for a bit of troll. “Having a pet Marine is a big responsibility! You gotta train them…”

“Aye. All this week.”

“…Clean up after them…”

“He’s house trained. Mostly.”

Blaczyski chimed in, picking up Firth’s pass. “…Buy their special crayon supplements!”

“Only the best for my wee marine, you watch. He’ll be drinkin’ crayon macchiatos!”

Forrest snorted at that. “If they don’t use Purple Mountains Majesty in their blend, I swear I’ll–hnnngh!”

“Hush, wee bairn. Only dreams now.”

Adam’s sense of injustice eventually came to Gump’s rescue. “Save your energy Highland. You and I got deadlifts in two hours…”

That earned a rueful chuckle from Murray, a reduction of his full body crushing fondness to a lesser grade of struggle snuggle, and a desperate, panting grumble of relief from Forrest.

Faarek chittered to himself as he dug a morsel out of his snack box with a claw. “Humans are still weird…”

“Says the dude eating peanut-butter-and-anchovy peshorkies.”

“Well, what’s weird about that? Peanut butter is proof there are gods and that they love us!”

Regaari duck-nodded. “Especially Gaoians.”

“In what alternate reality do you figger that’s the case?” Firth seemed genuinely amused and released Parata to prop himself up and banter.

“Well, there are whole food combinations we can enjoy that you can’t, and we have a whole sense that you’re effectively completely numb in.”

“That’s arguably true in reverse, too. Except twice, since we’ve got better color vision and a sense of touch that’ll eat yours for lunch.”

“Sure.” Regaari stole one of the vile peshorkies for himself. “And the day you can touch the breeze in a national park, I’ll concede the point.”

“Hey Titan, couldn’t Rebar tell you the type of metal something was made of even while blindfolded? Just by feeling it?”

Akiyama noded. He’d always been in awe of that trick. “If it was unfinished, yeah. He could feel the grain structure and tell you the steel alloy, if it was hot-rolled or cold-rolled…”

“Well… maybe the gods loved Rebar too.”

Faarek duck-nodded. “Of course they did. He was an honorary Gaoian!”

Firth belly-laughed, “How do you figger that?!”

“He was the only one here better at shenanigans than us.”

There was a susurrus as Titan’s fellow humans all nodded in agreement.

Baseball chimed in. “Sounds to me like our furry friends wanna run down to the coast with us tomorrow, ‘Horse…”

At this point, their extensive training meant they could in fact do just that, but that didn’t mean they liked the idea at all. All of the Whitecrests flicked their ears backward in unison, and the humans grinned at each other. A hit!

Sikes shook his head. “I never understood that about you, ‘Horse. You’re literally the heaviest human being to ever live and you like running more than any of us. You and Julian…”

“Speaking of Julian…” Walsh interjected, ”Ain’t he comin today? You sent him a message, right?”

“He’s offworld. Hoeff said somethin’ about a hunt.” If there was a hint of jealousy in Firth’s voice, Titan chose not to notice.

“Dammit. I haven’t hung out with him in ages.”

“Coulda hung out with us and Daar a couple days ago! But no, you had some lame excuse!”

“That ‘lame excuse’ is called June, and she’s a nurse.”

Gaoian psychology was interesting in these moments. They always wanted to know every single fact of the encounter in detail, and always seemed surprised when there wasn’t a mating contract at the end. Walsh fielded a few questions good-naturedly then deflected them back onto the movie.

The main character (if that was the right word, seeing as the piece had no discernible plot, characterization or dialog) was in the middle of depressively reciting something pretentious about the violent nature of cooking. Titan hadn’t paid any attention, and was just waiting for the lonely shots of inamimate objects being buffeted by the wind, or the rain, or…

French movies were the worst. At least this one wasn’t in black and white…

Right about the moment when everyone got bored jeering at the screen, and the group was collectively about ready to either go Gym or possibly just Nap right where they were—both tasks of Serious Importance in the HEAT—there was a bit of commotion downstairs, followed by some tired-sounding footfalls.

JETS Team Two had come back from the field and decided to drop in for a visit. And they had a Gaoian with them that Akiyama didn’t recognize, except he was about the smallest male he’d ever laid eyes on.

He wrinkled his nose and flicked an ear as they entered the room, prompting sympathetic chitters from the Whitecrests.

“You get used to the smell, I promise,” Regaari said, standing to greet him as several of the couch’s human occupants scrambled off it to welcome the trio of brits. “Father Regaari, Clan Whitecrest.”

“Brother Tooko, Clan Firefang.”

“The Tooko?” Shim immediately sounded interested.

“You know this guy, Shim?” Titan asked him.

“Yeah. I heard he’s sired a dozen daughters, and that he personally splashed three broodships at the battle of Capitol Station.”

“Two broodships,” Tooko corrected him modestly. “…And thirteen daughters.”

“Don’t let Daar know, he’ll be bragging Tooko up to every female he meets!”

“Oh, he knows,” Tooko didn’t preen, exactly, but he wasn’t exactly burdened with false modesty either. Titan immediately decided he liked the guy.

“Duw, boys, this looks fuckin’ awful.” Rees was staring at the TV with disbelief. He perched on the back of the couch with a grin.

“It’s the worst,” Sikes assured him.

“Fuck it, I’m in. Any beers? I’m fuckin’ gasping.”

Tooko sighed disappointedly. “…Bad movies. You too?”

“We flipped a tile for it,” Titan explained. “Personally, I’m on team Good Movie, but….”

The arrival of new friends and the mention of beer got the team out of the dayroom and into the kitchen, where they wolfed down their scheduled meals and plied their guests with as much food as they could stand. Then, it was beer time. All delicious frosty beverages were relocated to the dayroom, and the process of squeezing onto the couch began anew.

Most everyone got themselves new teddy-victims. Regaari and Faarek took Tooko (for his protection) and the rest of Team Two disappeared somewhere into the depths of the Couch.

Firth re-settled with a new squeeze-bear in the form of his perennial favorite, Blaczynski, and made himself comfortable. “Anyway, what brings ‘ya here?”

“We’ve got some leave,” Wilde revealed. “But the next jump to London isn’t until tomorrow morning. What about you? Don’t you have a baby to look after?”

“I get one night off a week to hang with y’all, ‘cuz Freya’s a goddamned angel.” Firth grinned. “I kinda miss Joseph when I ain’t there though. ‘S’funny, he keeps wakin’ up and hollerin’ and you never know if he’s after a tit or a diaper change and I never get a full night’s sleep, but…”

“Yeah,” Adam agreed. “You shift to the two-by-four plan like I did?”

“The what?” Burgess asked.

“Sleep for four hours, get up and take care of business, then back to sleep for another four. As it happens that’s supposedly our natural ancestral sleep rhythm anyway.”

“Works great once ‘yer used to it, and it’s been a fuckin’ godsend. In fact…” Firth shrugged, and caused an avalanche of Operators as he exhumed himself from the Couch. “I think I owe Freya some cheat snacks. That’s part o’ the deal. Maybe I’ll try that taco joint Daar likes…”

“Wanna take her some peshorkies?” Faarek offered the box. Tooko’s nose twitched, his ears pricked up, and he speared one out of the pile with a claw as it went past. Gross as they sounded, clearly they really were pleasing to the Gaoian palate.

“Naw, y’all keep ‘em. Freya’s kinda…picky.”

That was perhaps the most tactful display of manners Titan had ever seen from him. The wonders never ceased, lately.

“But she’ll like tacos?”

“Ain’t nobody don’t like tacos. They’ve got the authentic kind with the soft corn tortilla, too…”

“Go,” Adam encouraged. “Stop scandalizing the Gaoians with the non-crunchy tacos.”

“What about you? Diego an’ Marty both okay?”

“Diego’s staying with his abuelos tonight, an’ Marty said she was gonna spend the evening sleeping.” Adam shrugged, causing a minor landslide. “So, I’m giving her some alone time.”

“Right.” Firth shook his head and grinned. He’d always had a bit of trouble understanding introverts, even mild cases like Martina. “Well, see y’all tomorrow.”

His departure marked the point where the evening slowed down. The movie went largely ignored, the beers and snacks slowly vanished, the banter carried on over the heads of the ones who decided to fall asleep. It was peaceful. Not boring or anything, just… comfortable and quiet, and a welcome change of pace from the solid few days of urgent action they’d been chasing.

It was nice now and then to have a relaxed night off.


Date Point: 16y2m3d AV
Gaoian embassy, Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Daar, Great Father of the Gao

People who didn’t know Daar all that well thought he had a pathological aversion to Civilized pursuits. Not true at all! Daar had always enjoyed history, writing, and the more subtle arts of courtship, and he had to admit he was seeing the appeal in flowers and such, too. Refined arts weren’t an alien concept to him, he simply preferred to enjoy them sparingly. After all, a treat was to be savored and enjoyed, not eaten every day, and Daar was firmly of the opinion that if a ‘Back wallowed in Civilization too much, they might lose sight of what was so special about it.

Why it was worth preserving.

And so Daar found himself practicing his calligraphy with a letter to Naydi, because his aide, Brother Tiyun of Clan Highmountain, was one of the more remarkable veterans of the War for Gao, and had at some point become a Keeda-damned mind-reader on all matters Great Father. He somehow always knew what Daar needed at any given moment, even if that were a sparring partner…though bein’ honest, he wasn’t very big even for a silverfur, so Daar tried to spare him that particular entertainment.

He was getting better, though. Daar had made a Project of him because he would be damned if his friends weren’t the bestest fightin’ tails they could be.

He shared that thought in his letter to Naydi. Writing letters helped him clear his mind almost as well as exercise did. And the history of Gaori lettering was one of those mysteries he ached to solve.

The basics were simple. That was the whole point. Each little line and shape was a phoneme, combine them to get a syllable. The rules were clear, simple, regular…way too perfect. So even if language shifted and changed over the centuries, he could read Fyu’s poetry aloud. Couldn’t understand half of it, but poetry like that was about rhythm, tone and cadence anyway.

Fyu had been a way better poet. Sometimes, Daar wished he could talk to the old legend, get ‘ta know him some more. How the hell would Fyu have handled a problem like Leemu?

… Would he have even understood it? Tech-wise, Fyu had lived in an age a lot more like the Ten’gewek than like modern Gao.

Daar blinked and put his pen down, carefully wiping the ink off and setting it aside in its holder, putting the lid back on the ink and closing his antique writing case with all the careful precision that the civilized art demanded. That done, he sat back and frowned.

…How would he explain the problem to Fyu? Or Yan?

Well, Yan had shown time and again he could get his head around big sky-thoughts with some translation and a running jump. He might not know cell biology, nanotech or microsurgery, but he could get his head around the idea of a magic that could bring folks back from the dead.

And that was what they were playing with, when he got down ‘ta diggin’ in the dirt under all the weeds an’ flowers. If the Corti could copy a mind from the body and then download it back into the body, and… take the body apart, rebuild it, clone it or whatever in the interim, well… they could back up people to archive. Restore them if they got killed.

Or, shit! What if they could build a body to order, and download the mind into that instead? Could they take someone like Tiyun and shove him in a body like Daar’s? What would the world be like if they could build an army like that?

…Would they even know how to use their new bodies? It had taken Daar years to build himself into a worthy match for his bestest friends, and most of that was learning how to do, instead of just the actual doing…

The phrase ‘can of worms’ was so weirdly fucking apt for a problem like this. He peeked inside, and all he saw was crawling problems, all of them disturbing to look at. And the nasty part was, the can was open now and it wasn’t gonna close again. Now that Tran and Nofl had floated the idea, they were gonna take it back to the Directorate and work at it even if Daar said no to trying it out on Leemu.

He didn’t wanna sentence Leemu to death.

It felt a little weird even thinking that. Daar had personally executed billions of his own people. He had committed intimate acts of bloody, brutal murder against irredeemable criminals, not to mention a couple of good men whose only crime had been being too inflexible to do the right thing. He was no stranger to death, nor was he shy about doling it out when needed.

But the thought of leaving Leemu to the ravages of the droud made his fur crawl.

So… ‘kay. Explain the problem to Yan.

Actually…yeah. Explain the problem to Yan. Why the hell not do it in person? He could explain the problem to a little rubber squeak toy if he wanted ‘ta just talk to himself, but unlike the toy, Yan might actually have an insight. Shit, he probably wouldn’t be cluttered by all the bullshit that came from overthinking such things!

Also, he could probably tussle a bit, too! And it was good to keep friends and friendly rivalries alive.

He returned to his desk and wrote the remainder of his letter with care. Sure he could have just gone sprinting from the room barking orders, but this was a letter to Naydi. No other Gaoians were allowed to love each other, and that was a blessing he wouldn’t never forget, nor ever stop honoring.

And that, right there, was the greatest evil the Hierarchy had done to them.

He signed the letter, folded and sealed it the old-fashioned way, and placed it on top of his “send” pile. One of his assistants would ensure she got it.

Only once that was done, did he leave his office and call for a jump to Akyawentuo.

He hadn’t gone back to Gao, not while the Leemu question was unresolved. Instead he’d stayed at the embassy and claimed an office. His staff were used to following him around, and the links between Folctha and Gao were so good these days that it didn’t feel like being far from home.

Now that choice paid off. He was a short car ride from the jump terminal, and as luck had it he’d made his decision just in time to catch the next scheduled link.

Well. Maybe he’d run to the terminal instead. His head felt too full of fluff and gunk to think, and some wind through his fur might help a little.

His staff were used to that, too.

He ran, nice and fast and hard, so that he outran his staff, and arrived on time, panting heavily just as it was time to climb onto the platform. It creaked under his weight—they needed to fix that—and had just enough time to shake his pelt out nice and presentable when the Array fired.

Thump!

Heavy gravity, heavy air, an explosion of scents and sounds. He stepped off and enjoyed the added weightiness he felt, a small challenge he’d always enjoyed, then sniffed happily.

He’d missed Akyawentuo.

There were a few surprised-looking humans around the array, preparing to offload the supply package that he’d rode along with. He recognized Daniel Hurt instantly.

“Professor.”

Hurt shook off his goofy look of surprise with a small laugh and a smile. “Well. We definitely weren’t expecting you today! Welcome back to Akyawentuo, Great Father.”

“Good ‘ta be back,” Daar agreed, and indulged himself in giving Hurt an affectionate reunion hug. His staff might’ve fretted over the dignity of the office, but Daar liked to exercise his discretion, and sometimes that meant being free with his affection. “How’re you?”

Hurt was way denser nowadays. Livin’ in supergravity had really hardened him up and leaned him down from the soft academic he’d once been. Good! Daar had heard he’d been gettin’ lotsa mating offers back on Earth too…too bad Humans were so weird ‘bout all that.

Well. Weirdness was relative, really.

There was one person who was strangely absent, though considerin’ how much the area smelled of him.

“…Hoeff gone somewhere?”

“Yeah, he’s probably out in the woods on Yan’s big hunt.”

That got Daar’s attention. “Big hunt?”

“All the villages are talking about it. He plans to take down a Brown One.”

That…was a bit worrying, actually.

“Why exactly is he doin’ that?” Daar asked. Unthinkingly, he picked up a crate and helped offload the jump platform.

“All he told Julian is that it attacked a village. One of the Given-Men died protecting his tribe.”

“I mean, I unnerstand an’ all but…damnit he ain’t just a chieftain anymore!”

Hurt nodded. “None of us are really in a position to tell him that, though. And frankly, he only commands the respect he does because of what he’s done and the strength he’s shown. Taking down a Brown One would be just the sort of thing to cement him as more than just a chieftain.”

Daar shook his head. “Naw, ‘yer unnerestimatin’ him. He only got as old as he is ‘cuz he ain’t some incautious idiot. Which is why this is frankly a little alarming.”

“Or maybe it’s a test of sorts,” Daniel hefted another box off the platform, and Daar briefly wondered what was in them. There were already a lot of crates around the array. “You’re right, he’s not incautious, and I don’t think he’d suddenly become incautious overnight.”

He straightened up and twisted back and forth to loosen his back. “…He only suggested the hunt after being told that the Corti wanted to meet him,” he added.

Hmm.

“You got a theory?”

“Nothing I’d care to share. Yan is… something of a closed book to me. Human enough to speculate, alien enough to keep me guessing. Much like yourself, no disrespect intended.”

“Well, ‘yer a Highmountain through an’ through, an’ guys like me an’ Yan are pretty much the opposite o’ that. That ain’t too surprising…but tell me anyway. What’s ‘yer guess?”

Daniel sat on a crate, and sipped some water from a bottle he’d had clipped to his belt. “…Yan has been sensibly cautious of sky-magic so far. And not just because we’ve warned him about it, either. But suddenly, he invites us to bring all our tricks to bear against his culture’s version of a dragon? He has to know we could turn a Brown One to paste if we really wanted to, he saw what a couple of Firebirds did to the Abrogators. And he saw what that nuke you dodged did to the forest over on the other side of the mountains, too.”

…Dragon. Now there was an idea. Balls…that fit pretty well actually…

“When’d he see that?”

“A few seasons ago. The Given-Men went back to the old lodge, to fetch some keepsakes and history. They all live within two days walk of each other now, so they moved the lodge to somewhere closer and ‘nicer,’ he said. Anyway, the point is that Yan knows perfectly well that killing a Brown One is trivial with the right Sky-Magic. So the question is… why would you exterminate something your culture venerates?”

“Well…does he? Like, knowing is differn’t from knowin’ sometimes.”

“…Could be. And that’s why I don’t think it’s a complete theory. There’s a few possible explanations for what he’s up to.” Daniel sighed. “…And then of course there’s the fact that sooner or later, the Ten’gewek will have to slay that dragon anyway. There are far worse things up there than Brown Ones, after all.” He aimed a finger skyward.

“I know,” Daar sighed to himself. “I’m one o’ them.”

Daniel gave him a sympathetic look. “…“So if you don’t mind my asking, why did you come here?”

“Spur o’ the moment.” Daar explained. “Kinda hoped Yan would have a, uh… I guess uncluttered insight on a problem I got. Turns out, he has clutter of his own.”

“What kind of problem?”

Daar sighed. “I got a life I can maybe save, and maybe shouldn’t. That’s all I’m willin’ ‘ta share ‘fer now.”

“Understood.” Daniel stood up. “Well, this was our last scheduled jump today so I hope it turns out to be worth the trip.”

“Yeah. I’ll be here ‘fer a couple days most likely. Oh, as an aside…if you ever become the most biggest warlord in the history of ever, make sure ‘yer staff can think on their feet. I can’t even say how much I’m thankful I can do dumb shit like this an’ get advice without much worry. I think I’mma hunt a werne an’ make ‘em all jerky for this, I bet they’re angry.”

“Still a big leap, stranding yourself on a backwater like Akyawentuo for a couple days in search of advice. You obviously respect Yan a lot.”

“Yan…well, thing is? The Ten’Gewek got something in ‘em that were murdered outta my people. Yours have buried it under so much symbology an’ stuff it’s hard to get at. But here?”

Daniel nodded. “Here, it’s very… pure.”

“Yeah. An’ they’re way smarter an’ more civilized than they’ve got any damn right bein’ at this point in their evolution, too.”

“Much more so than we were,” Daniel agreed.

“Eh, maybe. Don’t sell ‘yerselves short. Anyway. Yeah. There are some questions that maybe it’s best if someone who ain’t got all that Civilization on top o’ them might be bestest at answerin.’ I already spoke with Champion Gyotin, an’ he don’t have an answer.”

“Possibly you should brace yourself for there not being a good answer.”

“Maybe,” Daar shook his fur out. “…But I’m beginnin’ ‘ta think maybe Yan’s got a similar problem. Is it always a good idea to slay dragons?”

“…Good question.”

“Yeah. Think I’m gonna go say hi to Sister Shoo an’ then go find Yan.” Daar dropped to four-paw, gave the professor a parting nod, and turned his nose down the hill.

Well, first thing he did was bark out a quick message on his wrist communicator to his staff. The zero-point mode of the array would sync at least a few times yet today, and any messages should get through in a reasonable amount of time.

He had little doubt his inbox would explode the next time the sync fired.

But he could worry about that when it happened. With luck, he and Yan could get their heads sorted out, maybe do a werne hunt, give the young monkey-cubs a ride…

That seemed nice. A day or two to recover, before he went back home and pronounced doom on Leemu.

But first, it was time to catch up with a friend.


Date Point: 16y2m3d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Ten’gewek protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm

Xiù Chang

“Okay, should be online now…”

Xiù grinned to herself as the feed from the drone came through clean and strong, then giggled as she saw her new perspective through the VR goggles. The drone was perched on Julian’s palm, leaving her feeling rather like a Lilliputian looking up at a more rugged Gulliver.

“Hi, big guy!” she told him, and wished there was some way to emote via the drone.

He, Yan, and Hoeff were high up in the tallest, strongest tree of the Wall. Yan about half-way up, Julian most of the rest of the way, and Hoeff at the very top where he could safely brace himself. When Julian smirked and then turned the drone around, she saw the canopy was mostly below them, and fell away quite quickly to the border where it just… stopped. That was the point, she guessed, where thousands of years of Werne, Brown Ones, and the other inhabitants of the plains had grazed and trampled any ketta saplings that tried to establish themselves.

“Hi! We’re almost ready, waiting for Hoeff to make his way back down to where I’m at.”

“Gotcha. What’s the plan?”

“We’re just taking a look at him today. We’re…not exactly sure what the best way to go about this is yet, so…patience is a virtue.”

Xiù nodded, then realized too late that the drone wouldn’t convey that. “Okay… Any idea where I should start looking for him?”

Julian shifted in the tree and aimed the drone down toward Yan. “Yan? Xiù wants to know where she should start looking.”

Yan grunted, lashed himself to the tree by his tail so that he had both hands free, and unfolded the map he’d drawn on a white, human-made piece of letter paper. It wasn’t exactly perfect or to scale, but he’d put a lot of detail in.

[“…We know the Werne follow high ground in the rainy season and just after,”] he said. [“The low ground gets boggy, maybe floods… plenty of grass on the high ground, and they can see a long way. They should be easy to find. Find them, and the Brown One won’t be far away.”]

Julian placed the drone on a branch to descend a level, then picked it up again. [“Boggy? How does the Brown One take to that?”]

[“He hunts Yshek in the shallow water, where they lay eggs.”]

Given that an Yshek was basically a furry crocodile the size of an orca, that was a hell of a mental image. Xiù had seen Yshek through Misfit’s survey drones and sensors, and on Earth they’d have been apex predators.

Not so on Akyawentuo, apparently. Wow.

Julian took that news calmly. [“So he doesn’t care, then.”]

[“No. Very big paws. Can’t swim, though.”]

[“So, find a Werne herd on the high ground, then check for water nearby,”] Xiù summarized. Yan grinned at her drone and gave her a thumbs-up.

“Have fun, babe,” Julian told her. He shift in the tree, drew his arm back, and whipped it forward to hurl her into the sky. The drone’s ESFS wings snapped on automatically and she flipped a tight turn between the treetops as she climbed into open sky.

The Wall really was visible, as a kind of ridge of especially tall and hardy trees. She briefly wondered what natural quirk of the local geography had caused it, then dismissed the thought and tested the drone’s top speed.

ESFS wings were great, in that they could reconfigure on the fly for different kinds of flights. They could be little buzzy energy-intensive wings for fine maneuvering, huge wide gliding wings for circling on the air currents, and all points in between. The drone shifted automatically between them, but she had the option of manually changing modes too.

It wasn’t hard to find an updraft to ride. The plains were far from being flat featureless expanses of grass, but were instead ridged and rucked here and there like a disturbed carpet. Rocky features thrust through the soil every few hundred meters, and here and there they created sheltered spots where wooded copses had established themselves.

Such features deflected the wind upwards, giving her column of air on which to gain altitude. Before long she had an angel’s-eye view of the landscape, which she started comparing to her memory of Yan’s map.

Okay… there were the twin stands of trees… and that was the river… which meant the herd was probably somewhere over that way.

When they were in the forest, the Werne splintered into family groups of a bull and his harem. Out on the plains, they tolerated each other and merged into a larger mass of warm bodies. They were pretty easy to spot: their hooves had churned up a wide expanse of damp earth, and their grazing mouths had stripped the grass right down to the roots. All Xiù had to do was follow the disturbed ground.

She zoomed in on them as she wheeled overhead and took some photos for the zoologists. It looked like the herd instinctively created a wall around the calfs, placing them right in the middle. Then the cows formed the second ring around them, and the bulls…

…Were all on one side, interestingly. They had their noses down to graze, but they were definitely tolerating each other to stay together on one side of the herd.

Maybe they were shielding the herd? It seemed like as good a clue as any, so she banked, gained a little speed by dropping a little altitude, and headed out in that direction to see if she could find something dangerous.

What she found was… well… the Brown One.

Yan hadn’t been kidding about it eating Yshek. This one had dragged a ravaged carcass out of the water and was red all the way to the ears from shoving its nose inside to feast on the innards. Once upon a time the sight would have made her queasy, but well… She’d seen a lot of the grisly side of life. Nature red in tooth and claw wasn’t that big of a deal compared to a literal meat locker full of dead Gaoians.

She shivered at that memory, and forced it from her mind, instead opting to descend for a better look at the Brown One.

This had to be Yan’s quarry. It had a proportionally long, well-muscled torso with a broad, thick chest, a strong back, massive haunches and sturdy, powerful limbs. It walked plantigrade on huge paws that it could use like crude hands. Anatomically it was reminiscent of a mash-up between a big cat, a grizzly bear, or a powerful brute of a dog, rather than the quite literally dinosaur-sized prowling titan it was. All of that on a creature as tall at the shoulders as an elephant, and considerably bigger in breadth and length. It had a long and muscular tail, too, held low to the ground and lashing back and forth as it ate.

The head, though… God. That was a head that could bite a man’s whole body off. She got several good shots of a mouth full of logging-saw teeth, and an especially visceral few seconds of footage as it casually splintered the fallen yshek’s ribs with a bite.

It was starting to go dark black around the ears and whiskers, just like an aging Given-Man. Its muzzle, legs, face and flanks were all scarred to the point where there were large patches where its dense fur had never regrown, and its ears were little more than ragged stumps. This had to be the old one Yan was after.

Well. Time to see if that tagging kit Hoeff had brought back worked. Or indeed if their jury-rigged system for attaching it to the drone functioned as intended.

She picked a spot on its back between the shoulder blades where, in theory, the tracking tag would have plenty of loose skin to embed itself in and the Brown One wouldn’t be able to scratch or roll to remove it. She orbited behind it, waited for it to bury its nose in its kill again, then angled down and zipped forward.

She scored a perfect landing and fired the tagger. Her reward was a satisfying beep as the tracker implanted properly, followed by an outraged volcanic snarl from her quarry. It spun like a house cat and if Xiù hadn’t anticipated that it might get angry and started climbing the second she tagged it, the poor drone would have been swatted out of the sky in a shower of broken bits by a paw the size of a coffee table.

The Brown One, not to be so easily denied, backed off a pace or two with its tail lashing, glared up at her, and then leapt.

The drone had stereoscopic cameras on the front feeding Xiù a perfectly deep 3D view of the world. She got a perfect view down its gullet as it pounced ludicrously high into the air to snap at her, squeaked, and reflexively threw the drone sideways.

She slipped between its teeth, and heard them chomp shut bare inches behind her. The Brown One dropped back down to the boggy ground with a splash, and she recovered from her evasive sideslip by powering under its belly, zipping low across the water, and then climbing sharply.

There was a frustrated roar, and she relaxed. Losing the drone would have been…

Well. Seeing teeth like that coming toward her had been intimidating enough. The surge of adrenaline made her giggle, and she circled the drone up to an altitude of maybe a hundred feet or so, set it to hover, and radioed Julian.

“Tagged it,” she reported.

“Nice! How’d it go?”

“I’ll have to show you the footage later. My hands are shaking!”

“Close call?”

“I could tell you how many cavities it has.”

She heard Julian make a faintly disbelieving sound, or maybe a laugh.

“Julian…” she cautioned, watching the Brown One stop prowling and glaring up at her and return to its feast. “…Really don’t underestimate this thing. He jumped like twenty feet in the air from a standing start.”

“…A critter that big managed that?”

“Julian, I don’t think it was even really trying.”

“…Oh, Jeez.”

A commotion of some kind reached Xiù’s ears despite her headphones, even as she laughed quietly at Julian’s understated melancholy. It sounded like the villagers were greeting someone.

“….Yeah. Look, I’m gonna set the drone to a high orbit and go idle for a few minutes, something’s happening here.”

“Like what?”

“Don’t know yet. BRB.”

The drone had an autopilot function that could keep it aloft and tracking a target—like, say, the radio tag—for a couple of days if it needed to. It should be fine without her. She instructed it to do exactly that, then took off the VR headset and headphones.

As she emerged blinking back into the real world, she found a large, scarred, and very familiar but entirely unexpected muzzle poking in through the tent flap at her.

“…Hello, Sister.” Daar looked troubled.

“Da—? Uh,” Xiù caught herself. She was a Female of the Clan of Females, even if she was human. And Yulna had bared her throat to him just like the rest. It seemed maybe a little silly, but these things were important. “…My Father? What are you doing here?”

“Had somethin’ ‘ta discuss with Yan. When I got here, it turned out ‘ta be two somethings.” Daar pulled his head out of the tent, and Xiù ducked through after him. There was a light drizzling rain going on outside, and she wrapped a blanket the Singer had given her around her shoulders to ward it off.

“…An’ you can drop all that ‘My Father’ stuff,” Daar added. “Please.”

“Sorry… You heard about the hunt?”

“It’s okay, and yeah. I think…balls, wassat phrase? ‘Feeling his oats?’ [Like ‘stiff-eared and ready’?’]”

“Yan?” Xiù felt like he’d jumped ahead a few steps in the conversation. Still, she code-switched into Gaori for him. [“Well… I don’t know, really. I don’t even know if it’s going to be much of a hunt in the end. We’ve got a drone, a radio tracking tag, and Hoeff brought a really big gun from Earth. One of those] Barrett rifles? [He said it doesn’t matter how big and tough a Brown One is.”]

[“Don’t that strike you as odd?”] Daar asked. [“Yan takes huntin’ seriously. An’ he respects his prey. But now suddenly he wants easy mode?”]

[“It’s definitely odd. I’m… not sure if he really understands how much easier this will make it. It’s not like they have a translation for the words] ‘point and click,’ [you know?”] Xiù agreed. [“But on the other hand, he’s not stupid. I think he has his reasons, he just isn’t sharing them.”]

Daar grumbled and sniffed the wind, and Xiù tilted her head curiously. [“…Why does it worry you so much?”]

Daar scratched at his ear for a few seconds, still sniffing the wind. When he spoke, he did so carefully, like he was laying down his thoughts in front of him and stepping on them carefully.

“I’m… wonderin’ if it’s always a good idea ‘ta slay dragons,” he said in English.

He lapsed into a kind of contemplative silence, and Xiù reflected once again on how routinely her life seemed to take a turn for the absurd. How many other thirty-year-old expectant mothers ever had stood in the rain in an iron-age village on an alien world, discussing allegory with the king of a different alien world?

Sixteen years previously—eleven by her count, thanks to stasis—she’d spoken with the Dominion ambassador to the Gao and advised Mother-Supreme Giymuy on whether or not the Gao should accept full Dominion membership. And now here she was again. Kind of.

“Dragons,” she said aloud, flatly.

“Yeah. That’s what the Brown One is to the People. It’s a dragon. Symbolically an’ damn near literally. I’ve read a lot about the symbology your people attach to dragons.”

“…When you say ‘my people,’” Xiù said carefully, “Who do you mean?”

“Huh? Humans.”

“Right.” Xiù thought for a second. “…Daar, there’s more than one kind of dragon. It depends where you’re from. If you asked my parents what a dragon represents, they wouldn’t talk about slaying it at all. In Chinese culture, a dragon is… well, it’s not a big dangerous fire-breathing lizard with a hoard of gold. They’re good omens. They represent luck, perseverance, courage and happiness. Not ruin and danger.”

“…That’s a good point. Still don’t sound like something you’d wanna kill, yijao?”

“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him,” Xiù countered.

Daar flicked both his ears in a look of momentary befuddlement. “…Dunno how Gyotin would feel about that one,” he said. “What does it mean?”

“It means… I think it means once you’ve learned everything there is to learn from something, holding on to it might keep you from learning anything more.”

There was a swirl of cold rain and she backed up a step or two into the shelter of the hut. Daar just ignored it.

“…An’ what if you ain’t learned everything there is to learn yet?” he asked.

“Then you don’t meet the Buddha, I guess.”

“Hmm.” Daar gave that some thought, then finally shook out his fur a little. “…Which way did they go, anyway? I came here ‘ta talk with Yan, an I’m gonna do just that.”

“Can’t you smell him?”

“Rain, an’ the whole camp smells like his armpit. Gotta get a little upwind of it first.”

“Okay. They went southeast. I can guide you via the drone…” she indicated the headset. “I mean, I’ll tell Julian you’re coming anyway, so…”

“Thanks, sister…” he gave her a warm look. “…How’s ‘yer cub? Uh, baby?”

“He started moving last week,” Xiù smiled, and gently tickled the bump with her fingernails. “So far so good.”

“That’s good.” Daar said, earnestly and wholeheartedly. “…I’d better go catch up with ‘em.”

“Southeast. Just call if you need directions, but I doubt you’ll have trouble sniffing them out.”

He chittered, and lumbered off between the trees.

Xiù took a deep breath and the Singer caught her eye. The Ten’gewek shaman managed to say quite a lot with just that glance, reflecting Daar’s anxieties with little more than a lift of her brow and a twitch of her tail, then shrugged and went back to her duties.

Xiù retrieved her radio.

“Um… Julian? You’ll never guess who just showed up…” she began.


Date Point: 16y2m4d AV
Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Nofl

Even Corti needed to sleep sometimes. The Directorate had done their best to engineer the need out of their species, but all they’d succeeded in doing was to make Corti sleep very… efficient.

In other words, tiredness came on quickly and hard every fifty hours or so, and the actual slumber itself was impenetrably deep for the few hours it lasted.

On the other hand, Deathworlders spent significant portions of their life asleep. Gaoians averaged a quarter of their day, Humans a third, and the Ten’Gewek were apparently quite fond of napping at every opportunity they got. That was probably a consequence of their high-performance bodies; much more self-maintenance was required.

Of course, they also seemed to transition from sleep to wakefulness with some inertia. A human in the morning, before their exercise, carbohydrates, caffeine and some fresh air could be barely recognisable as the poised, agile, intelligent creatures they really were.

For Nofl, waking up was simply a case of blinking, opening his eyes, frowning at the ceiling above his cot for a second, and then standing up.

He brewed himself a cup of his carefully decaffeinated brew on the principle that drinking coffee upon waking was just the done thing if one lived among Humans, snacked on a few dried porchini, and hopped up into his desk chair to review his messages and the results of his overnight automated experiments.

Interesting. It seemed the Great Father had gone offworld to Akyawentuo unexpectedly. His staff had politely and with some apology explained that he most likely would not return for a day or two.

That at least postponed the moment of decision over what to do with Leemu, which Nofl was perfectly happy about. It bought him some time to finish a proof of concept.

The problem, if it could be called that, came down to a basic difference between Gaoian and Human biology. Gao were deathworlders by classification, but biologically speaking the human body was a very different thing indeed. There was a certain inherent… instability to it. Humans teetered constantly on a narrow pinnacle, and could experience quite dramatic shifts in their mood, health and physical abilities in response to any number of factors and stimuli.

For instance: they frequently complained of “off days” that could adequately be explained by an interrupted breakfast, or insufficient hydration, or going to bed too late the night before. Their strength, endurance, cognitive abilities and so much more could be stretched, boosted, degraded our outright ruined in the right circumstances. The average hungry Gaoian was often just… hungry, until starvation began to set in. An average hungry Human might be irritable, unfocused, lethargic and weakened.

The fine-tuned analogy stood the test of time, it seemed. And one of its pertinent manifestations with regard to the Leemu problem was in the matter of cancer.

Cancer was universal, of course. Indeed, whole strains of promising Corti stock had once been lost to the ravages of uncontrolled tumor growth, before the Directorate had learned how to anticipate and correct such problems. Humans didn’t suffer from tumors any more or less than any other species.

Except… well… they did.

In fact, one of the most interesting insights to come out of all those years of abducting Humans and sticking them under the finest scanners the Corti had had been that the average Human body manifested a number of pre-cancerous cells every day… which their maniacally efficient immune system then brutally exterminated.

The Gao were different from the other two Deathworld sophonts in one very important respect. There were a number of oddities to their genome that had puzzled Corti and Gaoian researcher alike for quite some time…until the revelation about their origins. The Gao’s ancient heritage was as an engineered species, and that had consequences. Chief among them was a remarkable robustness against genetic drift that they’d only broken free of in the last couple of millennia, and then only in a select few of their lines.

Their…dependable cellular biology was a shame for poor Leemu however, because it meant that his immune system simply wasn’t programmed to attack his own tissues. It hadn’t evolved to deal with cancer, because protections against drift had been designed into them. And even if it had been capable of such self-harm, well… comparing the Gaoian immune system to the Human one was rather like comparing a candle to a house fire.

So while Humans had a degree of natural protection against Arutech, especially those with an existing autoimmune disorder like rheumatoid arthritis, and could successfully be treated using adjuvant therapy…

Well. Nofl was already making good inroads on delivering an Arutech cure to the Humans, albeit a crude one with a host of unpleasant side-effects. But delivering one to the Gao was going to involve a daring and dangerous sideways leap in xenobiology.

It would, firstly, involve disabling or possibly entirely dismantling their in-built protective mechanisms. A shame, really. They had the most robust genetic duplicating machinery of anyone, but that same nigh-incorruptibility was getting in the way.

Needs must, however. The alternative was an eternity in stasis, involuntary euthanasia, or being effectively cloned. None of those satisfied the objective of curing the patient.

So, Nofl had run a simulation while he slept, and was pleased to discover that it had finished by the time he finished reading and replying to his messages. The blizzard of numbers and hard data points it splattered all over his monitor would have been utterly incomprehensible to almost anyone else, but he ran a practiced eye over it and, upon seeing what he was looking for, smiled as widely as his face could manage.

It wouldn’t be safe, or easy, or possibly even effective. But it was possible, and that was a lot more hope than he’d had when he went to bed.

Still smiling, he composed a note and forwarded his findings to Tran.

That done, he sat back and sipped his coffee with a certain feeling of justified smugness.

“…What would the Directorate do without me?” he asked, of nobody in particular.

It was his best work yet.


Date Point: 16y2m4d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm

Julian Etsicitty

Daar caught up with them about an hour after Xiù called ahead to let them know he was coming.

A lot had happened in that hour. Yan had laid out his bibtaws in a kind of scent lure, some distance out from the treeline, and then while they waited the men from nearby villages had joined them. They didn’t seem to entirely trust the buzzing drone, but Julian’s say-so was enough to convince them that this particular one wasn’t a “death-bird” but just some friendly applied sky-magic.

After that came the waiting, inevitable in any hunt. Waiting suited Julian just fine; he was a patient man, and spent the time getting comfortably snuggled up in their blind next to Yan. Like always, the big fella was radiating so much body heat, it easily kept the chill of the rain away.

Daar was calmly sniffing the air, and his big shaggy body was wedged in against Julian’s other side. Being quite literally caught between the leaders of their respective species was…weird, when Julian thought about it. Probably not Xiu levels of weird, but pretty dang close.

For the moment, they weren’t saying much. It was all hunt-talk.

“You hunt Brown Ones much?” Daar whispered, kinda impressive for the big fella like him.

“Sometimes. When we must,” Yan replied, evenly. “When they attack villages. Last time, I was a young man. Younger than Vemik!”

“…Musta been a hard fight.”

“Many went to the Gods that day. My half-father and my older brother, and others.”

Julian watched patches of damp sunlight and bands of rainy showers drifting across the open plains and shivered to imagine it. When Yan had been young, the Ten’gewek hadn’t even had bows and arrows. Taking on a Brown One with nothing more than spears and courage…

On the ground, too. Among the trees would have been one thing, but out on the open plains? Every one of a Ten’gewek’s natural advantages would have been mitigated.

Even so, he’d seen Given-Men drive their spears clean through a Werne bull.

“You won, though?” he checked.

“It died of its wounds a hand of days later.”

Jesus.

“…I guess I can see why you’d want an easier time of it.”

Yan nodded solemnly. “So few of us now. High-rarchy saw to that. Every man we lose is less meat for his tribe, is starving women and sick children.”

“So why hunt it at all? Even with that cannon Hoeff brought, hunts can go wrong.”

Yan sighed and twitched his tail. It batted Julian lightly in the head, but Julian decided not to complain. Clearly the big guy had a lot on his mind.

“Brown Ones must not hunt the People. If they Take, and learn they can take easy, then we can not ever leave forest.”

“…You know how this is gonna go, right?” Daar rumbled. “It’s gonna show up, Hoeff’s gonna shoot it, and it’s gonna die.”

Yan nodded. His eyes never stopped scanning the horizon, even though Xiù would have told them if their quarry was getting close. “Yes.”

“Seems kinda…”

“Anticlimactic?” Julian suggested.

“That too.”

Yan sighed heavily again. “Seems many things. Seems like an easy Taking, too easy. Seems like cheating. Seems disrespectful. But what to do? Throw good men into its jaws? Will lose many. Might lose Vemik. A lot of future in him.”

He finally looked away from the plains. “…No good answers, I think. Curse of sky-magic. Once you know a thing can be done, always there are good reasons to do it. Yes? And all the reasons not to do it… they seem small and weak. Good men will die today if we fight it the old way.”

“…Or we cheat, and they go home to their women,” Julian finished the thought for him.

“Yes.”

“But here’s the thing,” Daar rumbled. “Firstly, an’ I don’t mean any disrespect Yan Given-Man…”

“Speak, Daar Stone-Back.”

“Do ‘ya need ‘ta hunt this critter? I mean—wait, I smell it now.”

Yan’s tongue lashed the air. “…Sure?”

“Never argue with Daar’s nose,” Julian advised him. “…Actually.” He sniffed the breeze too as it picked up a bit more and cooled his cheeks. “It’s faint, but…musky?”

“Smells like the biggest, most brutalest ‘back ever,” Daar agreed, then chittered. “Maybe Yan’s armpit, too…”

Yan grumbled in amusement, and whistled a high impersonation of an Akyawentan birdoid. Around them, from their perches among the trees, the men of the tribes nodded, twitched their tails and toyed nervously with their spears and bows. Julian saw Vemik take a deep breath and test the point of one of his special steel arrowheads. To judge by the way he stuck his thumb in his mouth afterwards, it was plenty sharp.

“There’s somethin’ ‘ya might think about real hard ‘fore we do this, Yan. I don’t pretend like I’m a man o’ ‘yer people, but ‘ya watched Gyotin put that crown on my head on the TV, right?”

“Yes.”

“That means a lotta things. One of ‘em is that I’m the protector of all my kind, and of my friends, too. So that means I swore before the Unseen Spirits of my people that I’d not flinch from that…and that means I gotta tell you how I see this. An’ it ain’t gonna be nice.”

“Nothing about this is nice, my friend. Speak.”

“If you do this thing, you won’t have done it by ‘yer own strength an’ will. You’ll have said, ‘ta all the men of ‘yer people, that you didn’t think they were strong enough ‘ta do this thing. It’ll make you look weak. An’ because o’ that, it’ll make you weak. It’ll Take ‘yer strength from ‘ya, Yan. Because all tough little Hoeff’s gotta do up in that tall-ass Ketta is twitch his finger, an’ that Brown One won’t be nothin’ but a big wet mess.”

“Is my strength to Give,” Yan retorted, but he glanced nervously up at Hoeff then around at his men. “…An old man’s strength for a young man’s life? For many young man’s life?”

“No, Yan Given-Man. You can’t. You are no chieftain anymore. You are bigger. An’ you are irreplaceable right now. You know that word, right?”

“So are they,” Yan waved his hand at this men, and if he happened to be especially waving it at Vemik, Julian wasn’t about to comment.

Daar shook his neck-fur out and looked the Given-Man dead in the eye. “Yan…I say this as the single most murderous livin’ being among all the stars above. No they ain’t. ‘Yer people can survive losin’ a buncha them. Right now I don’t think they would survive losin’ you.”

“…So we are not Strong after all.”

“Yes ‘ya are Yan, but ‘yer very, very strong children who must grow much, much bigger an’ wiser. An’ I say that with more respect than I’ve ever given anyone like you.”

Yan cast a despairing glance at the horizon. “…Not weak, you’re saying. Just… not ready?”

‘Not yet, and ‘specially not now. You must grow ‘yer people. An’ I won’t pretend ‘ta know how Brown Ones think, or what they do or anythin’ like that…but I can’t see how cripplin’ ‘yer standin’ at the lodge, or sendin’ a buncha strong, brave men to their doom is gonna help ‘ya grow.”

A new voice joined the conversation, and Julian looked up to see the drone perched in a branch above them. Xiù. “Remember on the ship, Yan? When we showed you the comet?”

“…I remember.”

Yan sat in silence for a long few minutes. Then, he muttered a curse under his breath - “Godshit” - and raised his bow high into the air above his head. Heads turned in his direction, he paused, and then whistled a low, descending note three times

At first, the hunting party just gave him a confused look. Then, in ones and twos, they shrugged, put their weapons away, and withdrew from the forest edge, swinging away and down. Vemik gave Yan the most curious look as he brachiated past, and was gone.

“…I will have to explain this,” Yan grumbled.

“An’ it’s gonna cause ‘ya some pain, too.” Daar nodded along. “But it’ll be livin’ men tha’ll give ‘ya grief, not their spirits an’ sad children.”

“If it attacks again, we will have to hunt it.”

“Well… here’s prayin’, then.”

Julian’s radio crackled with the sound of Hoeff’s voice. “…Yo, uh… What’s goin’ on down there? We doin’ this or not?”

“Negative,” Julian informed him.

“…You’re kidding! I’ve got a shot lined up and everything!”

“Hoeff… Let’s not hash this out right this second. Just stand down.”

He heard Hoeff mutter something about blue balls to himself, but the rifle was raised and Julian heard the sound of that big chunky magazine being ejected.

“It’s here,” Xiù said. She somehow contrived to point using nothing more than a brief flicker of the drone’s wings.

Sure enough, the Brown One had just shambled over a rise in the landscape. Its tongue lashed out into the open air and tasted the breeze, and then picked its way down toward the pile of nice stinky bibtaws.

“…Y’know, if Gaoians had ever had a dragon,” Daar mused, “I reckon it’d’ve looked a lot like that.”

“Dragon?” Yan asked, keeping a careful eye on it. “Means what?”

“How about we go home, and we’ll tell you all about dragons,” Julian promised.

“…Yes.”

The Brown One raised its head and tasted the air suspiciously, made a kind of warning growl, then lowered its head and, to Julian’s faint surprise scooped the bundle of bibtaws delicately into its mouth before turning and setting off back up the hill. Xiù lifted her drone off the branch and flew high up into the air to follow it.

“…One of these days, I’m going to want to tranquilize one of those things and study it up close,” Julian admitted. “Why bibtaw, anyway? Couldn’t be much more than a snack for something that big.”

“Nesting season. Bibtaw is good food for young Brown Ones,” Yan explained. “Also, strong taste. Good for drawing him from a long way.”

He wasn’t wrong there. Bibtaw stank like the bastard child of a skunk and a muskrat.

“…Let’s get outta this tree,” Daar said.

Their return to ground level took a few minutes, and Daar shook himself gratefully once all four of his paws were firmly back in contact with the leaf litter. He wasn’t an inept climber, exactly, but he’d never be a graceful arboreal creature, either. Gaoians just weren’t designed to be at home in the branches.

“…You said you had something you wanted to ask me about?” Yan asked as they turned away from the plains and left the departing Brown One behind.

“Yeah.” Daar glanced back over his shoulder, sniffed the wind, then shook his coat and plodded ahead through the brush. “Think I’ve made up my mind, though.”

“You have?” Julian asked.

“…Yeah.”

He spent the walk back telling them about Leemu.



++END CHAPTER 53++



If you have enjoyed the story so far and want to support the author, you can do so by:

This chapter was brought to you with the help of…


The SOR

Those special individuals whose contributions to this story go above and beyond mere money

Ctwelve,

BitterBusiness,

Sally and Stephen Johnson

Ellen Houston


Twenty-seven Humans

TTTA

SirNeonPancake

Anthony Landry

Anthony Youhas

Chris Dye

Greg Tebbutt

His Dread Monarch

HungryWerewolf

JLB58

Joseph Szuma

Joshua Mountain Taylor

Joshua Scott

Karthik Mohanarangan

Katja

Krit Barb

Nathaniel Phillips

Nicolas Gruenbeck

Rob Rollins

Savvz

Shane Wegner

Sun Rendered

Theningaraf

tsanth

Volka Creed

Xultanis

Zachary Galicki


As well as Fifty-eight Deathworlders…

Austin Deschner Aaron Hescox Adam Beeman Adam Shields Alex Hargott Andrew Ford Andrew Robinson Arnor atp Ben Thrussell Bruce Ludington Buck Caldwell C’tri Goudie Chris Bausch Chris Candreva damnusername Daniel R. Dar Darryl Knight David Jamison Derek Price Devin Rousso Elizabeth Schartok ELLIOTT S RIDDLE Eric Johansson Fiona Dunlop galrock0 Gavin Smart Ignate Flare Jim Hamrick John Eisenberg Jon Kristoffer Skarra Laga Mahesa lovot Martin Østervang Matt Matt Demm Matthew Cook Mel B. mihkel miks Mikee Elliott mudkip201 Myke Harryson Nick Annunziata NightKhaos Oliver Mernagh Patrick Huizinga Richard A Anstett Ryan Cadiz Saph Sintanan Stephane Girardin theWorst Tyler Kelloway Woodsie13 Zachary M Lunstrum

…Sixty-four Friendly ETs, 84 Squishy Xenos and 257 tasty little Dizi Rats.

“The Deathworlders” is © Philip Richard Johnson, AKA Hambone, Hambone3110 and HamboneHFY. Some rights are reserved: The copyright holder reserves all commercial rights and ownership of this intellectual property. Permission is given for other parties to share, redistribute and copy this work under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0International License.

This work contains deliberate mentions of real persons, places and trademarks, which are made purely for reasons of verisimilitude under nominative fair use. These mentions have not been endorsed or sponsored by those persons or by the owners or governing bodies of those trademarks or places. All song lyrics, movie titles or other copyrighted material and trademarks that are referenced in this work under fair use are the property of their respective owners.

The events and characters portrayed in this story are fictional and any resemblance to actual persons or events is accidental.

The author does not automatically share or endorse the opinions and behaviour of the characters.


Thank you for reading!

The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 54, “Here Be Dragons.”