The Deathworlders

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Chapter 54: Here Be Dragons

Date Point: 16y2m5d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm

Xiù Chang

Yan was having to explain himself.

It wasn’t that the men who’d come out to hunt the Brown One were disappointed, exactly. None of them had been looking forward to the battle at all. They all knew the stories of how many men died taking down the last one the People had collectively fought.

But they’d come out to fight it anyway, because it needed hunting. Their quarry had clawed its way into the forest and attacked a village, which simply couldn’t stand. Yan’s decision to back down and retreat, therefore, had caused some confusion and raised some questions… which Yan was now answering.

His answer was ably helped by Hoeff, who had been more than glad to demonstrate what .50 BMG did to an unsuspecting neyma on the way home. They’d wound up carrying the hapless animal back in halves, grumbling about all the wasted meat that the bullet had pulped too thoroughly to be of use. It looked horrific, but Xiù didn’t feel sorry for the creature: it had been dead before it even finished dropping to the ground. Compared to all the other ways a neyma could be slain in a hunt, Hoeff’s demonstration had been humane.

The sight of an animal basically torn in two by a weapon that the smallest man present handled with ease had done a lot to provoke discussion among the Given-Men and Singers. And the Singers, according to Ten’Gewek tradition, were men too in a robust all-but-cock way. So some of those squabbles had gotten physical… and the Given-Men hadn’t always won.

The thrust of the disagreement was this: the women wanted their sons, brothers and lovers to come home safely. The men didn’t want to weaken themselves before the Gods by relying on cheap sky-magic tricks. Vemik had, in an adorably dorkish way, tried to point out that there was nothing cheap about the rifle and that a lot of hard work by a lot of people had gone into making it…

…But there was a certain entrenched mindset among some of the People that Sky-magic was the Easy Way. It could make rocks and steel fly, it could light the darkness with a click of a switch or burst a neyma with the twitch of a finger. For some of them, it was hard to see past the effect to all of the hard work that had gone into making that effect look so easy.

Vemik had eventually given up and gone to sit with Julian, who was whittling a small toy out of Forestfather bark and listening at the edge of the conversation while diplomatically not taking part. After a while, he’d got out his sketchbook and extra-large chunky pencil, and taken to sketching.

The discussion went on until sometime after sunset, when the sky was shading to purple and dark blue. It was fairly peaceful but very serious with hardly any grab-ass and aggressive flirting at all, which made it practically Parliamentary by Ten’Gewek standards.

Xiù wasn’t invited. She attended anyway, watching from high above via the drone and listening through its highly directional microphone. It had instantly become her favorite toy, and she’d resolved that the second she was forced to give it back, she’d buy one of her own when they got back to Folctha.

Dan Hurt sat next to her, watching and listening via a tablet.

“…You really have to admire their stubbornness, don’t you?” he asked after the third time the conversation looped back around to the problem of needing to kill that Brown One.

“Mm-hm.” Xiù nodded sadly. If that Brown One attacked again, there’d be grieving families who might justifiably wonder why they hadn’t used the Sky-magic. She had to admire how seriously the Ten’Gewek took their independence, but that was going to be hard if people got killed.

She glanced over to the other end of the research camp. Hoeff and Claire were working things out over there, sitting side-by-side in camp chairs by the fire and making s’mores. It seemed to be going well, or at least Hoeff seemed to be much more relaxed than usual… and to judge by the way Claire touched his arm and smiled and laughed at one of his jokes, she thought it was going well too.

Still. Xiù would never eavesdrop on a conversation like that. She watched just long enough to see them clank their coffee cups together in some kind of toast to each other, smiled to herself, and returned her attention to the tribal meet.

It was breaking up.

“…Tribal life,” Dan sighed. “They need to learn how to start taking minutes of these things. I guarantee half of them won’t even remember what was discussed or what they agreed on next time.”

Xiù picked up her cup of coffee. She’d been keeping it hot in its steel mug next to the fire, and it steamed delightfully as she sipped it. “Mm. Yes. The true mark of civilization: minutes.”

Dan snorted. “Since when were you so sarcastic?”

“Well, Allison’s not here. Somebody has to fill in for her.” She sipped her coffee again. “And anyway, they don’t need to. These meetings aren’t about logic. They’re about social grooming and trust, mostly.”

Dan nodded. “Oh, I know. Yan’s managed to avoid losing face today at least. They’ll remember that part… and I really have to give Julian credit for staying the hell out of it.”

“He is smarter than he looks, you know. Lack of doctorates aside.”

“Yes. Funny how you three are the same, that way.”

Xiu couldn’t help but tease him a bit. “What, are you saying I look dull?”

Dan, sadly, was old and wily enough not to fall for such obvious bait, and the lines around his eyes just made the mischievous look in them twinkle twice as hard. “I know full well your original choice of career would have been Hollywood. Tinseltown isn’t exactly known for its, uh… high-falutin’ intelligentsia.” He toasted her with his coffee. “Why didn’t you ever go into academia, anyway?”

“Abducted by aliens.”

“I mean after that.”

Xiù shrugged. “I’ve learned what I need in life from the people I love. And this may sound strange, given things, but I’m not sure I’m young enough for that kind of drama anymore.”

“You’re only thirty years old!” Dan objected. “You are officially still a young woman, and I will not hear you say otherwise. And you’re one of the de facto leading authorities on what I’m going to oxymoronically call xenoanthropology. First contact with two alien civilizations, remember.”

“Yes, and I’m sure the debates over the social constructions of…whatever…would be absolutely gripping.” Xiù shrugged. “I was mostly just trying to stop a crazy Corti from vivisecting a cub, and stop Yan from shoving a spear through my boyfriend.”

“Successfully, on both counts. But fine. I can see the school of Hard Knocks has claimed your soul… which is probably why Julian’s been so reluctant to do correspondence classes, I’m guessing?”

“Maybe? Mostly I think it’s a lack of time. We’re all busy but he’s probably the busiest of us three…” She finished her coffee and put the mug down. “You see that? Vemik’s got an idea, I can tell.”

“How can you?”

“His tail twitches in a certain…excited way. Also, he’s trying to show Julian.”

Dan leaned forward to get a closer look at the tablet, and Xiù helpfully zoomed in for him.

“Uh oh, he’s got his sketchbook… and the nice graphites.”

Xiù aimed the microphone at them as well, in time to catch Julian gently rebuffing Vemik’s enthusiastic attempt at show-and-tell. He was speaking quietly, so what the mic picked up at the extremes of its gain was scratchy and distorted, but audible.

[“—be a good idea, but it ain’t a good idea for me to be involved, man.”]

[“Why, though?”] Nobody did puppy-dog crestfallen quite like Vemik.

[“Dude, we just had this whole long talk about sky-magic and stuff, and how you can’t have us fighting your fights for you. That’s a big Taking, Vemik. So I can’t get involved in this! I so much as pick up a hammer to help you, they’ll taste sky-magic on the air and the whole idea gets tainted. You’re gonna need to do this all yourself.”]

[“But will it work?!”]

[“You’re gonna hafta figure that out yourself. I’m sorry.”]

[“But—!”]

Julian’s patience ran out. “Vemik! Dude! Prime Directive, okay?”

“…Okay…”

She watched them part ways for the night with a conciliatory fraternal hug, and Vemik returned to his forge, clearly too energized and inspired to do something so mundane as sleep.

Julian returned through the village where Daar had been entertaining the children with his favorite Keeda stories, and giving them “angry Werne” rides until he was almost exhausted. Xiù decided her career as an airborne spy was now on hold for the night, and brought the drone back.

By the time Julian and Daar emerged from the twilight gloom, she’d packed it back in its case and plugged it in to recharge.

“How’d it go?” she asked as they returned.

“Eh. Yan hasn’t lost face. Might even gain face if he plays his cards right…” Julian sat down and helped himself to some of the campfire coffee.

“What was Vemik’s big idea?”

He shot her a curious frown. “How–?”

“Spied on you through the drone. Sorry!” Xiù gave him a half-apologetic cheeky smile and a mini-shrug. “Though to be fair? Vemik always has a big idea.”

Daar chittered at that one. “Yeah, he does.”

Julian looked conflicted as he sat down on their fireside log. “That… was supposed to be a private meeting, Baobei…” he objected.

“Did they swear you to secrecy?”

“Not really…”

“Well then.” Xiù sat next to him, snuggled into him, and kissed his cheek. “They weren’t really taking it that seriously, were they?”

He put his arm around her and conceded the point with a chuckle. “Guess not.”

“So what is it?” Dan asked

“What?”

“What’s Vemik’s big idea?”

“Oh. Uh…” Xiù always loved the way she could see Julian rewind his memory. “…Well, he figgered that if they put in all the work of making a really big gun, it ain’t sky-magic. But he knows they don’t have the tools to make something like a Barrett, so…”

“So?” Xiù prompted.

“So he’s inventing the ballista.”


Date Point: 16y2m5d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm

Vemik Sky-Thinker

The tricky part had been getting downwind of Jooyun and Daar quickly enough to listen in on them but without making too much noise. People with noses were hard to sneak up on! And Vemik was aware that he apparently smelled pretty strong, and Daar’s nose was even stronger.

Still, he’d managed it. Now, he lurked low in a Ketta near the research camp, sticking to the thick limbs that wouldn’t creak or rustle too much even if Yan had been hanging from them alongside him.

It was a still night, and the Humans and Daar weren’t bothering to speak quietly. He cupped a hand to his ear and listened.

“—Weren’t really taking it that seriously, were they?”

“Heh. Guess not.”

“So what is it?”

“What?”

“What’s Vemik’s big idea?”

Vemik leaned forward to listen so hard his ears started to ache. This was the moment he’d stalked them for. He leaned forward so far in fact that he almost lost his balance and toppled off the branch. He missed a little of what they said as he grabbed onto the tree with his tail and leaned out as far as he could stretch.

“—knows they don’t have the tools to make something like a Barrett, so…”

“So?”

“So he’s inventing the ballista.”

There. Vemik almost hooted his satisfaction, but held it in. They had a word for it!

The rest of their talk wasn’t important. He didn’t need to know if Jooyun thought his design was good or not, that was all… Yan and Jooyun were right, this needed to be a ‘home grown’ tool. But just knowing that the Humans had a word for his idea proved he was on the right track.

He’d been pretty confident they would. It was a fairly simple idea after all, just a big, heavy, steel bow. Okay, it was bigger and stronger than even a Given-Man could pull back, but Vemik had learned a lot since he’d first come up with the idea of the bow, and first learned how to make steel. And over the seasons, it had paid to keep it a little secret just how much he’d learned from the Humans, about things like levers and gears and ratchets and springs, and all the other ‘simple tools’ that made sky-magic happen.

They weren’t as careful as they thought they were. They let him do things like watch when they cleaned their rifles, which was where he’d learned about springs. And sometimes, when he played up being a bouncy man-child, they smiled that odd smile of theirs and forgot that he was a respected man of the tribes. A hunter, a father, and a Maker of Things.

He might have felt a little bad about doing that, but it wasn’t really a lie. He really was excited! It was just, maybe…if he let it show, that might help his tribe. Get them vack-seens.

Among Humans, books with pictures were for children. Harmless! But they also said a picture was worth a thousand words, and Vemik had learned a lot from his innocent picture books, and from just… watching. To Humans, the simple machines were everywhere. So everywhere that they forgot to notice them. They’d even taken him around their homeland in a machine that ran on four wheels, and completely forgotten that the People didn’t have wheels at all!

The things a man could do with wheels! And with saws, and nails, and iron bolts, and laminated steel strips…

He retreated into the bush and took the long way back to his hut with his mind spinning with ideas. One thing he’d learned was to never just rush into the forge when his head was so full. He’d take a lazy night, lie with the Singer, and let his dreams do the work of sorting the best ideas to the top of the pile. After all, his weapon wasn’t going to just come to life on the first day. He’d need…. Hands of hands of days, probably. Maybe a whole season! Best to start on a full belly, a good night’s sleep and the love of his favorite woman.

“Bawistuh.” He tasted the word carefully, once he was sure he was too far away even for Jooyun’s sharp ears. He said it again, then trilled merrily.

Yes. This way was better. This way, when the Brown One fell, it would be to the People’s own strength.

He’d make it happen.


Date Point: 16y2m1w AV
Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Deep Space

Darcy

The Entity wasn’t happy, and Darcy couldn’t entirely blame it.

“Well, look, you have access to human memories. Think how it looks from our perspective.”

She sipped her tea as she read the resulting barrage of emoji.

“…It’s not a betrayal, it’s caution.”

More emojis, the condensed equivalent of a sullen accusation.

“I trust you… No, I mean it. I do. But I can’t just authorize the— That’s different. No, it is different, they only let it out into the wild because it’s full of failsafes and limiters and controls!”

She and the Entity had developed a kind of modern pictographic language between them. She could read it fluently. Anyone else would have just seen a confusing blizzard of little images, but she read condensed thoughts. It wasn’t an elegant system and abstract concepts like trust had required a lot of work and lateral thinking before the Entity finally managed to convey it. Possibly it was a language unlike any other, and she had to concentrate until her brain ached to understand it… but at least they were communicating,

“We promised we’d think about it and we did. Are. It’s a big deal! Von-Neumann probes are a big d— I know you would. The question is, would you give that kind of power to any single human?”

Even though the Entity thought at computer processing speeds, its reply didn’t arrive for a few seconds. When it did, the stream of little images was almost… timid.

“Right,” Darcy agreed. “…You’re close enough to human. And like I said, I trust you but the question is can anyone be trusted with the keys to an unshackled V-N probe? Would you… would you trust Ava with it?”

She smiled grimly at the lonely, reluctant red X that popped up on her monitor. “…Right. Because Ava wouldn’t have trusted herself with it either.” She sipped her tea again. “…Well, yeah. She did hate herself. I’m pleased to report that she seems to be in a much better place nowadays.”

She smiled. Obviously the Entity cared about the real, flesh-and-blood Ava Ríos. “Steady boyfriend, good job, successful career… Yes, a boyfriend. His name’s Derek. Derek Coombes.”

She laughed at the trio of <skeptical face; cow; poop emoji>. There was a message anyone could decipher. “No, I’m not bullshitting you. That Derek Coombes, yes. Heh. Yes, he is pretty hot… Maybe. I’m not her friend, remember. No, I can’t be. Duties and obligations, that’s why. But… right. Look, I don’t know what to tell you. It’s taking a long time because it’s a big ask. And you have to be prepared that we might say no.”

She sighed at the disgruntled sentiment it aimed at her. “I know you have, and you have the gratitude and friendship of everyone here, and across AEC. But we don’t just trust our allies with nukes, and a V-N Probe is on that kind of scale if not bigger. Well of course it is! Absolutely it is! …Yes, and the Hunters have it. That’s a big problem…”

She shut up and watched for more than a minute as the icons ticked past. She had a headache coming on, but powered through it.

The Entity’s argument was, she had to admit, a solid one: the Hunters were building V-N Probes of their own. Worse, they were probably out in front by now, having both the technological and resource advantage and none of the caution. And, exponential growth being what it was, every day they were allowed to extend their lead was potentially a fatal strategic mistake.

And the only way to match it was with exponential growth of their own. The problem was, the control software developed by Mrwrki just wasn’t smart enough and never would be. They needed an alternative, some way to give the probes a sapient pilot. And the Entity, a trusted ally, was volunteering for the duty.

But if the Entity ever went rogue…

“I’ll… remind my superiors of that, yes,” she promised. “…You’re welcome. I’m sorry it’s not more.”

Its next question made her glance in the general direction of the jump array. Proximal had been transferred into a large, extremely expensive and very reliable memory drive, where he/it remained in a dormant state. According to the Entity, an Igraen in hibernation like that could go effectively indefinitely without Substrate. Certainly longer than the expected lifespan of the device he was on.

According to the engineers who’d taken a glance at what a dormant Igraen “looked” like, the data currently occupying that drive was unreadable nonsense. Translating it into something that a human computer could do something sensible with simply wasn’t on the cards.

Which mean that the only ways available to interrogate Proximal were to either release him/it back into Dataspace, or else imprison him/it within a biodrone’s implants. Neither option was satisfactory, so in the end the device had been shipped off to be stored safely and carefully in the vault at Scotch Creek.

“I wish we could,” she said aloud. “But I don’t know what Proximal could tell us about the current state of the Hierarchy and the Hegemony that we didn’t already get from Six, from the biodrone captured on Gao, and from your own intel— …You’re going to what?”

She put her tea down and watched closely. The Entity’s private pictographic language marched past for some time, and she was definitely feeling the beginnings of a migraine coming on as she struggled to keep up. It really did not communicate easily, and the worst part was that even it couldn’t really explain why that was the case. It was just a baked-in disability that it could only overcome by a ghoulish act of digital necromancy that everyone involved found distasteful. This way was better, even if it did make her brain ache.

She didn’t like what she was reading one bit.

“…Didn’t you say that infiltrating the Hunter networks is getting more and more difficult? Well, I mean, yes, we do need the intel, but…”

More emojis. It was clear the Entity had made up its mind. And it was breathtakingly stubborn when it set itself to something. Darcy sighed, and gave up.

”…I know. I can’t stop you, just… don’t get yourself killed, okay? Be careful.”

It took her a few moments to decipher the Entity’s parting statement: <Clock; infinity symbol> By the time she had, it had signed off and departed. She smiled to herself and sipped her tea again.

“Always.”


Date Point: 16y2m1w AV
HMS Caledonia, Border checkpoint, Spacelane near the Kwmbwrw Great Houses

Petty Officer Sachi Patel

Cally wasn’t the same ship any more. She was a lot better.

For Sachi Patel, that was a slightly painful admission. She’d been proud of her work on the ship before the Battle of Gao, they all had. They’d run a tight, competent ship and fought back hard against her demons every day. They’d taken an alien ship crammed full of human technology and fought to keep the two from seething hatefully at each other every day for years. Aside from one major fire, she’d behaved herself through all that time, too.

And then she’d been sunk. Any other ship would probably have been written off as a loss, but not Cally. Her keel had remained unbroken, her body was still full of useful Hierarchy technology. She’d been gathered up, jumped back to Ceres and put lovingly back together.

The repairs showed just how much humanity had learned over the years. The new Cally was a purring kitten compared to her previous self, as though suffering a nearly mortal wound had mellowed her out and made her finally realise that the humans on her decks were friends, not enemies.

Sachi suppressed a little smile at the thought. Only a handful of the ship’s former crew had come back. Many had retired, too rattled by their brush with death to return. Others had moved on to other postings in the expanding fleet, or training positions. The ones who’d returned were the ones who, like her, got a little bit poetic about HMS Caledonia. thought of her as being a little bit more alive than other warships.

Alive, and a tempestuous bitch. Myrmidon had never given her crew half as much trouble.

Coming back to find Cally’s systems humming along smoothly and without complaint was a little saddening for Patel. The poor girl had had some of the fight beaten out of her.

Still, it gave her time to actually enjoy the trip and pay attention to where they were and what they were doing.

They were en route to rendezvous with the diplomatic starship Rich Plains somewhere inside Kwmbwrw territory. Cally’s shakedown had gone well, but the crew was still pretty green, training exercises were an almost daily occurrence and education was the biggest part of their timetable. It made sense to take on a straightforward responsibility like escort duty while they got their feet under them.

Besides, she was kinda looking forward to seeing the Rich Plains.

It was certainly a topic of conversation among her reactor shift. Scott, Phillips, Taylor and Dye had come as a matched set, eager to work with a veteran of the Battle of Gao, and definitely not because of their shift leader’s brief experiment with nude modelling.

Actually, they were pretty good about that. Some light-hearted cheeky teasing, mostly understanding and sympathy. Right now though they were off-shift, poring over an infographic they’d found about the ship they’d soon be escorting.

“Bit dull-looking, isn’t it?” Taylor mused as they passed the tablet around. “It looks like a beer keg.”

“An eight-hundred-meter beer keg,” Dye agreed.

“How does something that big accelerate without crushing itself?”

“She doesn’t,” Sachi told him. “No engines, see? She microwarps if she needs to maneuver at sublight.”

“Meaning if you stick her in a gravity spike, she’s completely immobile.”

“Well, she’s a diplomatic vessel not a warship,” Sachi shrugged. “I guess she’s more like a space station than a ship.”

“She’s a sitting duck,” Phillips grumbled.

“Hospital ships and diplomatic ships always are,” Scott reminded him. He was the most seasoned sailor among the new guys, with a few years of service aboard HMS Agamemnon under his belt before he’d transferred to the Royal Navy Space Service.

“What if the Hunters attack, though?”

“That’s what we’re for.”

“Us as in the whole fleet, Pat? Or us personally?”

Patel shrugged. To the new crew she went by ‘Pat,’ and it worked nicely for them. Even the new reactor chief, CPO Dennis Williams, had taken to using it. She quite liked it, actually, and it wasn’t a jarring reminder of the men whose shoes they were filling. They were their own new team, with their own new way of doing things. It made for a clean break.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Taylor demanded, and pantomimed an exaggerated goofy parody of her shrug.

“It means what a shrug always means you twit!” she laughed, and gave him an affectionate backhand to the chest. “I don’t know the Dominion any better than you do!”

“Yeah, but everyone knows they’re kinda shit.”

Patel pulled a face. She’d made a few nonhuman friends on Cimbrean, taken a trip to the Alien Quarter, seen how ETs lived and found that when it came down to it they were just funny-shaped people with funny-shaped customs. People, in her experience, were people and she didn’t like hearing prejudice. But at the same time, the Dominion’s military reputation was… unimpressive.

“This is meant to be a posting that’s only issued on merit,” she said out loud.

“Brown-nosing the admiral until you can taste his breakfast is a merit,” Phillips pointed out, around the crunching of a peanut. “C’mon Pat, admit it. We don’t know if even one of the ships out there is solid.”

“So?”

“So… uh…”

Patel gave him a stern look. “Maybe you should save the bitching about them for when you’ve actually got a point?” she suggested.

“…Right.”

“I’d feel better if there were some Gaoians in the formation…” Dye muttered.

“Yeah, well, the Kwmbwrw asked them to stay out except in emergencies,” Taylor explained.

“Not us?”

“Something about covert Gaoian operations along their border with Hunter space.”

“You mean all those raids they’ve been intercepting?” Phillips snorted. “What is it with the Kwmbwrw? You’d think they’d love the Gaoians for that!”

“It’s a cultural thing,” Patel explained. “They believe charity is an insult.”

“They also believe eating meat is inherently evil. Since the Gao are both very charitable and very carnivorous…”

“God, they sound like a mopey vegan teenager.”

“There are a few billion of them. I’m sure most are just happy to not get slaughtered by Hunters, but the Grandmatriarchs are…”

“Hidebound?” Patel suggested.

“…Something like that.”

The conversation tailed off awkwardly. Patel sighed, stretched and achieved a satisfying quadruple-pop in both shoulders and her spine. “…Movie?” she suggested.

They wound up watching a TV series instead. The guys dropped into it and spent two episodes just relaxing, swapping jokes, enjoying the show… Patel found herself unable to focus on it. Something about the conversation had reawoken her anxieties about continuing to serve on Cally. She was one of only a handful who’d come back and there were times when she wondered if she should have.

She’d had some long talks with a therapist over her gnawing sense of guilt at surviving the Battle of Gao, and the Laid Bare shoot had been truly cathartic… but sometimes, in quiet moments like this, the anxiety came back a little. It was a struggle.

But of course… That was why she was there. To face that struggle and win.

Come what may.


Date Point: 16y2m1w2d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Allison Buehler

“A Brown One.”

Welcoming Julian and Xiù home had been the highlight of Allison’s day, even if they had both smelled strongly of the jungle. The research station over there did have shower facilities but something about Akyawentuo just soaked into the skin after a while.

Xiù’s solution was a long soak in the tub with a bath bomb and some kind of berry-scented foaming potion for her hair. She was wrapped up in the fluffiest white bathrobe they had now and nursing a hot chocolate drink while Allison brushed her hair and Julian told the boys all about their hunt.

It was good to have them home. Their absence had been a trial, even though it only lasted a few days… but still, Al wasn’t exactly happy to learn just what they’d been up to while they were gone. She’d seen Brown Ones herself. If somebody had mashed together the most fearsome features of a T-rex and a hyena, they’d have been about halfway there.

At least it hadn’t been their idea.

“It’s just a critter,” Julian pointed out. He was lounging on the couch in his gymwear as usual, which wasn’t something she was gonna complain about. Both the boys were snuggled up on either side of him, idly listening and playing Pokémon. Apparently the latest in the series supported two-player wireless co-op. “Doesn’t matter how big and nasty it is, you know what a Barrett woulda done to it.”

“Well, yeah…” Allison conceded. “…I always wanted to shoot one of those things.”

“Really? I never thought of you as a trophy-hunting kinda gal.”

“I mean the gun.”

“Oh. Well, I got to shoot it at a stump just the once. Doesn’t kick quite as hard as I thought it would.”

Allison gave him a Look. “Thanks, Julian. I’ll treasure your description.”

Xiù giggled. “Jealous, Bǎobèi?”

“Little bit.”

Julian’s troll-grin got a little bit wider. “Well, I’m sure if you butter Hoeff up some, he’ll let you fondle his big gun…”

“Ugh, you are a double butt today!” Allison griped at him, drawing a giggle from the boys. No doubt they’d be using that one later.

“Ooh! Him and Claire are a thing, now,” Xiù said.

“About time! What finally gave?”

“Yan hung him up in a tree and told him to get over himself,” Julian explained.

“Preeeetty sure there was more to it than that…” Xiù beamed at him as Allison finished brushing her hair and set the brush aside.

“….Uh, well, maybe there was a moment of dude-bro-ness, but it ended with a hug. And I didn’t get punched in the stomach, either!”

Xiù and Al shared an amused look they’d often shared before. The one that said, in the universal language of women everywhere: “Boys.”

Julian cleared his throat and changed the subject. “So… Misfit’s back? I feel kinda bad I never met the new crew.”

“They’re great!” Al enthused. “The old girl’s just as healthy and happy as we left her. Thompson’s… not quite as soft on the controls as Xiù, but they’re taking great care of her. They found a heck of a planet too.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Near as dammit a carbon copy of Earth, except the foliage is all shaded toward the red for some reason. Place looks like a perpetual autumn.”

“That sounds nice,” Xiù smiled. “Maybe we’ll get to visit someday.”

“Yeah… You know what struck me as weird?“”

“What?”

“We spent years living on that ship, and I’ve been up to my elbows building more like her ever since, and I was still shocked by how tiny she is inside. Like… my memory says we had plenty of room, but in reality…” She waved around their living room. “We spent that whole time living in a room half this size. Funny how memory plays tricks on you, you know?”

Julian shrugged. “Well I gotta admit, I don’t mind the extra space.”

“Me either. I love that ship, but I don’t think I could go back to living on her again…” Al gave her brothers a fond look. “Especially not now.”

“Yeah. We have other commitments now,” Xiù agreed.

“Like, say, a meeting with the ambassador next week.” Allison leaned over, retrieved an ink-and-paper letter from the coffee table, and handed it to Julian. “He wants to discuss what’s going on with the Ten’Gewek.”

“Oh, geez,” Julian groaned. “You’re gonna make me wear a suit, aren’t you?”

“His Excellency Ambassador Rockefeller is your boss and he specifically requested that you make yourself as presentable as you can. So we all have an appointment at Halberstadt’s tomorrow,” Allison said firmly.

“I hate suits.”

“C’mon, it’ll be fun!” Tristan chimed in. “You’re too scruffy!”

“Nothin’ wrong with scruffy…” Julian muttered. “Who are Halberstadt’s, anyway?”

“The best tailors on the planet?” Xiù said. “You’ve never heard of them?”

“Clothes.” Julian managed to squeeze a lot of disinterest into that lone syllable. He saw Al, Xiù and the boys all pull similar eye-rolling faces.

“Come on Julian, you keep telling us just because something doesn’t interest you doesn’t mean it isn’t important,” Ramsey reminded him.

Julian held up a hand. “I’m not arguing,” he said. “Whatever. I have an appointment. Maybe they’re miracle-workers, I dunno.”

All three Buehler siblings gave him the same lopsided, slightly snarky grin. The boys had definitely picked that one up from Allison.

“Julian. Babe. I didn’t fall for an ugly, slovenly man,” Al told him. “You clean up good. Let’s show you just how good that can be, okay?”

“…Yes ma’am.”

“Good boy.”

“I’ll cook.” Xiù stood up. “Who wants to help?”

The boys both scrambled off the couch and bowled toward the kitchen, their Pokémon instantly forgotten. Xiù giggled indulgently, spared a kiss each for Julian and Allison, then followed them.

Allison poured herself into Julian’s lap and cuddled up, and stayed there for the rest of a restful and enjoyable evening of good home cooking and a movie. When the three of them relaxed into bed together that night, she slept better for having them both back.

And she was definitely looking forward to seeing them both dressed up in the morning.


Date Point: 16y2m1w2d AV
Gaoian embassy, Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Daar, Great Father of the Gao

There was shit to catch up with. Stuff to read, stuff to make decisions on, stuff to be briefed on in case he had to make a decision later…

At first Daar did his best to address it, but he quickly found he couldn’t focus. He still had the problem of Leemu on his mind. And the whole question of dragon slaying.

Death was a damn big dragon.

Eventually, he had to admit defeat and tackle the issue head-on. He was being briefed by Father Seen of Clan Goldpaw, an expert in livestock trading who was proposing they make a purchase of sheep from Earth. He’d given a whole bunch of reasons about… stuff. And that was the problem, Daar should have found it all interesting and listened closely, but right now…

“…My Father?”

Daar became aware that he’d drifted off. Again. He sighed, scratched his claws through his whiskers to straighten them out a little, and shook himself back to attention.

“…I’m sorry, Seen. I don’t ‘fer a blink think this ain’t important to know in excruciatin’ detail, but right now I gotta ask ‘ya for ‘yer direct recommendation. Do we make the purchase, or not?”

“…I think we should, My Father. Yes.”

“Okay. Good. Make it so. We’ll talk ‘bout levies an’ taxes at tonight’s session. Right now, though…I gotta go resolve somethin’ really fuckin’ awful, or I ain’t gonna be any kind o’ useful.”

“Champion Gyotin said you have something big on your mind…” Seen sympathized. He gathered his notes and documents and stood up. “A little more time to negotiate won’t hurt,” he said lightly.

Daar chittered appreciatively. “Thank you.”

“Of course, My Father.” Seen bowed slightly and let himself out.

Daar growled at himself once the Goldpaw was gone and stood up. He prowled the room in thought for a moment, then threw his head back and gave in to the inevitable.

Nothin’ much for it. Time to go sentence Leemu to die.

He threw open the door and marched out with as straight a posture as he could muster. “I’m goin’ ‘ta Nofl’s lab,” he announced. “I don’t wanna be disturbed unless it’s an emergency.”

His personal aide, Brother Tiyun, duck-nodded in understanding, and didn’t even show any weariness from all o’ Daar’s recent Kwek-dung. Hopefully the big package of Werne jerky he had planned would paper that over. Anyway.

Like usual, he chose to run to Nofl’s lab. Maybe just so he could get some wind blowin’ between his ears, maybe ‘cuz the cherry trees were blooming and it smelled like a riot o’ life….

Maybe ‘cuz he wanted to take the long way there.

He arrived, and scratched on the door. There was a distracted “Yes yes, come in!” from somewhere inside the lab, so Daar grumbled a bit, wedged himself through the door, and prowled over to Nofl’s workspace.

Nofl shot a glance over his shoulder and beamed at him, as merrily and as gaily as ever, which just seemed fuckin’ disrespectful of Leemu.

On th’other hand… Corti didn’t smell of much except fungi and science so it was hard ‘ta get a read on them sometimes, but Daar’s nose did more than sniff stuff. He’d always been a little superstitious about it, an’ right now it was tellin’ him that Nofl’s good cheer might be more’n just his usual camp act.

“This is kinda a solemn occasion, Nofl,” Daar said, kicking the door shut behind him with a rear paw.

“Great Father! No no no, it’s a happy day! I believe I have a solution!”

The tiny flickering ember of hope that Daar had managed to nurse even as far as the door glowed back into life.

“Nofl…you better not be shittin’ me, but I’ll tell you what: you solve this problem, and you ain’t never gonna worry ‘bout fundin’ ever again.”

“Oof! That’s a dangerous promise, dear.” Nofl hopped down off his stool and skipped across the lab to grab a tablet.

“I like to live dangerously,” Daar remarked drily. “Brief me.”

“Well, the cure is arguably even worse than the sickness, but… I’m going to give him Crohn’s disease. Or maybe lupus, I’m not sure yet!”

Daar blanked at that. “Uhh…. Ain’t that one’o them cripplin’ Human diseases? Where, uh, their own immune system goes bonkers?”

Nofl couldn’t have looked more pleased. “Ex-act-ly.”

He pranced up the steps to the big holo-emitter in the middle of the lab and waved his hands through its control interface. Three human portraits, all of fairly elderly individuals, shimmered into live. Daar recognized Dog Wagner and Preed Chadesekan instantly. The third took a second to click—Adele Park. He’d never met her, but he knew of her.

“These three all have had confirmed contact with Arutech, but rather than taking their systems over as happened to other humans like Sam Jordan and, I now believe, Zane Reid… these three successfully fought it off. Why? Because all three are suffering from an autoimmune disorder called rheumatoid arthritis!”

Nofl summoned a summary screen about the disease. “Now!” he continued. “I’ve been able to study the Arutech’s progress in Mister Chadesekan, or rather the way in which his system is fighting it off. It should have overwhelmed him within days but instead, well… thanks to a little adjuvant therapy to accelerate the process, he is now completely free of it. Probably.”

“Probably.”

Nofl flapped a hand. “Ninety-nine percent.”

“That’s… nice for ‘em,” Daar said. “But how does it help a Gaoian? I know firsthand our immune system ain’t shit next to a Human’s.” There was still a fine pale scar on his paw from where a fungal infection from digging in the dirt on Earth had spread scarily fast.

“More precisely, you have effectively zero defense against their particular fungal forms. The rest of your system is perfectly serviceable…though clearly engineered. And that is the key! That is part of our opportunity!”

Daar sighed. “Yeah. It’s really fuckin’ depressin’ to know who ‘yer god is. Anyway.” He shook his pelt out, there’d be plenty of time to be bummed out about that later. “What’s ‘yer plan?”

“Well, in this case the Hierarchy did you an accidental favor. It’s…” Nofl paused and his fingers moved for a few seconds as he tried to think how to explain. “….very technical, but we’re discovering that huge portions of your genome are deliberately deactivated. Many of these sequences seem to be relics of your Deathworlder past, and most of those deactivated codons have analogs in your operating genome.”

“Oh…fuckin’ balls.” Now that hit Daar like a truck to the head. “They put a fuckin’ rate limiter in us, din’t they?”

“Mm-hmm! You are, in short, considerably less… well, less deathworld than you should be!” Nofl grinned. “You see where I’m going with this. If I can disinhibit the correct alleles and… somehow stimulate Leemu’s immune system to behave like it potentially could… and then induce it to malfunction just like a Human suffering from arthritis or Crohn’s or Lupus or… any one of the other dozen ways their body can start eating itself…”

“It’ll eat the Arutech.”

“Oh yes!” Nofl nodded enthusiastically. “Though, uhhmmm… it won’t be painless for him. Or entirely safe! We are talking about giving him a crippling chronic illness after all.”

“Well,” Daar commented ambivalently, “still better’n bein’ worm mulch.”

“I hope!” Nofl agreed. “It won’t be remotely easy. But I’m quite sure that it’s possible.”

“…I’m hearin’ a lotta words like ‘somehow’ an’ ‘could’ an’ ‘hope’ here, Nofl.”

“That’s the nature of experimental medicine, I’m afraid.” Nofl shut off the holo-emitter. “But… well, the alternative is euthanasia. And I’m afraid that’s not legal here. You’d have to take him back to Gao first.”

“An’ I gotta get Openpaw’s buy-in, too.”

“…I was under the impression you didn’t need anyone‘s approval.”

“Even I need ‘ta worry about keepin’ people happy. I don’t wanna be a tyrant. Well. When I don’t gotta be, anyway. Besides, I trust ‘em. If they say no, I’m gonna listen.”

“How likely are they to say no to the idea of mutating him and giving him a chronic autoimmune disorder?” Nofl asked.

“They’d be a helluva lot more open ‘ta the idea if y’all get rid o’ some of those hedge words.”

“Fewer maybes?”

“That’d help, yeah. Here’s the thing, an’ no offense an’ all, but this is something I don’t really think ‘yer people get. Life ain’t an experiment. It’s sacred. If ‘ya wanna take a risk, ‘ya need to know what that risk actually entails.”

“I can work with that requirement,” Nofl promised.

“…Good. Now. What do ‘ya need from me to make this happen?”

That was a bit of a risk, Daar knew; Nofl had every motivation to ask for more than he needed. But, well: Yulna had been right. Building trust meant taking a risk, because you couldn’t trust if there weren’t the possibility of betrayal.

“Well…funds, of course. I think the Directorate will take care of that. I might be helped by some broader genetic samples…”

“From who?”

“Well… Males like you.”

Of course. Daar used to revel in the idea that he was the most finest thread from a very fine cloth, but he was beginning to understand a bit of the discomfort the Humans sometimes had about the notion. It wasn’t…nice. The idea that there wasn’t anything better was sorta insulting in a way. Worse for him, he knew he and his entire people weren’t completely to credit for their abilities, either. He was the best of the best…but how much of that was him? How much did he owe it to his own hard work? How much to his ancestors striving to be better?

How much to the whims of sapient malware?

Gods, his next lil’ chat with Gyotin was gonna be painful like a Naxas kick to the chest.

“Dont’cha already have samples? Don’t lie ‘ta me, now.”

“I have samples from some males. And, well…a rudimentary sample from you, yes.”

“Of course ‘ya fuckin’ do…” Daar grumbled and gave a discreet sniff towards Nofl. “But…I ‘preciate ‘yer honesty. So…what more do ‘ya need?”

“Ideally, I’d want samples from Gaoians with autoimmune disorders of their own, or with particularly robust immune systems. The more insight I can get into the natural functioning of the Gaoian immune system, the more I can predict any complications. I’d… quite like a sample from Father Regaari.”

“Why him?”

“Very few have braved Earth. Fewer still breathed the air unfiltered. And Leemu is a Silverfur like Regaari, not a Brownie like you.”

Fair point, really.

“…’Kay. I’ll go talk ‘ta my Clan SOR Brothers. You can take whatever ‘ya need from me right now, on the understandin’ that ‘yer only gonna use it ‘ta help cases like Leemu. An’ then I’ll talk with Openpaw ‘bout all o’ this…but I am not gonna lean on ‘em too hard. You want this ‘ta happen, you gotta convince ‘em ‘yerself. Deal?”

“Deal.” Nofl had a handshake like a broken rubber band, but it was heartfelt.

The exchange didn’t take long. Nofl took a kinda painful biopsy from Daar’s outer thigh and just a whole buncha blood, dosed ‘em up with some Crue-G, told ‘em to eat and drink something as soon as he left, and sent ‘em on his way. Straight spacemagic, that stuff. By the time he’d made it over to the barracks, the pain was gone, any trace of lightheadedness was gone…

Which kinda implied the Crue-G was doin’ stuff his people weren’t aware of. Another point to worry about.

But, well. It was hard to worry about that just then. He had a possible solution to Leemu’s dilemma that Daar could work towards. He had friends he could wrestle and play with, just for a little. He had a Cousin he loved, who he could rebuild his relationship with…

He maybe had a solution to a nanotech horror. And maybe, he had the beginnings to an answer for the most biggest question of all.

Who were the Gao?


Date Point: 16y2m1w5d AV
Halberstadt’s, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Julian Etsicitty

“I’m not really a fan of ties…”

“You have to wear a tie with a suit, Julian. You just gotta! Also your collar should fit now.”

The first session at Halberstadt’s had been… interesting. It turned out that Ramsey and Tristan knew a heck of a lot about nice clothes and how to dress well, and the surprising part was that they actually seemed to genuinely enjoy it. Julian would have guessed they’d hate stuffy clothes and formal wear thanks to their parents, but in fact the brothers walked into Halberstadt’s like a pair of junior fashion princes and were immediately in their element.

That day had mostly consisted of Julian being escorted around the shop’s fitting area in his underwear, being discreetly ogled at by the staff while they measured every part of him about fifty million different ways. Al seemed to take some perverse joy in the situation, because one of her evil smirks was planted across her face the whole time.

That wasn’t to say it was uncomfortable or anything, everyone was polite and all. It was just a bit weird prancing about! Julian wasn’t really a natural show-off.

…Well, no. That wasn’t strictly true anymore. He’d become a lot more outgoing over the last couple of years, as he spent time in the public eye. He had no idea when that had started, but he was definitely taking more photos of everything while he explored, and yeah…sometimes those photos included himself. With people too, when they came up to say hi. Then there was the whole Laid Bare shoot, which was about as show-off as a man could get. He’d enjoyed himself quite a bit by the end. Heck, he’d had some interesting modeling offers come in too—he’d never expected that!—but he had to be careful; he was a Special Envoy, after all.

That was important, because a Special Envoy had to keep a clean reputation…and clean up nice, too. The Ambassador was gonna hire an etiquette coach from Earth—Julian still had trouble believing that was a thing. He’d eventually be attending formal dinners to advance the American interests in the Ten’Gewek…

Yeah. The boys were right. All of Julian’s dressy clothes were way too small for him these days, and he’d never really bothered to replace them. If he wasn’t in gymwear he was in his black t-shirts and his comfy, broke-in jeans, but even then his shirts were getting a bit threadbare…and uncomfortably tight, no matter how stretchy they were.

“A man needs to look like he cares,” Tristan had said very seriously, and with far more conviction than any twelve-year-old boy ought to have. Still…he wasn’t wrong.

And so the whole family went downtown for a little shopping adventure. The boys got measured for their new Sunday suits, too; Jacob had sent money so they would be “presentably clothed” and this was apparently how Al was going to spend that money. Julian had laughed about all that, he and the boys had a bit of goofy mean-mugging fun in front of the mirror…and then the conversation turned to textiles.

Julian didn’t know much about that sort of thing. He knew about denim, wool and cotton, Under Armour and kevlar, how to darn socks and sew buttons back on, and a few other things like that. His interests had always been about durability or comfort. He’d never bothered to know what “tweed” was, or what exactly one did with a “herringbone.”

He’d never imagined that a woollen pair of pants could in fact be so soft, he’d thought they were silk. Dang.

Anyway. Nothing they had fit him off the shelf: not the shirts, not the undershirts, not the socks… nothing. It had never been easy for him to find good-fitting clothes, not even in high school, but he was just so dang big these days that everything had to be made bespoke. Al, on the other hand, was doing her best to marry a high-waisted two-piece suit with the realities of being twenty-something weeks pregnant and naturally slender. She still managed to look damn sharp, but in the end she had to give up and follow Xiù’s example by vanishing across the road with apologies to visit Halberstadt’s partner dressmaking company.

That left Julian in the boys’ capable hands.

Tristan and Ramsey had grown up in fashionable, well-tailored clothing thanks to their parents’ treating them a little like ornaments to show off rather than actual boys. They were Julian’s opposites, in that slobbing around in jeans and t-shirts was pretty much a novelty to them. With their Buehler-blond hair properly combed and a jacket and tie on, they became junior heartbreakers.

The difference, Julian suspected, was the smiles. It was hard to imagine them smiling while all dressed up in the company of their parents, but there in the shop they were in their element and clearly enjoyed bossing Julian around.

To judge by the expression on the tailor’s face, she was thoroughly enjoying the sight too.

“No, not a skinny tie, you need a nice wide one that’s darker than the shirt…”

“No no, you need the long ones. You’re tall and your neck’s super thick.”

Julian felt like he had to tread furiously to keep his head above water. “I mean, it goes around…”

“Not far enough! It needs to just reach your belt buckle. No longer, no shorter.”

“Oh yeah, and you need a different belt, this one doesn’t fit right, either…”

When their backs were turned to dash off across the shop in search of the right items, Julian glanced at the tailor. She nodded, giving her professional approval to everything they’d just said.

“Your kids clearly have some taste!”

“That they do,” chuckled Julian in mild awe. “How long until this is all done?”

“We should have everything completed in two days. Maybe three in your case, but outsized athletic cuts have become a specialty of ours. Jeff and Mindy should get you done in no time.”

“Right,” Julian sighed. “I suppose we should, uh, settle up. Once the little fellas are done dressing me I guess…”

“Handkerchiefs, cufflinks, and a few other accessories yet to go. Oh, and do you have any appropriate briefs? Athletes like yourself can be challenging to properly fit, and you don’t want any lines showing through.”

“…I need special underwear for this?”

And so on. Those at least were big and stretchy enough that he could get away with off-the-shelf, even if they were so thin and showy that Julian had to wonder if this was some private abuse of power on the tailor’s part, or maybe part of Al’s revenge. He didn’t want to think about what would have happened if they didn’t fit… Anyway. Julian nodded numbly while the boys piled on an incomprehensible selection of… things… and he eventually managed to escape back into the free air.

At least Al paid for it all.

Two days later everything came back, and the time for final fitting, which at least took place in the comfort and privacy of their own home. Halberstadt’s were that certain of their craft.

Again, Tristan and Ramsey led the way, teaching Julian things he never knew about dressing up. He stood in front of his mirror, only just on the appropriate side of nudity in his “dressy” socks and underwear—how were they dressy when they were almost not there in the first place?—while the boys laid everything out in well-practiced sequence. Ramsey was going over their really expensive new duds with a sticky roller thing and a delicate pair of scissors, while Tristan was putting the finishing touches on their shoes. He had them polished up so well, Julian could see his reflection in them.

Dang.

“Fellas, should I be doing something…?”

“Just a moment,” Tristan said distractedly. He put a little more elbow grease into his polishing, gave a satisfied nod, and set Julian’s big new wingtips down next to the boys’ smaller pairs.

“There!” Ramsey handed Julian a thin cotton undershirt. He shrugged and stretched it over his shoulders—it clung to him pretty tight, but not uncomfortably so. Meanwhile, Tristan had fetched something from the shopping bag, and busied himself clipping it to the top of Julian’s socks.

“What are those?”

“Shirt stays. These are the easy kind, you don’t need a garter. They keep your shirt tucked in!”

…Okay then. Julian shrugged his shirt on and found that, actually, it fit! The collar felt okay, he could close the top button and he didn’t feel choked! Then they connected the straps and now his shirt was being pulled down which felt a little weird but once the pants were on and the belt was done up too…

He swung his arms, rolled his neck, bounced around a bit. Arms above head, nothing was pinching…

Al was leaning against the wall wearing a knowing, amused smile that got a little wider as she watched. “You look surprised, babe.”

“This is… comfortable. None of my other nice clothes were ever comfortable!”

“Well duh!” Ramsey said. “None of your other nice clothes have ever fit, Dad!”

It took everyone a second to notice the word. Ramsey was the first, and he went still and suddenly had a rabbit-in-headlights look on his face that he hadn’t worn in a long time, the one that back in the Buehler household probably would have meant he knew he was about to be on the receiving end of some parental wrath.

Julian needed a second to process it himself. He glanced at Allison and saw mingled surprise and dawning delight in her face, then very slowly he sank down to his haunches and opened his arms. The boys collided with him, and it was all he could do not to fall apart right there.

He palmed both their heads and snuggled them to himself good and hard for a long while. There was nothing to say. What could he say? He just…

He was finally able to think again when Al joined them. She knelt next to him and kissed him on the cheek. “I think we should go out tonight. As…a family.”

“What about Amanda…?”

“I’ll talk to her.” She stood up and tried really hard not to show the tears forming in her eyes. “You three…” Al paused for a moment, and regained some of her snarky composure. “Now I bet you two can’t tame Julian’s hair!”

It got a laugh, and spurred the boys into motion. Rather than standing around awkwardly, they had a moment of twin-communion and went rabbiting off to fetch… something. Julian wasn’t sure what.

He took a deep breath and composed himself.

“You okay?” Al asked.

“Oh, geez. Where do I start?”

“I suppose it was inevitable, really…” She glanced over her shoulder to check they weren’t in earshot, then drew a little closer on the pretense of adjusting his collar and lowered her voice. “They really love you, you know.”

“It’s not… weird or anything? I mean, you’re their sister, not their mom, and…”

Al dismissed that suggestion with a shrug. “So we’re weird. Stop giving a fuck about it and let them be your sons. Please? It’s what they need.”

“Al…” Julian checked they were still out of sight, then kissed her. “…I love the hell outta them too. But as much as I hate to say it, so does Amanda.”

“You leave my mother to me. And my father.”

“…Okay. Just, uh, you’ve got friends and options. And me. Don’t forget that.”

“I promise.” She stepped back and smiled at him. “…Xiù is gonna be so pissed she missed that.”

“She probably will…wait.” Julian glanced over and saw the two boys grinning like Cheshire cats. “Is that pomade?”

Tristan brandished the tin. It looked pretty rock-and-roll actually, with a black-white-and-red label that depicted a grinning skeleton barber with well-styled hair, brandishing a pair of straight razors. “Nope! Putty.”

“What’s the d—? You know what, never mind. When did you get that?”

“I bought it!”

“With your own allowance?”

“Well, I wanna look good for school!”

Of course he did. “Right. So, uh…let’s do this, then.”

Julian and the boys migrated to the big vanity, they hopped up onto the counter so they could reach him…

And some witchcraft happened.


Date Point: 16y2m1w5d AV
Diplomatic Starship Rich Plains, Kwmbwrw Great Houses

Ambassador Sir Patrick Knight

There were times when Knight tried to figure out which of the various alien species who made up the Dominion were the most alien, in terms of their life outlook, general species philosophy, foibles…

There were a few candidates. The Corti were really quite understandable once one got to know them, and the Gao were extremely relatable in an intense, canine-adjacent sort of way. Those two were the easiest to interact with. The Rauwryhr, Chehnash, and Rrrrtktktkp’ch were pretty familiar too, being respectively idealistic and curious, jaded, and cerebral.

All of that was in the broadest possible strokes, of course. It was dangerous to try and sum up a species of billions of souls using just one word, but at the same time…

The most alien were probably the Allebenellin, the Versa Volc and the Robalin. The former two grappled with knowing that their species were only sapient because of scientific meddling by the OmoAru tens of thousands of years ago, and had a certain degree of resentment toward species who’d achieved sapience under their own power. At least the Versa Volc were personable enough in a distant way.

The Robalin meanwhile were just impenetrable. Those big, dark green, pupil-less eyes were unreadable, their motives remained inscrutable and they rarely deigned to explain their reasons for anything they did.

Given their history, Knight wasn’t sure he wanted them to. The Robalin were thirty years out of an internecine war that had seen them deploy bioweapons and genocidal tactics on a scale not even the Nazis had matched… And the Robalin Nazis had won.

Entertaining their ambassador therefore was not his idea of an evening well spent.

It wasn’t even entertainment, not really. His usual tactic of welcoming his opposite numbers with an assortment of appropriate food from Earth fell flat in this case as the Robalin ambassador simply sipped on a tiny cup of water and politely declined to eat anything. He seemed to treat even that as an unwelcome delay before they could finally get down to business.

Knight was only too happy to oblige him.

“So what can I do for you?” he asked, once it became clear that pleasantries were not involved here.

The Robalin language was complex. The words were sibilant, but overlaid by a parallel stream of clicking vocalizations that served about the same purposes as the tones in Human languages like Mandarin. The same syllable could have markedly different meanings depending on which clicks went alongside it.

Fortunately, his translator earpiece could handle it confidently.

“Trade. You have powerful antibiotics, the most powerful on the market.”

“Indeed. Often too powerful…but then I suspect you’re in need of something quite strong these days…”

The Robalin’s head tilted. Not a nod, nor a shake of the head.

Knight nodded, and decided to treat himself to a small glass of beer. “You do, of course, understand the difficulty. We are only just now beginning to understand the depth of your…recent activities. Much of the Dominion was shielded from that knowledge too, so much so they thought we were the first genocidal species to enter the Council. That isn’t true, is it?”

The Robalin’s head tilted the other way. “We are not here to discuss recent history. We are here to discuss trade.”

“Which makes this relevant. We too went through something like your recent history. The consequence of that episode has placed such an immense burden of shame on our people, that merely discussing trade with yours is problematic. The governments I represent are inclined to place an embargo, so I need to know why you want our antibiotics. And I should be blunt: there had better be a damn good reason.”

He matched the alien’s inscrutable blank gaze with a fiercely principled one of his own. To his gratification, the Robalin blinked first.

“…Let us call it damage control,” the ambassador said.

“One of your old toys gone rogue?”

“One of the lower-grade strains deployed by our predecessors persists despite our best efforts to eradicate it. It now has a chronic presence in our hospitals: Civilians go for unrelated treatment, contract the strain during their hospital stay. Some die.”

“Why come to us? The Corti have biofilter technology.”

“Ineffective, in this case. This is a highly mutagenic strain, it adapts faster than we can update the organism definitions. We require a new solution, one that can eradicate the contagion before it adapts.”

“…It’s a bacterium? Our antibiotics don’t do a thing to viruses.”

“It is effectively a bacterium, yes.”

“So, to recap: Your government created a highly mutagenic bacterial bioweapon which has now gone rogue and is establishing a chronic presence among your civilian population. You need us to bail you out before… how many people die?”

“…As many as one in three of those infected.”

Knight didn’t let his reaction to that show. He’d been briefed, in fact, on the Robalin’s domestic bioweapon problems, and that mortality rate put the Spanish flu to shame. Hell, in recent years the human race had managed to claw the Ebola mortality rate down below that threshold.

He didn’t like the Robalin government, not at all. It was censorious, tyrannical, pathologically hostile to citizens who didn’t conform to its ideals… it offended his sensibilities as a classic liberal thinker in every way.

But on the other hand, a thirty-three percent mortality rate across a whole planet was a lot of lives. A lot of people, however strangely-shaped and inhuman, who’d just had the misfortune to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time to the wrong species and under the wrong government.

“…And what can your people offer in return?” he asked. “It’s hardly a trade unless you can give us something we want.”

“We note that certain of your peoples are ascendent in the Long March of progress. If you desire to solidify that lead—”

“Let me stop you right there.”

Knight congratulated himself as his interruption extracted the first proper reaction he’d got from his alien counterpart so far: a scandalized blink.

“…Yours is an aggressive and willful species, Ambassador. Past a certain threshold, you will become ungovernable. The Gao have an answer to that problem in the Great Father. That is not a long-term solution, and the Great Father himself clearly knows it. Our intelligence suggests he is leaning hard on the medical sciences to extend his viability as a ruler for as long as he can…but what comes after him? What will their answer be? What will yours be?”

“Ambassador, let me be very clear. We are here to discuss the possibility of my people helping out your civilian population by trading medical supplies for something concrete and physical. We are absolutely not at home to your political ‘advice.’”

The Robalin hardened, and Knight had to give him credit for doing what few others like him did—he didn’t seem the least bit intimidated by the trademark Deathworlder Glare.

“It is not advice, Ambassador Knight. It is very painful, hard-won experience. We too once entertained delusions about diversity being a strength. What you may not know is that this is not our first such war. It is our eleventh. There comes a time when such endless bloodbaths must be stopped once and for all…we would spare you that suffering, if we could. Though I sense you are not ready to see the point, so…let us return to trade. What would you be interested in?”

And there, Knight thought, was the hard part. What would they be interested in? If the Third Reich were still alive and kicking in the mid-twentieth century, what might the 5-EYES nations have been interested in buying from them? Was there anything at all?

“…We can offer life extension technology,” the Robalin hinted, after a second. “Before you ask, this knowledge was not obtained via conflict. We were a short-lived species some centuries back. No longer.”

He blinked again when Knight frowned at him. Knight had no idea what that meant, but it felt smug. “Humans are not short-lived,” he continued. “You are in fact the third longest-lived species we know of after the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun and the Kwmbwrw. We could extend the human lifespan to upwards of two hundred of your years, and you would maintain your prime health and vigor throughout eighty percent of that time.”

“Hmm.” Knight stood up and went to make a cup of tea.

“I can see you think this sounds like a fair trade.”

Knight had had enough. “Can you? Interesting. I was just thinking how it sounds like an awful idea.”

He turned around. “Let’s imagine our people start living for two hundred years or more. What happens to our young people, hmm? They already struggle as it is, imagine being young and trying to break into a job market saturated by more experienced workers who still have the full flower of their strength. The young have only two advantages over the seasoned: health, and plenty of future. Deprive them of those edges, and what do they have left except desperation?

“Then,” he continued, “there’s the question of who gets to enjoy the longer lifespan. The wealthy? The powerful? Everyone? If so, who pays for it? What happens to our birth rate? What happens to our economy? What happens to social mobility and meritocracy? No, I think that’s a Pandora’s Box I have no interest whatsoever in opening, thank you very much.”

The Robalin’s expression shifted. Confusion, possibly. “A what box?”

Knight sighed. “…I suggest, Ambassador,” he said, “that if you intend to negotiate with somebody, it pays to know some things about them. The story of Pandora and her box is one of our oldest and most important myths, so much so that we named our first FTL prototype ship after it. If you don’t even know that about the human race, then you are not in a good position to negotiate with us.”

The ambassador stood up. “A criticism I level in turn. You, like many others, are quick to judge our history. You have no idea what led to that. You do not know the horrors. You cannot know. I remember them. I lived through them, and I did my part in bringing them to an end.”

“Mmm. I count myself very lucky not to have lived through them, and you have my sympathy,” Knight assured him, levelly. “But I absolutely know what caused those horrors, ambassador, and you just offered it to me like a bag of sweets. So….”

He crossed to the door and stood straight-backed and stern. “Thank you for coming. But I think it is best if our negotiations continue in writing.”

The Robalin’s movements were jerky and fierce as he drained his cup of water, shook Knight’s hand, and departed without a further word. The alien was, Knight suspected, deeply angry.

Knight wasn’t inclined to care. He’d lost two great-uncles in the Second World War and he wasn’t about to dishonour their memories by striking a devil’s deal with the exact same kind of person they’d given their lives fighting against. The strange lizard-ant appearance, the extra arm and leg, it didn’t make a difference: He’d just had tea with a man who was the moral and ethical equivalent of Joseph Goebbels.

He needed a bath.


Date Point: 16y2m1w5d AV
Camp Tebbutt Biodrone Internment Facility, Yukon-Koyukuk, Alaska, USA, Earth

Ava Ríos

“You ever rode a helicopter before, Ava?”

Ava jumped, and looked away from the window. She’d been enjoying the view. It was her first trip to Alaska, and the thing that struck her as she’d watched the landscape rolling by below them was that the grass and foliage down there was a different shade of green to what she’d seen before. Not palm-leaf and lawn green like she remembered from San Diego, nor the damp, rich green of England, nor the slightly blue-shifted green of Cimbrean native foliage.

The green below was cold, faded and slightly yellow but wherever the sunlight managed to push between the clouds, it glowed. And the mountains were just primal. She’d totally lost herself in it.

She was one of a handful of journalists en route to the biodrone camp. Zane Reid’s vitriolic video had been met with surprising transparency by the Sartori administration, who’d simply acknowledged its existence and invited any news agency that wanted to send a reporter and make their own conclusions.

Thank goodness but the BBC hadn’t sent Sean Harvey. God willing, she’d never see him ever again. Instead they’d sent a bubbly package of human warmth by the name of Francesca Cadman, who’d brought with her a plastic shopping bag full of snacks which she shared generously.

“Uh… No,” Ava replied. “I rode in a US Air Force Osprey once, in Egypt.”

“Ooh! What was that like?”

“Uh… Well, there was a wounded man in there with us. We’d been shot at…” Ava smiled apologetically. “And I kinda crashed and slept the whole way back.”

“…Oh. Wow.”

“Yeah. I prefer what I do now.”

“You were shot at?”

“I was shot,” Ava recalled, remembering the moment a bullet had shoved her hard in the back while she ran for her life. “I was wearing body armor but, uh… I don’t recommend it.”

“I didn’t know you did embedded reporting!” Francesca looked both impressed and unnerved.

Ava shrugged. “It wound up being classified anyway.” Which was true: the Hierarchy’s existence had been declassified years ago, but Operation EMPTY BELL was still top secret. “I can’t really talk about the details. Non-disclosure.”

“Sorry.”

They rode in silence for a while, until Francesca offered her a bag of chips. “…Did he make it?”

“Huh?”

“The wounded man. Was he okay?”

Ava smiled. Derek was looking after Hannah for her while she was gone, and putting out feelers to see if there were any more veterans or whoever who might be interested in doing a Laid Bare. Retiring from fieldwork to a desk suited him well, and meant she didn’t have to worry about him.

“He made it,” she said aloud.

One of the helicopter’s other occupants, a fidgety blond man from an up-and-coming news site called Timepiece called over from the other side’s window. “Hey, I think we’re coming up on it!”

Sure enough, the pilot called over his shoulder just a few seconds later. Once upon a time they would all have been wearing hearing protection and talking to each other through microphones, but forcefield tech had made soundproofing a helicopter’s cabin pretty much effortless. The rotors were little more than a distant bassy hum felt through the seat of the pants rather than a deafening wall of sound.

“Landing in three minutes, ladies and gents. Please make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in the upright and locked position…”

Ava smiled at the joke. Their flight wasn’t exactly the height of luxury, she was in a bucket seat with a four-point harness on rather than some comfortable commercial thing. Still, she made sure nothing was loose around her and then grabbed her camera to record the landing.

Around her, the other three turned on their GoPros and Francesca gave her a curious look as she produced a camera drone from her bag. “…You like to do things the old-fashioned way, don’t you?”

“It’s part of my brand.” Ava gave her a shrug. She’d heard that comment before, and she knew better than to say that she felt her way was more authentic. Anyone could just wander around with a camera drone and a body-cam and a head-cam and then pick out some decent shots and clips from among the hours of footage back in the comfort of their office.

She also knew better than to mention all the awards on her shelf. There was an art to photojournalism, and it sprang from the art of photography. She controlled the framing, the color balance, the depth of field, shutter speed… She could do things with her camera that turned the news into life. Bare facts became poetry when attached to the right image.

But, she wasn’t in the business to make enemies of her colleagues, so she shrugged her whole personal philosophy off as an amusing luddite’s foible and jumped down out of the helo as the doors opened.

Springtime in Alaska. She’d expected the wind to be cold enough to sting her cheeks, but its actual texture was just pleasantly cool. It smelled of mountaintop snow, living trees, and, and…

…Egypt.

It had been a long time since she’d last had a flashback, but the aroma that reached her nostrils was right out of Cairo and from the mining camp at Marsa Alam. Somewhere nearby, somebody was cooking Aish Baladi. She glanced in that direction, and—

–Suspicious glances in Cairo, the blank disinterest of the biodrones at Marsa Alam. Among them all, a smiling face with a mustache, wearing superiority like aftershave and bottomless age like a comfortable coat–

“Ava?”

Francesca’s voice snapped her out of it. She started slightly and became aware that she was gripping the helicopter’s doorframe so hard that her knuckles had gone white and her fingers were hurting. She was stopping Francesca from alighting, and the other woman was giving her a concerned, confused look.

“…Sorry.” Ava stepped away and got a grip on the here-and-now with an effort of will and some deep breaths. It had been so long since her last incident that she’d almost forgotten how intense they could be. Just for a moment, she really wished her dog was there. Hannah would have snapped her out of it before it really began…

The moment passed, and she looked back toward the man whose face has jolted her so violently into the past.

Six’s host. He still had the same urbane mustache and shiny bald head, but the expression was different: he no longer had that sense of yawning agelessness about him, and his eyes were tired and haunted rather than sharp and mocking. But she’d never forget that face, ever.

Automatically, she took his picture. He blinked, then turned and called something through the doorway behind him. After a moment, a second man stepped out of a door and squinted at her.

Of course. This was where the biodrones came. She should have expected this. Six’s other host would be here too… and both men clearly recognized her. She took another picture without really thinking.

She was pulled away and distracted by a welcome from the camp’s CO and a safety briefing that boiled down to ‘do what the guards tell you to do.’ With those formalities out of the way, they were freed to investigate the camp, talk to the internees, the personnel, inspect the facilities… They had the run of the place. Total freedom, total transparency.

Ava took a deep breath, straightened her back and went to meet two of the most important men in her life for the first time.


Date Point: 16y2m2w AV
US Embassy, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Julian Etsicitty

“Julian! Good of you to drop by! I see my secret elves have done their magic…”

Julian managed a nervous smile and sat down when Ambassador Chris Rockefeller gestured invitingly toward a seat. He was the US Ambassador to Folctha first and foremost, but the umbrella of his duties also covered New Botany, Abeltown, Nouveau Acadia, and the Ten’Gewek… the latter of which made him Julian’s boss.

He was impossible to dislike. Charming, easy, relaxed, jocular… Julian had never put much thought into what ambassadors in general were like, but some unconscious part of his brain had prejudiced itself toward thinking they’d be universally stuffy, formal and straight-laced.

He was glad to be wrong.

“…You and Al were in a conspiracy, huh?”

Rockefeller had mastered the disarming, twinkling smile that only men in the glow of healthy advancing age had access to. “Of course! We can’t have a caveman slurping bisque with the Governor-General, you know. You look very dapper!”

Well, that was a new one. Julian cleared his throat. “…I should point out, I’ve never been to a formal dinner, uh… ever.”

“That’s why you’re going to receive some etiquette lessons.”

“Learn how to use the right cutlery, that kinda thing?”

Rockefeller waved a hand like he was shooing a fly, dismissively. “Cutlery’s easy. Just start from the outside and work your way in.” He flashed that smile again, then sat back and folded his hands comfortably across his belly. “So. How are we doing with setting up that meeting between the Corti and the Ten’Gewek?”

Julian nodded, feeling a little more on solid ground now that he was just reporting what had happened. “It… got a little sidetracked. The Ten’Gewek have had a marauding Brown One to deal with.”

“That’s the T-rex-bear thing, yes?”

“And cheetah.” People always seemed to forget that part. “Damn thing can run at sixty miles an hour. Well… that we’ve seen so far, anyway.”

The ambassador looked impressed. “…Is everything okay?”

“It killed one of the Given-Men. They’re trying to figure out how to put it down without losing too many people. But I did tell Yan about the Corti.”

“And what was his answer?”

“He’ll hear them out, but he wants the Corti to come to him. It’s, uh…well, they’re entering rut, to put it bluntly. It’s very important for the tribes, they have boys at trial, new Dancers, Rites of Womanhood too…”

“And a cheetah-bear-T-rex monster to kill. Hmm…” Rockefeller jotted a note down. “…He won’t budge? They have to go to him?”

“He’ll budge a little. I told him if the Corti visit the planet itself they’ll get what they’re after anyway, so he agreed to meet them on a ship in orbit on the condition that it has to be one of ours, or Gaoian.”

“Sensible. I assume you counselled him in that direction?”

“A little. They’re… extremely perceptive. It’s a big part of why we took the two big guys to Earth after all. I’m pretty sure Vemik’s figured out all the basics of machines by now. Yan’s no different, he’s just more focused on protecting his people. Once he wrapped his head around the idea of, uh, ‘body-words’ inside his people that the Corti want, he figured out the rest well enough on his own.”

Rockefeller tilted his head. “Body-words?”

“That’s about as good as I can get for ‘genetic information’ in their language.”

That got a laugh. “Right. That makes sense… Still, good work. The Corti might be on our side of the chamber at the Dominion Council these days, but that doesn’t mean they won’t exploit the crap out of the Ten’Gewek if they get the chance.”

Julian accepted the praise with a smile and a nod. “Thanks.”

Rockefeller grinned at him. “Nervous about that dinner?”

“Yeah,” Julian admitted. “I mean… what am I expected to do exactly?”

“Show up looking clean and handsome—you’ve got that part covered already—give an honest answer to any questions that come your way and just… don’t make an ass of yourself, basically. It’s not difficult, I promise.”

Somehow, Julian believed him. “Sounds simple enough…” he admitted.

“It really is. I’m pretty sure you can make it through one evening without cussing, punching somebody or getting naked.” That twinkling grin put in another appearance. “Which is about ninety-five percent of it.”

Julian laughed. “That other five percent will get you… What if I forget names?”

“You’ll be fine,” Rockefeller assured him. “These people are human too. Most of ‘em.”

“There’ll be ET guests?”

“No, just some lawyers.” Rockefeller chuckled at his own joke. “And your lovely partner, of course, who I gather is a Gaoian for legal purposes.”

“Dual species. It’s one of those round peg square hole situations.”

“Well, she and your indisputably human other partner are invited too. And I gather you’re fostering some young men as well. Can they behave themselves?”

Julian smiled faintly. “Honestly? Tristan and Ramsey might be better guests than me.”

“Did they pick out your clothing as well?”

“Uh… yes.”

Rockefeller laughed. “Really? Interesting… It’s good if they can come. A few of my colleagues back on Earth who’ve never met you wonder about you. Your history, your unique family circumstances, your, ah, rather uninhibited modelling career… All of it rubs some of them the wrong way. It goes against the grain of what they think a special envoy should be.”

“Even to a stone-age tribal species? Actually, no, that’s… I dunno where they’re at now, actually. We’re well out of the Stone Age and coming up on I guess early Roman in just a few years.”

“Even so.”

“Well… maybe that’s a good talking point?” Julian considered and tried to avoid his usual backtracking style of thinking. “You said so yourself, they need someone they can relate to, and that sorta means a guy who can heft a Werne and all that.”

“And on our side, we need a man who can clean up well and be a model of civilization. Don’t forget about what the humans in this equation need to relate to.” Rockefeller sniffed. “Bringing along a well-adjusted pair of young men might be just the right kind of impression. And a little charming precocity might just distract from the dirt under your fingernails, so to speak.”

“I can see that,” Julian conceded. “And I scrubbed up, too!”

“The metaphorical dirt under your fingernails.”

“I kinda doubt that’s ever going away.”

“So long as it’s kept to an authentic minimum. You’re not expected to be perfect, my boy. Just… civilized.” Rockefeller flashed his smile again.

“I can do that.”

“Of course you can! You’re too ‘Minnesota nice’ to do otherwise! Anyhow,” Rockefeller unscrewed the cap of his fountain pen and flourished his signature across a card from the stack to his right. “Your formal invitation. For all five of you.”

Julian held the little card in his paw and turned it over as Rockefeller re-capped the pen and set it aside. “Uh…well, that’s pretty amazing cursive you’ve got.” He didn’t really know what else to say.

“Script, and the secret is in the pen. You would traditionally respond by mailing back a card but you’re right here, so…”

“So… I’m pleased to accept?”

“Excellent! This isn’t hard, I promise you. The trick to any situation like this is to keep your counsel to yourself, compliment people’s wit, and don’t tell any stories that don’t end in comedy. They can be raunchy too, just elevate your language a little. Twisty allusion is your friend, here. And if those stories give you a little harmless embarrassment, even better! Think of it like making friends at church.”

Julian thought about the last time he’d gone to church. There’d been a lot of life between then and the present day.

“…I should probably go to church more, huh?”

“Do you believe?”

Julian shifted uncomfortably. “That’s a big question. I dunno if I can give a good enough answer on short notice.”

“None of us really can. The question is if the church you choose can help you answer it.”

“How do you figure that out?”

“You don’t. I attend with friends when they ask. In these circles it’s the polite thing to do. Good way to open the mind and meet people, too.”

“So basically…I need to network.”

“Yes. With people that have a keen sense of tradition. For you that might be…tricky, so again, we’re back to charming. You see why I wanted you at this dinner, now.”

Julian began to realize he was caught in a much larger game than he expected. “…Yes.”

“Good.” Rockefeller leaned forward and rested his hands lightly on the desk in front of him. His jovial, approachable expression shifted a little and became more sombre.

“Julian. Let me get down to business, now that I’ve shaped the problem for you. I am an Ambassador of the United States, Plenipotentiary and Extraordinary. That means I can make decisions of national policy within my portfolio without consulting the President first. That is a terrible responsibility. I need people who can help me share that burden. In particular, I have a long-term strategic and moral quandary in the Ten’Gewek. It is in our best interests to see them flower, both for their sake and…well, for our own souls. I need a man who can directly command their respect, because I certainly cannot. And I need you to understand the Great Game, because that is the only way we can advance their interests in a way we can both profit from. It’s not enough to toss boulders and skin animals, I need a man who can also charm people that normally fear and frankly loathe men like you.”

The soft veneer fell away, and Julian found himself transfixed by the piercing gaze of an enormously shrewd man who played the highest-stakes game in the galaxy for a living. “Can you do it?”

Julian felt himself nodding reflexively: not good enough. He paused, thought about it, and then nodded more firmly.

“Tell me what I have to do.”


Date Point: 16y2m2w AV
Hunter command ship, Kwmbwrw space

The Builder Alpha-of-Alphas

Stasis was saving the Hunters. Energy, after all, was plentiful but most of it was in forms that nothing organic could digest. Not even the Swarm of Swarms could eat stars.

But the Hunters could feed on them, after a fashion. Their ships basked in stellar output, thereby gathering as much power as they could ever need, and spent that power on keeping non-critical Eaters in stasis when they weren’t on a hunt. By doing so, the logistical demands of the Swarm had been much reduced… and the Eaters weren’t complaining either. They got to go straight from hunt to hunt, without any boring interludes in between. It kept them out of the way, stopped them from interfering.

It also allowed them to plan their hunts with much more care. The stakes were higher, but so was the potential return on investment. Without Eater impatience goading them forward, the Builders could gather information and construct simple, elegant and razor-sharp courses of action at their leisure.

Things were assuming a more perfect configuration. Builders were the natural leaders. The Eaters became much more fearsome weapons when their ferocity was properly directed.

Properly directing them required data. Data was best acquired through contact with the Prey, and especially by low-cost probing at anomalies.

For instance: the Prey’s new mobile herd-ship had been stalked for some time now by a small team of dedicated Builders in an exceptionally low-profile scout. The ship was well-known to the Hunters: It had been one of the early contact points with Humans. A lone female had stalked them through their own halls and decks, turning Hunters into hunted. The swarmship’s Alpha had grievously wounded her at the cost of its own life, but the ship had sent data back to the Swarm that had proven most educational and inspired the development of subsequent highly effective anti-Human tactics.

Now, intriguingly, it had been joined by another familiar ship: the one that the Swarm had destroyed over Gao. The first Human ship ever to fall to a Hunter assault was, apparently, back in the fray.

Humans, it seemed, did not accept defeat. They had recovered the burning, gutted hulk and repaired it. Perhaps also upgraded it?

The Alpha-of-Alphas intended to resolve that question.

There were other questions to resolve as well, and this seemed like a juicy opportunity. Chief among them was the performance of the new replicator ships. Being forced to redesign those from first principles had been agonizing, infuriating. The dataform responsible for deleting all that valuable information would suffer terribly.

Still, it had not been able to delete knowledge, memories and experience. The Builders had remembered, rebuilt and reinvented. If anything, they had ultimately improved on the prior design.

All that remained was to test it.

And testing such as this, for a Builder, was just as salivatory as fresh Prey to the Eaters.

<Meat to the maw.>


Date Point: 16y2m2w AV
Diplomatic Starship Rich Plains, the Kwmbwrw Great Houses

Ambassador Sir Patrick Knight

Knight’s favourite space on the Rich Plains was the arboretum. It ran around the ship’s equator, a feat only made possible by the enormous vessel’s lack of conventional engines, and afforded a pleasantly open space. It was big enough to comfortably accommodate a number of the now sadly absent Guvnuragnaguvendrugun, so from a human’s comparatively tiny perspective it was almost like walking under open skies. Nobody could possibly feel claustrophobic in such a space.

His favourite part of the arboretum, however, was the human contribution to it. The spot had been made available years ago in response to some obscure Dominion regulation, but never filled for several reasons. The fact that humanity had officially snubbed the Dominion for several years was perhaps the bigger one, but in a close second place was the natural hazard that Earth life presented. The wrong pollen or spores could have proven deadly.

Knight was rather proud to have had his solution to that latter problem implemented: He’d suggested an aquarium, on the grounds that anything coming from Earth would need careful isolation behind an airtight seal anyway, so why not show off the aquatic side of a deathworld ecosystem?

Anybody who claimed that he’d chosen an ecosystem that supported some of the most colourfully dangerous kinds of Earthlings out of a sense of pure mischief was just being deeply uncharitable, of course.

He especially liked the lionfish.

The result, now that it was properly implemented, was a soothing walk among tall stands of kelp, decorated with vibrant sea anemones, glittering fish and of course the glowing hues of coral grown with the latest reef conservation and regeneration techniques. It was, in his opinion, the most beautiful part of the whole deck… and to judge from how many of the ship’s crew and the assorted visiting alien dignitaries who passed through came to see it for themselves, he wasn’t alone in that opinion. He’d even seen the Kwmbwrw Grandmatriarch Henenwgwyr pay it a visit, albeit while steadfastly pretending to be on her way to somewhere else.

It was such a shame that Kwmbwrw prejudice remained upsettingly impenetrable. After so many years and so many demonstrations of good intent, humanity simply hadn’t won them over.

Knight wasn’t inclined to worry about it. He wasn’t about to waste his time trying to impress the Grandmatriarchs, not when devastating the Hunter population, saving the Gao, defending a Domain homeworld and all the rest had failed to work.

He focused his attention on more receptive audiences, like the Rauwryhr and Chehnash, whose representatives on the station he was currently taking a stroll through the aquarium with, for the purposes of an unofficial sort of discussion.

The Chehnash were interesting. Their history of internecine warfare was just as long, storied and intense as humanity’s, and they had unarguably been the most militarily savvy of the Dominion’s associate species prior to the arrival of the Gao and Homo sapiens. Their problem, strategically speaking, was a lack of coordination and mass. That was an internal political problem, nothing they could fix by following human strategic advice, though they’d shown great interest in Knight’s proposed defence symposium.

As for the Rauwryhr…

It pained him to admit it, but the herbivorous species just didn’t have a properly predatory mindset. The point of war was to test an opponent’s will, and enforce will upon them. Doing that required finding the enemy’s weakness and exploiting it as ruthlessly as one’s own sense of civility would allow.

For the herbivores, war seemed to be…more a show of strength. It was a display ritual. In the fructivorous Rauwryhr’s case, their natural cultural unit was a tightly knit large family group, which had historically done little more than skirmish harmlessly with each other to establish territories among the huge low-gravity forests of their homeworld. They hadn’t seriously gone to war in generations, though being naturally good gliders and quite capable of flying on their home planet, they apparently made pretty good fighter pilots.

Too bad their bodies just couldn’t handle serious acceleration. Their reflexes were up to snuff, but the kind of G-forces a well-conditioned human or Gaoian pilot could endure would literally crush a Rauwryhr’s ribs.

“Still…” he mused as they paused to watch a white-tipped shark meander lazily by under the floor. “That’s a surmountable problem, I’m sure. Small craft aren’t really my field of expertise, but as I understand it it’s kinetic energy that wins fights. With the right training and equipment…”

Something caught his eye and he ambled toward the huge floor-to-ceiling reinforced crystal window. It looked like a structural weak point, but in fact that window was thicker and sturdier than most of the rest of the hull. He smiled to himself at the sight of HMS Caledonia drifting up the escort formation. She was a few kilometers away, and only visible thanks to her running lights, but it did his heart good to see her back in service.

If only her former XO was so easily mended. On a good day, his daughter was almost herself. On bad days…

He sighed and reluctantly put his anxieties aside. Doing so felt like mentally neglecting her, but Ellen had made it very clear on her good days that she needed her space and he needed to do more with his life than care for her. She had the very best in care, she had as much independence as possible…

“Anyway. I’m sure we can find somebody suitable to give a presentation on what we’ve learned about zero-G small craft combat,” he said, half-turning to be more welcoming to his alien counterparts. “If we can help your people find a—”

Caledonia went dark. Running lights off, shields to zero luminosity. For a moment he saw puffs of white gas where she’d been, a sure sign that she’d ejected dragon’s teeth.

“…Gentlemen, I think we may want to—” he began.

There was a brilliant, dazzling flash from somewhere further up the formation, maybe a hundred kilometers or more ahead of the Rich Plains. It was followed only an instant later by the rising mournful warble that was the ship’s emergency alarm.

Knight’s personal protection agent appeared as though from nowhere. His name was Spencer, a teak-hard man in his mid-forties, weatherbeaten and as tough as steel cable, and formerly of the SRR.

“Sir—!”

“Lead on!” Knight didn’t need any prompting. He bent his back and trotted smartly toward the core of the ship, guided rather than pushed by the firm hand between his shoulder blades.

Nobody else was moving with even a fraction as much intent. A lot of the life forms in the arboretum were simply standing around looking confused at the alarm.

Knight couldn’t just let them stand there. “Move, you bloody idiots!” he snapped at a trio of particularly dopy diplomats who were threatening to blunder into his path. “We’re under attack!”

That woke them up, and he didn’t much care if it was because of his words or because they’d been snapped at by a deathworlder. Either way the trio got moving, though with rather more panic than purpose.

And of course, panic could spread at a rate that made wildfire look pedestrian. In moments, the whole deck was an almost slapstick scene of unprepared civilians completely forgetting which way anything important was and running around desperately to no great effect. It wasn’t the concentrated crush Knight had sometimes seen among humans of a panicking crowd stampeding toward a fire escape, no. These were panicked chickens flailing around desperately in circles.

No time to help them. He and his protection agent plunged through a sturdy double door into the core of the ship, where the situation was not much better. Everything was clearly signposted, but those signposts were very obviously going unread.

“Don’t these people ever have emergency drills?” Knight growled as they turned a sharp bend down toward the human ambassador’s quarters, where his personal jump array was waiting.

“No,” Spencer grunted, then snapped at a milling herd at the bottom of the ramp. “Make a hole!”

They scattered like startled gazelle.

“Bloody hellfire,” Knight muttered. Things were damn well going to change on that score, if he got the chance.

“Yeah, that about sums it up…” Spencer bustled them both into Knight’s ambassadorial quarters, yanked open the closet containing the emergency Jump Array, and slapped the evacuate button. The Array thrummed as it booted up, and in mere seconds it was ready to jump a lone occupant to safety. “In you go sir, your friends should be waiting on the other side.”

Knight stepped into the booth and sat down in the chair, careful to keep his toes well back from the yellow line on the floor. “Good—” he began.

Thump

Jarringly, he found himself sitting on the receiving platform at HMS Sharman, several hundred light years from where he’d been. Already, SOR technicians were darting forward to help him to his feet. He looked back over his shoulder as they helped him off the platform.

“…luck,” he finished.


Date Point: 16y2m2w AV
HMS Caledonia, Rich Plains escort fleet, Kwmbwrw Great Houses

Petty Officer Sachi Patel

“What the hell?! The whole picket just broke formation!”

Patel yanked her flash hood down painfully across her face. The mild discomfort of putting on the garment was temporary: without it, losing her face to a sudden blast of superheated air would be permanent. “So show them how it’s done!” she retorted, grabbing her gloves. “Ignore that shit and do your job!”

“Right!”

Chief Williams got his own gloves on and buckled himself into his console seat. “…Pat, bridge wants thirty for remote ward.”

Patel scanned her board, calculating furiously and balancing numbers in her head as she finished tugging on her second glove. “…Can do! Twenty from STEPUP, ten from NEGRAV.”

“Twenty STEPUP, ten NEGRAV,” Williams echoed. “Do it.”

“Aye aye!”

“TEMPSIT condition five.” Scott called from his station. They all sang out an echo of his words, confirming what he’d said while, behind the bulkhead to Patel’s left, one of the coolant pumps kicked up a gear to take up the slack of what promised to soon be a hell of a thermal load.

Despite her warning to Dye, Patel glanced up at the tactical board overhead. It was out of the way, there only for them to anticipate what the bridge and CIC might ask of them next. They didn’t really need to know what was going on outside the ship, they’d have their time full just balancing the power and heat loads.

Still, in the quiet moment before the first blow landed, she had time to see for herself what they were up against.

Seven ships. Big acceleration-to-mass ratio, meaning chunky power cores and strong engines. They were thousands of kilometers out, coming in from the fleet’s nominal “down.” In principle, the Dominion pickets should have closed ranks and made them fly into a blizzard of high-velocity projectiles, but instead the fleet was recoiling and spreading out. Great for creating a crossfire and minimizing each ship’s exposure to danger, but absolutely bloody useless for defending the vulnerable Rich Plains.

Only Caledonia and the Rauwryhr heavy picket Fearless had held their position in the formation, and the latter was on the wrong side of the Rich Plains. Dye’s frustrated outburst had been entirely justified. If they got swarmed and torn to pieces, Patel swore she’d be coming back specifically to haunt the panicky ET wankers who couldn’t follow a simple plan.

“Need eleven more for the shields.”

William’s level voice pulled her attention away from the screen. “Eleven, aye… eight more from NEGRAV?”

“And the rest from INERTCOMP.”

“Hope they like a rough ride on the bridge…”

Non-Essential Gravity was almost tapped. Inertial Compensation could give another few megajoules before things really started to get bumpy, and she’d already brought one of the step-up reactors online. It had a lot more to give, but an extra reactor meant extra waste heat, and getting rid of that heat was the opposite of easy. Bad idea to build up a thermal debt too early in the engagement.

They were going to build up a big enough one anyway. Remote warding meant extending Caledonia’s shields around the vulnerable Rich Plains and protecting it literally as though they were taking the hits themselves. While Cally’s shields had been upgraded and were now on par with a San Diego-class cruiser’s, taking the brunt of seven ships’ worth of incoming fire was…

Patel was just glad the capacitor was at 100%. They had a deep reserve to work with… and they were going to need it.

The lead attacking ship’s icon on the tactical board pulsed, and an instant later the first rounds battered against the shield. Patel grinned savagely as she watched their newest toy go to work: Backlash shielding.

The principle was simple: Shields worked by converting incoming kinetic energy to photons, and then radiating those photons. Traditionally, Dominion shields just got rid of that energy as a bright flash across the infrared, visible and ultraviolet. The logic there was fairly sound: it was easily the fastest and most efficient way to dump the energy. But the shields could just as happily radiate in gamma, or X-ray. And, with the right constructive interference, they could also radiate in a coherent laser pulse rather than an omnidirectional flash.

The result turned incoming firepower back upon its originator. The attacking Hunter’s volley was immediately answered by a barrage of gamma laser pulses and it veered aside, taking evasive action to escape the powerful strobing energies.

The tactic wasn’t free—Caledonia incurred some expense in that the shield systems needed to be aggressively cooled—but it was totally worth it.

The Hunters tried two more close passes, targeting first Cally then the Rich Plains. Both times, they were stung by the backlash system for their trouble and retreated hastily before their own firepower could truly harm them.

Maybe they could see just how hard Cally was working, because they pressed the advantage a third time despite the ravaging gamma radiation. Both the step-up reactors were now online, and the coolant pump on the other side of the bulkhead was producing a powerful thundering howl that Patel could feel in her bones. Even through her hearing protection, it was terrifyingly loud.

“Fuck me, can’t these bastards take a hint?” Williams groaned as they struck a fourth time and came around for a fifth pass even though they’d left one of their number tumbling and disintegrating as the backlash finally broke through and slagged the hull.

“TEMPSIT condition two!” Patel called, managing to announce it loud and clear even through gritted teeth. Condition One was when things started melting and catching fire. Sweat was pickling her face inside her flash hood.

Williams gestured to acknowledge he’d heard her and made the call. “Bridge, reactor. TEMPSIT condition two, taking Backlash offline.”

Taylor had more bad news for them. “Yellow line!”

Capacitor reserves were now below thirty percent. They were burning through megawatts of stored energy trying to keep the core systems refrigerated and hold up the remote ward and run their own vital systems and weapons… All Patel could do was watch their reserves dwindle toward the red line.

And then, suddenly, they weren’t.

“We’re receiving power transfer!” Dye reported.

Patel spared a moment to flick her eyes upward to the board. The Fearless had come around in the formation, braving the Hunters to beam a tight stream of energy into Cally’s WiTChES system. A little bit of power draw to the engines suggested that Cally’s helm officer was boosting them forward in the formation to place themselves in front of the newcomers.

It was enough to stabilize them, just. Not enough to rebuild a reserve, but enough for the reserves to hold steady and keep the shields up. Still, with the Backlash system offline and the thermometer crawling downwards only reluctantly, they were just a few good volleys from being overwhelmed and the Hunters knew it.

The Gaoians denied them their kill.

Clan One-Fang crashed the party like an avalanche. Patel wasn’t sure where they’d come from, but one moment Cally had been alone and fending off six attacking ships, and the next moment there was a three-way pincer strike streaking in over, below and around the Rich Plains’ bulk to catch the enemy in a vicious crossfire. The Rending Ember, the Blazing Fang and the Howling Sun, three of the Gao’s fastest and most powerful ships, smashed directly into the Hunter formation from all sides and flashed through it, leaving two of the Hunters as expanding clouds of shattered metal in their wake.

They were accompanied by the US Navy’s spaceborne pride and joy, the USS San Diego. A ship specifically designed to do what Cally had been doing for the last several minutes. Her remote ward was angled to cover Cally, the Rich Plains and their brave Rauwryhr helper, and it took the pressure off completely. The reactor team took the chance to vent heat as quickly as possible. From the outside, Caledonia would have looked like an opaque glowing cherry-red pill.

“TEMPSIT three!”

Up on the board, the Hunters tried to escape and ran straight into a new and terrifyingly fast contact that tore through them like a bowling ball through wet paper: Daar’s flagship, the Destroying Fury. Patel was still blinking at it when a voice spoke in her ear.

“Reactor, CIC. CAPSIT?”

With shaking hands, she keyed her headset. “CIC, Reactor. CAPCHAIN linked, we’re stable. TEMPSIT three, dropping. Green line in one mike.”

“Copy green line in one… It’s over. We won.”

Patel sagged back in her seat and shut her eyes, just for a second. She’d never felt anything quite as sweet as the relief and triumph that washed over and through her whole body and made her skin tingle. It was like she’d just shrugged off an invisible weight she’d been carrying for more than two years.

Now all she had to do was wait. Wait, bring the ship’s power systems back into balance, and watch the tactical screen when she had spare moments.

The fight didn’t take long. The Gaoians had an entire fleet at this point on permanent standby, and when they arrived it was with mass. They used Cally and San Diego as an anvil, and became a clawed, vengeful hammer that shattered the Hunters with a single decisive blow. Fighters boiled out of their wormholes by the dozen and scoured the battlefield clean.

From Patel’s perspective, the details didn’t matter. She’d done it. She’d weathered a battle, kept her cool and done her job. Everything she’d promised herself and the counsellor she’d do.

And Caledonia herself had come through it like a phoenix, renewed by the heat and fury of it all. She’d been taxed hard, but absolutely nothing had gone wrong.

It felt like an exorcism, a baptism and a rebirth all at once.

As the rampant scream of the coolant pump finally whined down to a steady thrum, Patel pressed her hand to the wall and felt the warmth through her glove.

“…Good girl, Cally,” she said, and smiled. “Attagirl.”


Date Point: 16y2m2w AV
Weaver dropship, Rich Plains contact volume, Kwmbwrw Great Houses

TSgt Timothy “Tiny” Walsh

All throughout the ordeal of becoming HEAT and finally earning the Mass, the one thing running through Walsh’s head was that one day, he too would serve at their level. Do the mission like none other. Walk through the dark places that nobody else could…

…And now, he was one of them, which was an odd thought to have in the last moments before their warp pulse flung them into the red. But if he ever wanted to fulfill that ambition of his and be the best that had ever been…well. He had a hell of a lot of catching up to do.

And it wasn’t like the Lads had been sitting on their laurels, either.

He’d seen some of them in action before he’d joined the HEAT. Still clearly remembered what ‘Horse looked like after he’d landed on some hapless biodrone, or the way Murray had become an invisible battlefield blur always popping up exactly where the enemy least wanted him to be.

…Or the way Firth had been a blitzing, herculean engine of murder clad in shorts, sandals, a horrendous Hawaiian-print shirt and the blood of his enemies.

Today, though, things were different. Everyone on the HEAT had only improved, so much they’d all had their armor upgraded yet again. The new Mark VII EV-MASS wasn’t any lighter, nor did it squeeze down any gentler—in fact they were a bit worse—but it was slimmer, tougher, less cumbersome, and had a couple of new tricks borrowed from the Gaoian’s rather larger box of technological wizardry.

First Fang had borrowed some of that tech too as part of their expanding combined operations, and they were on-board alongside the HEAT, amped up and ready to do the impossible—capture a Hunter ship intact. What made these ships so special, Tiny didn’t know. He didn’t need or want to know either, right now.

Red light. The moment came. Final gear checks, skull-shattering slaps on each other’s helmets. His wingman from First Fang was practically vibrating in anticipation. Hell, they all were.

The assault was blink-and-you-missed-it fast. They were on target, there was a colossal crash, the auto-breach went about its business. It didn’t take more than a few seconds, which was critical; they had to get on-board and start fucking shit up before the Hunters understood what was happening.

Warhorse and Righteous were at the front, with two gigantic bear-guys from First Fang right on their tail. Months of joint training meant everyone knew exactly what to do, and it all started with the pair of massive ballistic shields the Beef Brothers were hefting.

They breached. One hapless Hunter in the wrong place at the wrong time became a nasty smear of fractured bone and shattered cybernetics as ‘Base pasted it against the bulkhead with a simple body check. The damn thing didn’t even have the good dignity to die in a satisfying way, it just splattered and left a greasy stain all over ‘Base’s shield. The wall was left with a deep-ass dent in it though.

From there, their breaching formation split and proceeded down the hallway in either direction. Now it was all about clearing territory and sweeping the ship clean.

There were a lot of Hunters on-board. Almost too many to make sense. It wasn’t long before Tiny had his turn on point, and just seconds after that, he was gory to the armpits and beyond. This wasn’t the kind of fight where range counted for shit, this was a close quarters, in-your-face meat grinder.

Like most such things though, there wasn’t much thinking to it. His muscles knew what to do, he more or less just nudged his body in the right direction and let it do its thing. Map filling out on HUD. Lots of red dots ahead, ultrasonic SONAR filling in the details. Breach, assault. Bigger room, light ‘em up, service the targets.

Red hunter. Tougher, but they knew how to deal with it. His Stoneback battle-buddy Badger sprang forward, Walsh leapt to the side. Flank, attack, pounce, withdrawal. Shields broken, triple-tap with frangible ammunition.

Lots more red now, all over everything. Look at Badger. Rictus grin.

Walsh wasn’t sure how long it took to clear their way to the Hunter’s command station. They were moving very, very fast, faster than the Hunters could make sense of. It wasn’t until they’d hit the central hallway along the ship’s spine that any gravity fun showed its ugly face, but the HEAT had some new tricks up their sleeves for that, too.

For example: special suit functions that could be activated via non-vocal commands. Walsh double-clicked his tongue against his teeth, and the small fusion spikes in his feet and hands deployed. They’d tried the Whitecrest’s gecko-glove trick at first, but it was no good; every human on the team except for Costello and Forrest was way too heavy to stick. The spikes worked a treat, if you didn’t much care about stealth, or the walls being ripped to shreds in the process.

Tiny didn’t. When the gravity suddenly threw them up to the ceiling with about three Gs worth of force, he’d tucked under and planted his feet without even thinking of it. His in-suit computer had activated the spikes at just the right moment…

Now he was clawing his way up the ceiling and he didn’t give a fuck what the greasy fucks had to say about it. Badger was right along with him, growling to himself as he hauled his heavy load of breaching toys up toward where they might be needed.

Up ahead was where they were supposed to reunite with the other half of the team. They hadn’t known that at the outset of course, but on-the-fly map building combined with the Watsons in the fleet had allowed them to figure out the mission literally as they were executing it, to a degree of effectiveness that was frankly scary. No other operation Walsh had ever been on had been so utterly on-point. It was easy to feel like he was part of a perfect machine.

No machine was perfect, of course. There was a ship-shakingly loud explosion, followed by some truly beautiful Kentucky cursing over the comms channel.

“RIGHTEOUS, ABBOTT. Report!”

“Watch out ‘fer the big cyborg-lookin’ ones, they got bombs in their chests!”

FIC responded immediately, and changed the appropriate icon in everyone’s HUD to indicate the new threat.

“Mine went down easy enough.” That was Kodiak, First Fang’s ursine equivalent to Firth.

“What did you do?”

“Slammed forward an’ slapped it real hard innahead.”

Well. The team didn’t need telling twice. They pressed their advantage forward toward the objective, tackling and bludgeoning their way forward with more than a little satisfied glee. The regular Hunters were almost disappointingly easy targets to service. Regaari in particular seemed almost darkly gleeful as they advanced through the final group of hapless pawns. He clawed one, spun around and back-handed another so hard it had instantly died, then flowed through to fourpaw and hit the wall right as the gravity changed yet again.

He seemed to be predicting when it happened, too. Or maybe that was Walsh’s overactive imagination. In any case, they reached the command center, the funhouse was over…

Walsh caught his breath and considered things. They were here as much to capture the Alpha as to take the ship and the Whitecrests had already done it, pouncing over their comparatively larger cousins, springing off the ceiling and walls and disabling the hulking monster’s cybernetic limbs with sticky micro-charges and precision fusion claw slices. What little flesh it had left was twitching and snarling its futile rage at them from the prison they’d made of its own wargear.

There were times the Whitecrests scared the crap outta him.

Costello gave the hissing Hunter a kick. “Okay. Now how the fuck do we get this piece of shit into captivity…?” he mused.

Warhorse answered for him, by the simple expedient of grabbing one of its limbs and summarily dragging it back towards the Weaver. Its only working claws, unable to reach ‘Horse, instead scrabbled pathetically at the deck which left deep gouges in the metal but achieved nothing in the way of actual resistance.

“If it gets too uppity,” Firth ordered, “Punch it in the ‘ed.”

“I swear to God you’re actually an ork.”

“Naw, I’m prol’ly smarter than a fungus…. Somethin’ the matter, Titan?”

Akiyama was scanning the walls and Tiny could tell he was frowning even behind his helmet and mask.

“…Think I know why AEC wanted this one intact,” he said.

“You gonna share?”

“…Well, look. Everything’s modular, and it’s all small enough to come out of the nanofactory we found back there. Then they just built it like a giant Lego set. I haven’t seen anything on this ship that it couldn’t have built itself.”

“Meaning…?” Tiny asked.

Titan turned to look at him. Behind his visor, his eyes were deeply worried. “Meaning this is a fucking Von Neumann probe.”

…Well….

…Fuck.


Date Point: 16y2m2w1d AV
Diplomatic Starship Rich Plains, Kwmbwrw Great Houses

Grandmatriarch Henenwgwyr, Kwmbwrw delegate to the Dominion Security Council

It was difficult to ascertain exactly what part of the entire debacle was more humiliating. Was it their defence fleet’s cowardly and ineffective response? Was it the apparently effortless way the Humans’ re-forged ship had protected the Rich Plains? Was it how the Meat-Eater Gaoians appeared as if out of nowhere and pinned everything in place before the Hunters escaped?

Was it a heretofore unknown Human superweapon being deployed? The way the Destroying Fury had crashed into the midst of everything and systematically crushed all but one Hunter ship, which the Humans and Gaoians then apparently boarded?

That they took several Alphas as prisoners?!

No. Henenwgwyr decided the single most humiliating part of it all was when the Great Father himself showed up the next day in front of the Council and proceeded to methodically, thoroughly, and inescapably critique every aspect of their operation. His staff had produced training graphics, too. The effect wasn’t one of scorn, or of any kind of malice…

…He’d come across as a disappointed teacher.

He had, however, singled out one non-Deathworlder ship for praise. The Rauwryhr heavy escort Fearless had lived up to its name and held the line alongside the Caledonia, even supporting the Human ship with an injection of surplus power via some kind of shield-based transfer.

The Fearless’s shipmaster visibly swelled with pride as the galaxy’s most fearsome military leader commended his leadership and the courage of his crew. In the end, however, Henenwgwyr couldn’t help but suspect that flattering the Rauwryhr was part of the plan. Daar had a reputation for impeccable honesty, of course…

…Which made the following attempt at interrogating his motives the capstone of an already ignominious day.

“Why capture them, though?”

The Great Father prowled about on all fours like a predatory beast, and shook out what little of his pelt remained unclipped around his neck. “First rule o’ warfare, is ‘ya gotta know ‘yer enemy. An’ being perfectly honest, we’ve had it up to our nuts with the Dominion’s lack o’ strategy.”

“We have been managing, containing and surviving the Hunter threat ever since it first emerged,” Henenwgwyr pointed out. “Very successfully, I might add.”

“Which is wrong. ‘Ya don’t endure a threat to ‘yer people. You obliterate it! I won’t allow those [greasy-sacked, nutless, motherless demons] any more o’ my people as food!”

“Do not lecture me about whose people are being eaten, Great Father,” Henenwgwyr replied coolly. “More Kwmbwrw than any other species have been predated on by those monsters. Gaoian space is a long way from Hunter space, with the Great Houses in the middle. We’ve been fighting them since before we even invented steam power!”

“An’ yet here we are, riskin’ our own ‘ta put an end to it. You’re welcome, by the way. I’ve lit a lot of fuckin’ pyres on that point already, an’ I’m gonna light a fuck of a lot more before the job’s done.”

“We did not ask you to.”

The Great Father reared up on two paws and glared across the chamber floor at Henenwgwyr.

“You think I’m doin’ this for you? Given how the Dominion jus’ left us to our fate, I don’t particularly care what y’all think or ask for. It’d be a whole bunch easier to get this done, though, if y’all wouldn’t stop gettin’ in the way in the worstest possible ways. I’d imagine you’d be okay with that, seein’ as we’ve had actual success, an’ you ain’t hadta pay ‘fer it.”

“Success.” Henenwgwyr consulted her briefing documents. “…In the aftermath of your destruction of the Hunter orbital, Hunter raids into our territory increased by two hundred and twenty percent, with a commensurate increase in lives lost, captives taken, property destroyed and outposts abandoned.”

“When you strike hard at ‘yer enemy, they lash out,” Daar retorted. “Then, when they run outta food an’ resources, they stop lashing out ‘cuz they ain’t got nothin’ left ‘ta lash out with. You wanna tell the chamber where those levels are at now? Or should I tell ‘em?”

“You’ve destabilized the situation.”

“Yeah. I did. ‘Cuz the stable situation wuz’ bein’ complicit in an ongoin’ orgy o’ cannibalism. No civilized being is okay with eatin’ sapient meat.”

He chose those words specifically to needle her, Henenwgwyr could tell. Before she could come up with a retort, however, the council’s Rrrtk chairman sounded his chime for attention.

“I think the Grandmatriarch’s questions have been answered,” he declared.

“With respect to the chair, I don’t think they have,” Henenwgwyr replied. “I asked the Great Father why they saw fit to capture live Hunters, and the answer I received was something vague about ‘knowing your enemy.’”

Daar chose to answer. “Ah! The first intelligent observation of the day!”

“Great Father, I cannot have you insulting the members of this council,” the chairman warned him.

“I been here bein’ insulted on behalf o’ my own species ‘fer the last ten Ri’. I don’t blame ‘em, though. Sometimes ‘ya gotta get a lil’ feisty if ‘ya wanna get to the truth. Still don’t change the insult…but I note, yet again, the Council has not tabled any motion ‘ta discuss reparations under the governing Charter of this body. ‘Ya wanna talk about insults? How ‘bout that?”

“Masterfully dodged,” Henenwgwyr said, drily. “For one who professes to dislike this body and how it operates, you play our game very well indeed.”

“Ha!” The huge throwback carnivore had the unashamed audacity to chitter. Worse, he bared his knife-sized canines at her in a gesture that the translation panel in front of her said was only mostly amused and friendly. “I think I might end up likin’ you! But y’know what? ‘Yer right. I did just give y’all a vague platitude ‘bout gathering intel. An’ until such time as, y’know, everything we’ve talked about… That’s all ‘yer gonna get.”

“And what do your Human allies have to say on that point?”

“Dunno! Chairman, I yield my remaining time to my esteemed colleagues with the Allied Extrasolar Command.” With that he prowled back to his table, but not before a brief and frankly undignified show of affection for the elderly Human.

Well. Let there be no illusions as to who the Gao’s friends were. Nevertheless, Ambassador Knight managed to retain his dignity and stepped forward to stand composedly in the middle of the floor with his hands held lightly behind his back. It was an open posture, but not a submissive one.

“…Every conflict with the Hunters over the last sixteen years has taught us more and more about how they operate,” he said after a moment. “And they are adapting. Rapidly. We saw tactics in this skirmish that were wholly absent from the Battle of Gao, and our best intelligence says that there was a change of leadership among the Hunters after their orbital was destroyed. If so, their new leader is an order of magnitude more cunning… and commensurately more dangerous. With respect to the Kwmbwrw Great Houses’ proud history of holding the line against the Hunters, times are changing. The threat can no longer be ‘managed, contained and survived,’ the only option remaining to us is active warfare with the intent of neutralizing them. We can lay blame for who precipitated that change all we like, but doing so will neither stop nor reverse it.”

He turned to look at Daar. “And with respect to the Gao’s legitimate grievance over the matters of their homeworld and of reparations… We all saw how ineffective the Dominion fleet was when the attack came. That cannot be allowed to stand. Even if we were to simply manage, contain and survive the Hunters, it should now be obvious to everyone here just how capable Dominion forces are of achieving even that objective… and we all saw how necessary the Clans of Gao are to this fight.”

He turned back and looked Henenwgwyr firmly in the eye. “The Dominion requires a total overhaul of its military,” he said. “Every facet, from the ground up, must undergo the most ruthless introspection and improvement or else you will find yourselves crushed. And if that happens, it won’t matter whose fault it is.”

Elegant words, spoken like a true statesman. Meanwhile, the Great Father prowled back and forth in the background, using the rolling topology of his body to maximum intimidating effect.

The other Council members were clearly cowed by him, but not Henenwgwyr. She had his number. For all his menace and bluster, the Great Father was, it pained her to admit, not a danger. At least, not a direct one. She feared no military or economic reprisal from the Gao, they were too… unlikely to waste themselves in the effort. There were moments when the Meat-Eaters showed a flash of nobility, a whiff of civilization…they would bring no threat.

The same could not be said for the fruits of their barbaric recklessness, however. This Great Father was a dismayingly primal personality and about as subtle as a boulder tumbling down a cliff. His leadership relied on his personal charisma, which in turn stemmed largely from his preposterous brawn. Worse, his obvious intelligence rarely mattered. Daar got through life by thinking with his muscles and his gonads, vices that no great leader of any Great House could afford.

None of that boded well for safety or stability in the coming decades.

Ideally, in time, she would like to find a wedge to put between him and the Humans. For now, though… his reputation, indeed the reputation of his whole species, was of undying loyalty toward his friends. There was nobility in that, she was forced to admit. And the Humans had, it was true, been the only species to come to their aid when the Hunters attacked the planet Gao.

…No. Not the only one. Her eyes were drawn across the room to her counterpart from the Corti Directorate.

Perhaps there was a wedge there after all.

“…You make your case well, Ambassador,” she said to Knight. “Do you have a plan for where such reform should begin?”

“As it happens, I do.”

“Then that is a matter for the Security Council to discuss. A point of order for the chair, I believe the Clans of Gao have chosen not to attend the Security Council in protest. If we are to deliberate matters of military planning, which I believe Protocol requires can only be done in a closed session…?”

The Chairman nodded his head, slowly and deeply. “Indeed. Unless the Gao intend to re-take their seat in this Council, the Great Father can only give his testimony, not take part in debate or votes.”

Daar flicked an ear. “You know damn well we’ll only take our seat once we’ve got the reparations we’re due.”

Henenwgwyr accepted that statement and turned back to the chair. “I move that this session should now hear Ambassador Knight’s plan for military reform,” she said.

She stretched her back out as the motion was seconded and accepted. The ayes won it clearly, and the Great Father stalked out of the chamber without a further word before the chairman could close the chamber. Knight’s expression as he watched the Gaoian leader depart was unreadable.

The viewing gallery was cleared, and the chamber’s privacy systems were activated, sealing the chamber off from all outside observation. Only the sitting members and the officers of the chamber remained now.

“Very well, Ambassador,” the chairman said. “Please, let’s hear your plan…”


Date Point: 16y2m2w1d AV
Nofl’s lab, Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Meeyuk, Champion of Clan Openpaw

Meeyuk would, ideally, have wished for his first visit to Cimbrean to be for pleasure rather than business, but, well… When the Great Father called…

He’d found his meeting with the two Corti working on this case very interesting. Third Director Tran was a model Corti in every way, and about as approachable and warm as a spiky iceberg. But Nofl…

Nofl was…unique. That seemed the best way to describe it. He’d picked up a number of deliberate affectations that toyed with Human prejudices about males with high-pitched voices, and played the role to the hilt. Underneath the deliberately scandalous veneer, however, lurked a biologist of unmatched talent. It was he who had first developed the Cruezzir, along with the Gaoian- and Human-specific derivatives. It was he who had first made the connection between the Gao’s genetic oddities and their revealed ancient history.

Now, he was bringing those oddities to the surface in an audacious way.

“Think of the possibilities, darling! Your suppressed genetics code for all sorts of wonderful things! Better color vision, stronger bones—”

“—A more potent immune system…” Meeyuk felt the need to drag the conversation back onto less…ethically dubious grounds. Which, given the proposal, was a Keeda tale worth telling.

“That too!”

“How potent? Relative to, say, a Human?”

“I’m not sure anything but the Ten’Gewek properly match them, but let’s just say the potential is enough that the question may be academic, more than practical. After all, they had many millennia of evolving in urban squalor. That was denied your kind.”

Meeyuk duck-nodded to acknowledge the point and scratched at his whiskers while he considered their patient.

Leemu was heavily sedated, almost to the point of a dangerous overdose. Even then, the Arutech was fighting back by synthesizing stimulants in his cells. Its objective apparently was to keep him wide awake and blissed out of his mind by direct stimulation of every pleasure receptor in his brain. The chemical battle going on in his bloodstream was alarming.

“We’re risking acute toxicity on…multiple fronts. Balls.”

“Indeed. We’ve been continually filtering his blood since we’ve taken him out of stasis. That’s kept things stable, but…”

“We don’t have long.”

“No.”

“What is your proposed treatment plan?”

“We must first preserve his mind. I propose a strong antagonist be introduced to flush his reward chemistry as aggressively as possible. We will filter his blood of course, but we can’t do that for long before his liver is compromised. Simultaneous to this, we deploy a retrovirus to properly activate his immune system. We’ve discovered through our genetic modeling systems that this will require modifications to a gland located here, in the lower thorax…”

“Morko’s organ? Interesting. It’s involved in developmental signaling of course…”

“Yes yes. It’s the locus of your species’ rather alarming ability to adapt to cubhood stressors. As it turns out, it’s also critical to your proper immune system. There’s another complication. We, uh…oh dear. This is unpleasant, and we only just discovered it…”

“I am used to bad news at this point. Say it, I think I can guess it anyway.”

“The entire developmental pathway that unlocks all of this, not just what we’re targeting…is triggered by a single protein, coded on a single inactivated gene.”

“…A fucking lock and key.”

“Yes. We will need to unlock it. Which means Leemu here will be much more of an experiment than we had anticipated. Not even our computational resources can fully predict what will happen, I’m afraid.”

“For reference, we devoted the seven Prime Analytic Engines at the genetics college on Radius to this task,” Tran interjected, speaking for the first time in the conversation. “It is… rare for us to devote such resources to a single individual.”

“I’m… sure Leemu would be very honored,” Meeyuk said.

“He should be,” Nofl said, and told him just how much computational power Tran was describing.

Meeyuk could only boggle. He’d known that the Corti were the only species to have yet developed fully scalable quantum computing, but the numbers Nofl had just given him were so big they became abstract. He had nothing to compare it to.

“…Why would you do this for us?” he asked.

“Two reasons. The first is direct self-interest. You are our customers and we want you satisfied with our service. The second…” Tran shifted subtly, a sure and intense sign of slight discomfort which was a rare thing for any Corti to display. “…Problems like this do not come along often. Mysteries this subtle and this consequential are the things we aspire to unlock. Leemu is the test case for something profound, and it is a thing that will benefit both our species immensely. How could we not invest in this possibility?”

“The upside,” Nofl added, “is that we’re reasonably sure your species was engineered to tolerate introduction of this protein even as adults. The downside is we don’t know the second-order effects…but we are reasonably certain the first-order consequences will be manageable.”

Tran nodded. “There is one more thing you should consider. Most of your major racial strains remain fully under the lock and key that was engineered into your species…but not all of them. In particular, nearly all of the most meritorious members of your species are showing mutations along the protected regions. Some of that code has been expressing itself for almost a millennium now, and with each generation that lock degrades just a bit more.”

“So we’re going to face the consequences of this anyway,” Meeyuk deduced. “Be it today or a hundred generations from now.”

“Less, probably!” Nofl chirped happily. “Especially if Leemu goes on to breed…”

“If he recovers, I have no doubt he will. He’s…not an uninspiring example, to be frank.”

“That’s the Arutech at work. According to his friend Gorku he gained an inordinate amount of muscle and strength in a very short space of time with little relative effort.”

“Fair enough, but he had to have the frame to accommodate it in the first place. And I was referring to his face, to be honest. He’s handsome.”

Tran glanced at the patient with a blank expression. “…As you say.”

“Right.” Meeyuk shook his pelt out. “In summary, you would introduce a potent antagonist to flush his reward centers while simultaneously holding him unconscious, filtering his blood, introducing a powerful retrovirus, and activating this ‘key’ protein. The consequences of that will be manifold and profound, but will certainly cause a powerful autoimmune response.”

“Which we will then convince to react aggressively to the Arutech.”

“Which will require intensive care.”

“Yes. Intravenous feeding, the whole lot.”

“As for prognosis, you’re confident?”

“He stands a better than even chance of surviving, and a reasonable shot at full recovery. We do not make any claims about what the full activation of his genome will mean for him,” Nofl said, carefully.

“We can and do, however, pledge to provide our full support to him,” Tran said.

“And to his friends,” Meeyuk added.

“…I’m sorry?”

“Gorku and Mister Chadesekan. His recovery is going to be…painful. If he is to succeed, he will need companionship, and I suspect they will have their hands full with him for some time.”

“Very well,” Tran said distractedly. “We will provide material assistance to them as well.”

Meeyuk considered for a moment. This had been a far more complex debriefing than he had anticipated, and he would prefer to give it its full due analysis…

…But they were running out of time. The question of Leemu was eating away at the Great Father’s soul, all the Champions could see it.

“…Very well. You have my qualified recommendation,” he said. “I must go brief the others.”

“We’ll be here!” Nofl promised. Tran simply nodded curtly and returned to whatever it was he had been working on before Meeyuk’s arrival.

Meeyuk slipped out of the lab, paused and raised his nose in the air to sigh, and almost jumped out of his fur when somebody tapped him on the shoulder.

Champion Gyotin gave him his most infuriatingly calm pant-grin. “Something on your mind?”

Meeyuk shook his head to clear his thoughts. “The future, Gyotin.”

“Funny how that seems to be hinging on individuals recently, isn’t it?” Gyotin chittered, then gestured toward the embassy, just a short stroll away. “Shall we? The Great Father should be back soon. I’m sure you’d like to have cleared your mind a little before he arrives.”

Meeyuk duck-nodded, and they strolled away from the lab, taking their time. “My mind may never be clear again,” he confessed.

“That’s no way to live.”

“No.”

“Would you care to talk about it?”

Meeyuk composed his thoughts as they walked for a few hundred paces before replying. “…No, thanks,” he decided. He turned and gave his Starmind counterpart a wry expression and a flick of his ear. “I bet you don’t hear that very often.”

“Not often,” Gyotin agreed. “It’s a refreshing change!”

“What about you? Does it worry you?”

“I presume you mean the ‘lock and key’? Nofl briefed me just before you.”

“…And?”

Gyotin sniffed the breeze and tilted his head introspectively. “…No, on balance, it doesn’t.”

“We’re talking about unlocking genetic potential that was within all of us but sealed away!” Meeyuk said, stopping in his tracks. “Doesn’t that… I don’t know. Upset you? Change what the Gao are in some way?”

Gyotin scratched at this whiskers, then spoke as though he’d put a lot of thought into his words.

“…You are still Meeyuk, I am still Gyotin, and the Great Father is still Daar,” he said. “Every one of us figures out what that means for ourselves as we live, and the Gyotin of tomorrow might trip over something that changes his life beyond recognition. Life is a journey, my friend, and our nature is that we are travellers. If you change the road, does the traveller change too? Does damming a river change the nature of the water?”

“…You got me talking about it after all.”

Gyotin chittered. “You did that yourself! But… there you go. That is my opinion. The Gao will not change, only our course will. And that is how it has always been, throughout history and long before. I think to let this revelation change our nature would be to let the Hierarchy control us… and they lost control a long time ago.”

“That doesn’t mean this won’t be a terrible road to navigate.”

“No, but I suspect it won’t be as bad as you think. Look at us Champions, at our Clan leadership. Look at the leading lights in the Clanless. I am no geneticist, but you cannot tell me this ‘lock and key’ hasn’t already leaked quite a lot. Look at Daar and any of his cubs. You cannot tell me he isn’t already mostly there. What will we be like when everyone has access to their natural potentials? I think that will only be good in the end.”

“Honestly? Life extension aside, the rest of it doesn’t much worry me. The part that intrigues me is the notion of improved color vision. I think that more than anything would have the biggest impact on our culture.”

“Hmm. Yes. I’d almost be tempted to go through what Leemu’s about to just to see Red for myself.” Gyotin flicked an ear mischievously again. “Almost.”

They paused by the Alien Quarter’s central fountain. Humans loved fountains apparently, and had placed one at the heart of the Quarter to form the focus of a shared space. For some reason, they always flicked petty small change into it when they visited.

“Adding a whole new color to my life?” Meeyuk mused. “…That would be strange. But you’re right: Knowing it’s possible, I don’t know if I’ll be happy to be less than I could be.”

“Exactly!” Gyotin duck-nodded fiercely. “We are a competitive people. I don’t think many of us will be happy knowing we retain our true Deathworlder heritage and leave it at that. I will make a prediction: the Great Father will be among the first to undergo therapy once he’s convinced of its safety, and he will personally encourage the whole of the Gao to do so as well. He is… vexed by what was done to us. To a degree that isn’t generally appreciated.”

Meeyuk tilted his head. “Really? I would have thought he’d view it as cheating, somehow.”

“How so? It isn’t a lie. By that rubric, advanced medicine is a form of cheating as well. Is it fair to our ancestors that a grievous injury can be healed in seconds? That we understand how to eat correctly? That our primary education has vastly improved over the centuries? Could a literate, well-fed cub who stands virtually no risk of a crippling injury be considered to have an unfair advantage?”

“So this is just another unlocking of our innate potential to him.”

“I believe he will eventually see if that way, yes. As for me…I am what I am, and I will still be me if I ever decide to take the plunge. For the moment, I am content.”

Meeyuk found himself duck-nodding along in total agreement. Which meant, he reflected, that his mind was made up.

“…Well then. I guess it’s time for the next pounce in Gaoian evolution.”

“Or a throwback,” Gyotin said. “Any doubts?”

“Always. But not enough to stop me.”

“Very well. Shall we get to that briefing? I don’t like to keep the Great Father waiting…”


ESNN Magazine article: “Prisons In Their Head- an interview at Camp Tebbutt”
Author and photographer: Ava Magdalena Ríos

[Cover image: two men seated on a bench in front of a chain-link fence, with a stunning Alaskan vista behind them. On the left is a scruffy bearded white man with shaggy salt-and-pepper hair, and next to him is a bald Middle-Eastern man with a neatly groomed mustache. Each is holding up his name on a small piece of card: “Hugh” and “Mustafa” respectively]

In other circumstances, Hugh Johnson and Mustafa Nazif would make for an unlikely pair of friends. Mustafa is a well-groomed, dapper and highly educated former dentist, whose clinic in Cairo made him a very wealthy man, while Hugh on the other hand is rougher, scruffier, less conservative, and openly acknowledges that he used to be a so-called “Coyote,” a human trafficker who made his money smuggling undocumented migrants across the USA’s border with Mexico.

Both are permanent residents the Camp Tebbutt Biodrone Internment Facility, a remote CIA outpost deep in the heart of the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area. It is from this camp, earlier this year, that the man at the top of the FBI’s most wanted list, Zane Reid, was able to escape.

In the aftermath of his escape, Reid spread several video messages across the Internet laying out his manifesto and his accusations against the Federal Government. In reply, the Government was kind enough to open the camp’s doors to journalists and give us unfiltered, unrestricted access. We have permission, in President Sartori’s words, to portray the reality of this camp “Warts and all.”

There aren’t many warts.

[Image: a smiling woman in a wheelchair and hijab, holding a steaming cup of coffee as she trades jokes with Hugh. The two have obvious romantic chemistry.]

As the camp’s name suggests, all of its internees are former biodrones—humans with neural cybernetic implants who were unfortunate enough to have had those implants used to turn them into unwilling puppets of the alien agency known as The Hierarchy. Although some lucky few former biodrones had implants that could safely be removed, the ones at Camp Tebbutt are not so fortunate: their cybernetics are all deeply embedded, and are beyond the ability of even the most cutting-edge human medicine to remove.

In Hugh and Mustafa’s cases, the implants in question were installed deep in their brains specifically to biodrone them. They will forever be potential agents of the human race’s deadliest enemies.

Their stories of exactly how it happened are eerily similar.

[Image: Mustafa’s scalp, which is covered in a neat hexagonal grid of almost invisibly fine scars.]

How did it happen?

HUGH: “Like something out of a B-movie.” He laughs bitterly. “I was out in the desert south of El Paso. One of my contacts from the other side of the river was bringing a boat over that night and, uh, we had to move fast. USBP were damn good at their jobs, you know? I think I was just about at Elpadre Canyon when my car just… stopped. Engine cut out, I rolled to a halt. I got out and I was still scratching my head under the hood when there was this bright light like boom from above, and then:”

He snaps his fingers. “Hijacked.”

MUSTAFA: “I drove home from work as usual, a little late because I worked overtime with a rich client. My house was very nice, with a security wall and a gate. I drove my car through, locked the gate and then there was a bright light from above. I looked up, and…”

He trails off and shrugs.

“The next few months are like a dream that never really happened. I remember bits and pieces, nothing more. And what I do remember, I can’t even be sure if I remember it well.”

HUGH: “Yeah. Like somebody else lived your life for a while.”

MUSTAFA: “Which of course is exactly what happened.”

Both of you were more than just biodrones, though. You were host to an actual Hierarchy agent.

MUSTAFA: “Yes. ‘Six,’ he called himself.”

HUGH: “Evil. Real, honest-to-God evil. I don’t think I ever believed there even was such a thing as true evil until I met the Hierarchy.”

What did they do?

HUGH: “They… this isn’t the face I was born with. I was always kinda an average-looking guy, but Six and his lackeys surgically altered me. They got rid of all my distinguishing features… It took me a long time to get used to seeing a different face in the mirror. They did that to a few guys, actually. There were three or four of us, and you coulda sworn we were twins. Triplets. Whatever. I’m the only one left.”

He sighs, shivers and nervously lights a cigarette.

“…And, they used my body to commit a murder.”

Mustafa puts a hand on his friend’s shoulder, sympathetically.

HUGH: “She was an… investigator of some kind. A PI, I think. I guess she got too close to exposing the Hierarchy’s operation in San Diego, because Six had her killed, and used me to do it…”

He trails off. I can tell this is a deeply painful subject for him. I don’t press him for more details, and he doesn’t share any.

And after that?

HUGH: “Six wanted to… ‘poke the hornet’s nest.’ The Hierarchy still didn’t know much about mankind at that point, he didn’t know how we’d react to danger. So he decided to prod us and see what happened. He… tried to orchestrate a mass shooting.”

Tried to?

HUGH: “Yeah. Some sports event, a roller derby I think. I guess somebody in the crowd smelled a rat or something because the police arrived, shot one of the other biodrones dead and captured me. Or, uh, Six. Apparently they had to keep him in stasis for a few months so they could set up a facility to contain him, and… well. Here it is.”

He gestures around at the camp and the terrain surrounding it.

“I was Camp Tebbutt’s first internee.”

But Six escaped.

HUGH: “Yeah. I don’t know how, but he just up and left one day. He’d already told the interrogators everything, though.”

Interrogation?

*“Oh yeah! By-the-book, humane, totally civilized. No torture, this isn’t Guantanamo Bay and we’re not terrorists.**

[Image: Mustafa being taught a hand-clapping game by a child of about ten years.]

Some of you have families here?

MUSTAFA: *“Not here. My daughter, Civene, she stays with a foster family in Fairbanks. The Hierarchy took my wife as well as me, and she died, but—alḥamdulillāh—Civene was too young for them. Rather than intern her here, America found a family for her to live with, and she visits me.

HUGH: “The camp’s only permanent residents are implanted. Everyone else is either staff or a guest.”

Still, that has to be difficult.

MUSTAFA: “I would like nothing more than to live outside these walls as a free man, with my daughter. But I can’t. There are seven evil little devices in my head, the size of bees. I have seen the X-rays. Those are my prison. This camp? In the winter, I wish I could be back in Egypt, but in the summer it is a pleasant place to live.”

A recent Gallup poll suggested that one in four Americans don’t believe the Hierarchy is real. What do you say to them?

MUSTAFA: “Polls say many things that contact with normal people would suggest is not true. I am not sure I fully believe that. But even then, it is hard to argue with the willfully ignorant. They will see the truth one day, In’sha’Allah.”

HUGH: “I guess I can’t blame them. I mean, an alien mind control conspiracy? Twenty years ago that woulda been pure ‘turning-the-frogs-gay’ nutjob territory. How many people still think 911 was an inside job? Or that the moon landings were faked? The Hierarchy is way more outlandish than either of those… But it’s real, man. They’re real, and they want us dead. We’re in a f•••ing internment camp because of what they did to us! People are dead! You’re from San Diego, right?”

I am.

HUGH: “Can’t be many of you left.”

No, there aren’t.

MUSTAFA: “Then this poll does not matter. I will ask the camp doctor to show you my X-rays. They can see that, they can go look at where a city once stood. If they still wish to doubt…”

He finishes the thought with a dismissive shrug.

[Image: An X-Ray of Mustafa’s head. True to his words, there are seven bright white bee-sized masses scattered throughout his brain, each one extending fine silvery tendrils into the surrounding tissue.]

Medical exchanges with the Corti Directorate have achieved some amazing things recently. Have you heard of Rachael Wheeler?

HUGH: “The Byron Group explorer, right? Yeah, we heard about her. They say the Corti brought her back from the dead.”

Does that give you hope?

HUGH: “I guess. I mean… I dunno if I like the idea of having my whole head taken apart to get this s••• out of me.”

MUSTAFA: “Neither do I, but I like the idea of being a prisoner for the rest of my life even less.”

HUGH: “Truth.”

Have you been offered that as an option?

HUGH: “Not yet.”

Have you asked for it?

MUSTAFA: “We were told they need to perform a “thorough safety review” first. We do not know exactly what that means, but that is not surprising. We are kept ignorant of much news because of our implants.”

HUGH: “I sure know that if they’re gonna yank my brain out and dig the tech out of it, I want them to know what they’re doing first. I’ve been here a long time, miss. I trust the staff here, and I know they want us cured ASAP just as much as we want a cure. It’ll happen. We just have to be patient.”

The camp’s staff and commanding officer declined to be interviewed, but did provide the following prepared statement:

“Camp Tebbutt’s priority is the safe containment of people who, through no fault of their own, pose an immediate and grave danger to all the people of Earth, not just American citizens. We are acutely aware that our internees are victims rather than perpetrators, and do our utmost to treat them with the respect, dignity and humanity to which they are entitled. It is our hope that in the near future we will gain access to a means of safely removing their implants, at which point they will be released to rebuild their lives with as much support as we can offer.

“Until then, we will continue to provide them with as much freedom and autonomy as is reasonably practical. We reject the accusations made by Zane Reid, but will not comment further on the matter of his escape or his claims of inhumane treatment.”

For my part, as our helicopter takes off for the long flight back to Fairbanks, my lasting impression of Camp Tebbutt is a peculiar sense of community. The people here come from very different backgrounds and were thrown together by awful circumstances, but that seems to be a bond between them rather than a wedge. They have made friends, found love, grieved together and help each other through a daily necessary hardship.

These people have every reason to be broken and traumatized. Instead, they seem to share a peace and love for the simple things that I find inspiring. As we left, we were handed some freshly-baked Egyptian bread called Aish Baladi for the flight back.

It’s delicious.


Date Point: 16y2m2w1d AV
Folctha Jump Terminus, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Meeyuk, Champion of Clan Openpaw

“The Great Father will be proceeding directly from the Rich Plains and will expect an answer. I can imagine he will be demonstrating his, ah, usual patience with dithering…”

Meeyuk’s fellow Champions chittered nervously. They were five, in total: Meeyuk, Fiin, Thurrsto, Gyotin, and Wozni of Clan Shortstride. Meeyuk wasn’t quite sure why Wozni was present, but apparently it was at Thurrsto’s request.

Everyone listened to Thurrsto. He’d rebuilt trust in his Clan’s leadership after a couple of grave mis-steps by Father Regaari and the late ex-Champion Genshi, and if he thought something was important, then it was. He was one of the small retinue of towering intellects on the Champions’ council alongside Loomi, Gyotin of course… and the Great Father.

People sometimes forgot that Daar’s strongest muscle was probably his mind, and in that important sense, Thurrsto and the Great Father were kindred spirits. It wasn’t that Thurrsto was much of a scholar, though nobody could fairly call him uneducated. It was the fact that his mind was a scalpel that cut irrelevancies and “bullshit” out of everything until all that remained was the bare, lean substance of an issue. Nobody got anything past him.

Daar was much the same, if not more so. The difference was that, while Thurrsto was a calm, collected and deliberative man, Daar was the very definition of a mercurial creature. Generally playful and friendly, even gleefully cheery, he was not without his dark side and only the foolish forgot it. He could go from playful to murderous and back again in a blink.

“Are we certain we’re in agreement?” That was Wozni, who had a tendency to get caught up in detail. “I can imagine a number of objections—”

“Remember who we are briefing, Wozni. The Great Father values brevity.”

Sound advice indeed. If there was one true crime a Champion could commit, it was was to waste the Great Father’s time, and it was a sin he seldom forgave. Again, few were so stupid. After all, to pique the Great Father’s anger was to court death. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t so much as scratched anyone since the start of the War, outside of play-fights and combat. It didn’t matter that he was a patient and considerate man, to an almost legendary degree.

What mattered was his will. Daar had proven time and again that anyone or anything who stood between the Gao and their destiny wouldn’t survive for the barest moment against him. Nobody had ever forgotten the lesson of the late Champion Halti.

True to form, the Great Father arrived with his usual reserves of endless blustery affection for basically everyone, which contrasted strangely with the visceral threat his almost to-the-skin clip lent his appearance. He must have suited up again, or at least been ready for the possibility. He roared merrily and jovially, delivering hugs and crushing paw-pats to his Champions.

Meeyuk received special warmth in the form of an almost literally spine-shattering hug, followed by being pinned to the floor underneath Daar’s stupendously weighty bulk. It had been a while since they’d last talked, and that generally meant extra affection, complete with a wagging tail and a play-growl that would terrify anyone if they didn’t know Daar’s moods.

Meeyuk could feel his whole body going numb from the squeeze, so he flicked his ears back for mercy and somehow managed to talk without wheezing for air. “How did it go, My Father?”

“Like lecturin’ a smelly wall,” Daar grumbled, helping him to stand up again.

Meeyuk chittered. “I had heard that might be the case!”

“I’ll git through ‘ta Henenwgwyr one day…” Daar shook extravagantly, growled something in the back of his throat, and then brightened. “Anyway. I assume y’all met me here at the jump ‘cuz you’ve pondered on ‘yer advice?”

“Yes, My Father. Let me brief you…”

“When we git to the embassy. First, let’s set some blood flowin’ through our brains…”

Without a word more than that, he dropped to four-paw and sent Humans, Gaoians, dogs and aliens alike scattering out of his way as he charged toward the doors at what, for him, was probably an easy relaxing lope.

For most of the rest of the Champions it was a much more vigorous bout of exercise. Attending the Great Father was not for the weak of heart, spiritually or physically.

Only in Folctha would the sight of a foreign head of state plus his entourage choosing to run on foot from the jump terminus to the embassy pass mostly without comment. Folcthans were familiar with Daar, by and large. The town’s police force especially knew to leave him do what he did.

Then again, Folcthans were used to people charging around on foot in general. It was a well-planned city with short routes between all the major focal points. Pedestrian traffic was the norm rather than the exception, and it was home to a military base and offered powerful tax incentives for sticking to fitness programs. Joggers, runners, living battering-rams loping down the street… By and large, it passed with nothing more than a little amusement.

The Gaoian Embassy in the Alien Quarter had been redesigned around the Great Father’s foibles, too. It was a straight shot right through the front doors to the main conference room, and the way was thrown open for them as they arrived… and sealed up tight behind them as they piled in, panting and well-exercised.

“‘Kay!” Daar chittered as hs surveyed the Champions with his usual air of mischief. “Now brief me.”

He waited while they caught their breath, then listened attentively as Meeyuk and the others relayed the essence of what they’d learned. As always, he asked many piercing questions of each of the Champions in turn.

Meeyuk shared everything. The ‘lock and key,’ the long-term consequences not only for Leemu but for all of the Gao regardless of whether or not Leemu went on to sire cubs… He kept it brief and efficient, but spared nothing.

Daar didn’t need much deliberation to arrive at the only reasonable comment he could make about the entire mess.

“…Balls.”

“Yes,” Meeyuk agreed, with a slight chitter. The Great Father gave him the first amused look he’d worn in several minutes, and then his face furrowed into the almost-snarl that the more throwback brownies tended to while thinking.

“Well…I ‘spose there’s nothin’ for it,” he decided after only a few seconds. “Authorized. Tiyun, if you could…”

Tiyun, of Clan Highmountain, was the Great Father’s personal aide. He duck-nodded sharply, always eager to please. “Yes, My Father.”

Daar flicked his ears gratefully. “‘Yer the best, thank you. An’ when ‘yer done…take the day off, ‘kay? I brought a little somethin’ back for ‘ya…”

Tiyun duck-nodded and backed out of the room. Meanwhile, Daar sighed and fell to all fours, as if a great burden had been lifted from him. “Well, that’s one soul-crushing crisis dealt with,” he commented. “Though Thurrsto apparently decided there’s a second one to lay on me…”

“Two in one day? You’re very productive, My Father.” Gyotin joked. He was the most relaxed around the Great Father, which was something Meeyuk honestly had trouble getting his head around. Then again, he was probably the only one at the table that Daar couldn’t spin circles around, at least with words.

In any case, it made Daar chitter. He shot Gyotin a Look that promised mild and enjoyable retribution later, then returned his attention to Thurrsto. “I can manage more too… anyway. You said it was about Stinkworld. Garl’s still out in the field there, I presume?”

“And Meereo.”

“Right. Any word on how that’s goin’?”

Thurrsto was almost as relaxed as Gyotin. He turned to the so-far silent Champion Wozni. “Meereo says they’ve had a breakthrough, and he was so excited about it that he forgot how to dumb it down for those of us who don’t speak his language. I asked Wozni to join us so that he could make things a little more, ah, accessible,” he said. “I’ll defer to him.”

Wozni chirruped excitedly and fetched a notepad from his bag. Perhaps a bit paradoxically, he was rather like the Great Father in that he sometimes preferred paper over screen.

“Yes! Ah… here.” He clawed through it. “…We’ve figured out what the Irujzen node is.”

“Figgered that weird spacetime hole was more than just an art piece,” Daar rumbled. “What’s it do?”

“It’s… kind of the functional opposite of a Farthrow generator. It’s not a wormhole suppressor, it’s a wormhole booster. Space for hundreds of lightyears all around it is more… malleable, I guess. Wormholes form more easily, and are more stable. Stable enough to form single-end zero-point connections.”

Daar furrowed his brow again. “How…how in the fuck do you trick spacetime into doin’ something that fuckin’ magical?”

“We have no idea, My Father. We’ve only gleaned that through accidental discovery, when we attempted to set up a zero-point comms node. According to Meereo, the power required is…at least ten orders of magnitude less.”

Daar shifted and gave him a look of deep skepticism. “…Ten orders of magnitude.”

“At least. He’s running the realtime zero-point wormhole off a solar panel, My Father. We could call him right now, if we were on Gao.”

“I s’pose that explains how in the hells Six escaped from the Humans…” Fiin grumbled. “His cell was wormhole-suppressed.”

“Yeah. And I think it suggests that there’s one of these boosters somewhere in the volume around Sol.”

“Maybe. Or maybe it’s even worse, and only one end needs such a booster.”

“Yes. The receiving end. Meereo and his team is very confident of that for…” Wozni inspected his notebook and flicked both his ears uncomfortably. “…for very technical reasons that I don’t have time to go into. But the father in charge of the physics college over at Highmountain was…more than a little excited. They think the math says its possible, anyway.”

“It’s obviously possible ‘cuz we’re watchin’ it happen,” Daar noted drily. “Think we’ll figger out how it works?”

“Honestly, My Father? Not any time soon. But here’s the encouraging bit: the Hierarchy don’t seem to be watching it too closely.”

“…I remember when I was there, an’ the only things we really hadta worry ‘bout were snake-bears. I was expectin’ it ‘ta be a trap, we all were. Bestest friend was on edge the whole time. I unnerstand that a lot better now… Anyway. We chased this thing followin’ intel from one’a them, after all. How are they not watching it? How is it not a trap?”

Silence.

Eventually, Thurrsto filled it. “…If it’s a trap, it’s a very, very good one,” he said. “Baited with real damaging intelligence.”

Daar snarled and prowled the room. Such was his presence that it was hard to watch him roll silently across the stone floor and not feel intimidated. “…I think the only thing more insultin’ than bein’ an engineered slave-race o’ Janissaries ‘fer uncaring gods who are actually digital malware…is that they’re so tiny-nut incompetent.” He reared up on two-paw and made a vague, violent gesture of frustration. “I mean, fuck! How could anyone with resources like this just leave’ em undefended?!”

“The are very, very old, My Father. We don’t know if they are born, or if they die. Or if they have a definitive state like life and death,” Wozni said. “We do know that it takes literal centuries of training for them to even be able to interact with the physical world. Everything they ever built, they built it a long time ago. And it maintains itself well, it keeps ticking over… but I honestly don’t know if they have the knowledge to really understand it any longer.”

The Great Father, like he often did, made a rather impressive leap of analysis. “So…basically, they’ve drifted too far from what bein’ alive is an’ they’re dyin’, then. Er, succumbin’ ‘ta entropy, mebbe? ‘Ya know what I mean. An’ we’re in exactly the right place ‘ta inherit their legacy an’ kill ‘em, if we can ‘figger out out how ‘ta exploit what we’ve got.”

“There’s a certain poetic irony to that, isn’t there?” Gyotin mused. “Destroyed by their own creation.”

“There’s more, My Father.” Wozni shuffled through his notes. “We found a coal mine, of course. Every civilization needs steel and I am told coal is required for that. What we found in the mined-out parts, though…”

Wozni chittered nervously to himself, reached for his communicator and tapped a claw on it. What appeared on the wall was a picture of an endless-looking warehouse of…racks. All exactly the same, all completely featureless. But it didn’t take a genius to figure out what they were.

Daar leaned closer, blinking as it sunk in.

“That’s… That’s them, isn’t it?”

“…I think so. We’re not certain exactly how they were assembled, but destructive analysis reveals the devices are, essentially, solid bricks of computational logic and storage. Each one has… incalculable memory and processing capacity, and that one bunker contains tens of thousands of them.”

Daar shook his head in disbelief. “…is Six actually insane?! He didn’t jus’ give us a leg up on intel, he gave us the means to obliterate ‘em!”

Thurrsto looked similarly appalled. “Meaning he’s either playing seven-dimensional underwater space Ta’Shen or he is, yes, utterly insane.”

“Or, ignorant about what Stinkworld actually is,” Gyotin suggested. “If he mistakenly thought it was some harmless peripheral system…”

“Never assume your enemy is an idiot,” Thurrsto said.

“…Hrrm.” Daar finally sat down again. “…Wonder what Yulna would have ‘ta say about all this? You did invite her?”

“She sends her apologies, My Father. Apparently there’s a certain birth she’s taking special care of.”

Daar reflexively glanced north, at a blank wall and the distant island far beyond it and hundreds of miles away over the sea where the Grand Commune lay. His ears pricked up, swivelled back and forth for a moment, then drooped.

“…Right.” He shook himself back into the moment. “So. More an’ more, we’re pickin’ a fight with our gods. Pretty much literally. An’ they ‘parently got godly tech, too. An’ they’re too stupid to realize it. Or too far gone.”

Fiin made the rumbling noise of a Stoneback channeling a thought from somewhere deep in his gut. “Gods or not, stupid and too far gone or not, it’s not like we have any option but to fight ‘em… Have we informed the Humans yet?”

“They don’t have anybody on Stinkworld right now,” Thurrsto said. “I thought it prudent to discuss this in council first.”

The Great Father sank to the floor and stretched himself out impressively with a teeth-flashing yawn. “Inform them.”

“Yes, My Father.”

“This all looks like I gotta go to Earth an’ make an extended visit, an’ do so with a delegation,” Daar decided. “‘Cuz I think what we just stumbled into, My Champions, is a path to victory. Either that or the meanest, most devious trap I ever did see.”

“How soon, My Father?” Tiyun asked. Meeyuk almost jumped: he hadn’t seen or heard him return. Good aides, it seemed, could be preternaturally discreet.

“…After Leemu’s therapy,” Daar decided. “However it turns out. Obviously it’ll hafta include all the AEC leadership, so…take ‘yer time an’ get it right. An’ didn’t I tell ‘ya t’go take the rest of the day off?!” There was a growl in his voice…but his tail was also wagging.

“I had a feeling you might need me again after all, My Father. Thank you for the jerky.”

“You an’ your damn perfect instincts…” Daar growled. “…Is there anythin’ else I need ‘ta know?” he asked of his Champions, who collectively indicated that there was not.

“Alright then. Meeyuk, you an’ I are goin’ up ‘ta the spaceport. The Empirical Razor’s waitin’ ‘fer us. The rest’a you…” Daar pant-grinned with a little more fang than usual. “…It’s Friday here on Cimbrean an’ I somehow suspect ‘yer Clans can manage without ‘ya tonight. Take the rest of the day off! Me, I’d highly recommend y’all go clean out Ninja Taco…”

Fiin in particular seemed to like the sound of that, and so did Wozni. Gyotin and Thurrsto both took the suggestion with characteristic understated good humor. Meeyuk wished he could go with them.

Instead, he had an altogether less pleasant appointment ahead of him.

One way or another, the future of his species was going to change once again in the next few hours.


Date Point: 16y2m2w1d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm

Vemik Sky-Thinker

One of the Human archaeologists was a metallurgist. Tilly was a strange and delicate name that didn’t suit her at all, Vemik thought. She had a sharp face full of metal piercings, skin full of bright pictures, and a half-shaven crest of hair the same shade of blue as a slush-ee.

She was…very pretty in a completely alien way. Slim like only a Human could be, narrow and sharp and angular. Vemik had trouble looking away, and Tilly had given him such a playful smile…

The Singer had caught him staring. He’d been apologetic, but that just made her trill, roll her eyes, and twitch her tail in a very telling way… Then shrug and walk away without saying anything but wearing a smug look.

Well! Vemik wasn’t going to let permission like that go to waste! Especially not when the much more important reason he wanted to talk with Tilly was that she knew a lot about metal.

Bronze was an interesting thing. According to Jooyun, Humans had discovered it before steel. According to Tilly, it was made from two other metals, called Copper and Tin. All Vemik knew was, the little pieces of it that the archaeologists found at their dig site came out of the ground covered in a vibrant blue-green powdery scale, and it was Tilly’s job to do… something with them. She spent a lot of time carefully cleaning the dirt off them, then placing them under various strange tools.

Vemik didn’t know what any of them did, but she was kind enough to show him when he asked. The micro--scope was amazing! She had to turn the light down for him—Humans loved painfully bright light—but it let Vemik look at very, very tiny things and see everything!

“You need to be careful, this equipment needs a gentle touch. Gentle isn’t exactly a cavemonkey specialty…”

She was teasing him, the way any woman teased a man she liked. Vemik trilled and played along.

“I can be gentle…but I very strong too! I show you!”

She rolled her eyes as he bounded away across the site, which just made Vemik trill harder. He wanted to do her a favor! Something she’d want near their plastic huts—there! The Humans kept clean drinking water in big round blue steel cans near the river and their filter, which were tall and big enough around the middle that Vemik couldn’t get his arm completely around. They were heavy when they were full too, so much that Jooyun was the only Human there who was strong enough to easily move them around. Even then, he had to wrap both his big arms around the can-things and hug them to his chest, which made him walk more like the People than a Human. He could do that just fine…but it made him tired if he had to walk like that for too long.

Not Vemik. He was stronger. He had longer arms too, so he wrapped them around two and brought them both back! Easy!! He even bounced nice and big for her, because every Human he’d ever met always grinned when he jumped high above their heads.

“Not a problem! See?!” Vemik rolled each up onto a shoulder and snarled playfully, then jumped as high as he could. It wasn’t as good as Yan could do, but he could still jump higher than everyone but Jooyun!

Tilly’s reaction was a little disappointing. “…Thank you. Put them over there, please.” Her tone wasn’t impressed. More kind of dry and patient, though she was smiling.

Vemik frowned and set them down where she asked, then knuckled back to get a look at her face. “…Did I make you mad?”

She laugh-sighed and shook her head. “No Vemik, but if you’re trying to impress me… you’re barking up the wrong tree, honey.”

…Well. He could feel himself sag unhappily. “Okay,” he said a bit sadly. It had been a long time since a woman said no to him, but a man always stopped when—

“That was impressive, though,” she admitted, and Vemik sat down again feeling a little better.

“I kinda figured it’d only be a matter of time before you wanted to pick my brains,” Tilly added, sliding a little bronze disk into another machine. This one had those strange yellow-and-black triangular pictures on the side that Vemik knew were meant to warn that the thing was dangerous in some way.

“Yes! But what does that mash-een do?!”

“It’s an X-Ray machine. It… uh… looks at the coin with a special light that we can’t see, and lets us see inside it.”

“That Humans can’t see, or the People?”

“Neither. But it’s dangerous light. I don’t know if I can explain exactly why…”

Vemik sat, and listened, and asked questions. This all had a purpose beyond spending time with an interesting woman. His bawistuh project had hit a snag, and he needed to know more about steel in order to fix it.

He’d caught a glimpse of what he needed on Earth-place, when he’d picked up the back end of their ‘Suh-burb-en’ one day and looked at how the wheels connected to the steel box they rode in. With springs! two of them, one curled up like a man might curl his tail if he was sitting down for a long time…of if he had a pretty woman in his lap, even better…

…But there was also a leaf spring. Which looked suspiciously like a lam--inated bow!

Heff had growled at Vemik after a little while so he couldn’t look for long. He didn’t want to make the short Human angry, so he put it down gently while Jooyun chuckled. Heff was…strangely scary, somehow. Even if he was friendly. Best to stay on his good side. But the idea had stuck, and when he’d first sketched his bawistuh design, he’d been thinking of that leaf spring.

So, he’d tried to make one. The result had been… It had just bent and stayed bent, then snapped. In the end he’d reforged the steel into knives and spearpoints, and they were good knives and spearpoints, but no good at all for making a bawistuh. He needed supple, strong steel that would bend and snap back when whatever was bending it let go, like a tree branch. He knew it could be done, and he knew what the Humans called it.

Spring steel.

He had no idea how to make it though, and steel was too valuable to just throw away on endless tinkering. It took the whole village a moon or two to prepare for a new melt.

That just left Human knowings. He needed either a Human who knew about metal, or a book to read. Or both!

Tilly, it seemed, wasn’t as immune to his charms as she liked to pretend. She chatted happily with Vemik about bronze, and he found it pretty easy to guide their talking toward steel instead. High carbon, soft steel, spring steel…

“I see it on Earth-place. Would be very useful! But I can’t waste good charcoal on so many melts for tinkering…”

“That makes sense. I always wondered how ancient humans first invented their techniques, you know? Did they just find things by accident, or was somebody rich enough to actually experiment?”

He’d wrapped her up in his tail and taken her high up in a Ketta to watch the sunset, her arms nicely hugged as far around his shoulders and chest as she could manage. If she maybe seemed like she was enjoying what she felt, Vemik didn’t say anything…

It was a pretty tree, too! The wind through its canopy tasted like fresh flowers and fruit, It had a comfortable branch very high up that could hold even Yan, and it also had a good view towards the east. Vemik found it a little too bright—even when low on the horizon, the sun was still blinding, and it washed all the color out of the world—but Humans could look right at it at the very dying of the day, when it was touching the world.

To be able to stare unflinching at the very home of the gods themselves…!

The other advantage to being that high up was that Professor Daniel wasn’t in earshot.

“I mean, lucky for you, spring steel isn’t that hard. The big thing is, you’re using a water quench and cold water makes for very hard, very brittle steel. I’m guessing a few of the blades you make just break when you quench them, right?”

“Some…” Vemik admitted. “But I use hot water. It helps.”

“It’ll help, yeah, but there’s this problem with… we’re getting into something called the specific heat of a liquid, right? It’s… how much energy has to go into it to make it hotter. And water has a pretty high specific heat, it takes a lot of energy. So it sucks all the heat right outta the metal very quickly. For spring steel you wanna quench in something like a light oil, so the metal cools more slowly. Aaand, I probably shouldn’t be telling you any of this…”

“I won’t tell Professor Daniel.” Vemik promised. She laughed and looked toward the sun again, kicking her bare feet lightly in the breeze. He kept his tail firmly around her waist because she didn’t have much tree-sense just yet, but Humans learned to mind their grip very fast.

“…So were you just flirting with me for information, or are you actually interested?” she asked.

Vemik hooted, trilled and decided to be honest. “Both!”

“Cheeky!” Tilly grinned, and then suddenly grew very quiet. “…Have our people ever…?”

“No. We could, the People and Human men, mostly the same shape. Not like Gaoian.” Vemik shuddered slightly, then looked at her, grinned, and puffed out his chest a little bit. “I think, the People mostly bigger! Maybe you say no because I too much man for you…”

Vemik earned some rolled eyes and a grin she tried very hard not to show. “You certainly think highly of yourself! But…” She looked him over quick while pretending not to, and blushed slightly. “Well, it would be a brave gal who took you on, that’s for sure.”

Vemik gave her his friendliest fang-filled sideways snarl. “I can be very careful, Till-ly! Also! Is very brave woman who visit other worlds! And let cave-monkey take her, uh…hundred meter up into Ketta?”

She laughed. “Flattery will get you nowhere…” she said, but the wink she gave him said otherwise.

“Maybe… But will it get me spring steel? Ooh! And how it works!”

“How it works? That would take a trip through quantum mechanics, and be just as hard to explain as magnets. Which is funny because it’s the same thing at the bottom that makes both work!”

“Okay. But how to make it?”

“I could get in a lot of trouble… Or, well. Daniel might give me a telling-off at least. It’s not like there’s an actual law against telling you anything…”

“Maybe…” Vemik thought quickly. “Well, the People are strong, and the gods gave us the forest. Nothing here smarter, nothing stronger. Not many bigger. But the gods made stronger things on the grass where there is more room, teach us that always, there is bigger, meaner thing…but sometimes, Brown One get jealous of the forest, and prey on us.”

“I know. I saw the drone footage…” Tilly sighed and turned to look eastward toward the plains. “…But I mean, the whole point of not just shooting the thing was you guys have to do it yourselves. Otherwise we’re Taking from you, right?”

“That Brown One will prey on us again. The People…make very good food. They stop wanting to eat other things. And when he attack us again, many of us die Taking it. I’ll be there. I don’t want to be eaten. When I Give my body, it will be to the tribe. In many hands of years I hope.”

She shivered, glanced guiltily at Professor Daniel’s hut, then sighed. “…Alright.” She half-turned on the branch to face him, looking suddenly very serious. “So, like I said, you’re gonna need to find a way to make a light oil…”

“Start from roots and climb up. What is oil?”

“…Oh boy. Okay, basics first…”

They sat up in the tree going over what oil was and what Manganese was, and what alloys were and other things until the sun was gone and the night-creatures were singing their quiet song among the trees. Vemik carried her down to the ground while there was still enough light for a safe climb, and she promised to order some books.

She had warned him that he’d need to make a very deep study of much of Human sky-magic, and that Professor Daniel would almost certainly find out sooner or later.

That didn’t matter. The Professor meant well, and Vemik trusted him—respected him—but he was not a man of the People. He couldn’t tell any of them what to do. So long as the weapon was ready before the Brown One tried to Take the People again, that was all that mattered.

Tilly surprised him by giving him a funny sort of kiss, right in the middle of his face where Humans kept their nose. Then she went back to her hut with a grin and a giggle, and Vemik went back to his.

He had many thoughts spinning through his head, but the Singer was waiting for him and had left the baby with her sister for the night.

“Fun time?” she asked, baring her fangs in a cheeky grin while her tail twitched suggestively.

“I learned much!” Vemik hooted. “No ‘fun’ though.”

Singer actually seemed disappointed in an amused way. “Why not?!”

“Eh. Humans.” Vemik shrugged. “I think she’s a little scared. She wants to, though!” He snuggled up to the Singer and wrapped her up completely in arms, legs and tail.

“Hmm.” Singer’s tail batted against the back of his head. “Seems a shame to waste an evening…”

She surprised him by twisting, pushing, and pinning him on his back so she could nip him playfully on the side of his neck. “Maybe she wants a stronger man!”

That got his fire going, and he was proud that few men could claim Singer at all. Mostly, she claimed them. She was a strong woman. But Vemik was a strong man and could flatten almost anyone these days. He broke out of her pin and tumbled them both over, pinned her in turn, then bore down on her with the hardest squeeze he could manage.

She gasped as he smashed the breath right out of her lungs.

“Maybe I show you strong…”

He had his fun that evening after all.


Date Point: 16y2m2w1d AV
Governor-General’s Official Residence, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Governor Sir Jeremy Sandy

“…Well, look at them!”

Sir Jeremy discreetly half-turned on the pretense of putting his drink down and studied the new arrivals. Folctha’s most famous family were being introduced to the other guests by Ambassador Rockefeller, and he had to agree with Annette Winton’s quiet exclamation. They were quite a sight.

Apparently Miss Chang and Miss Buehler had decided to make fashion statements of their pregnancies and were wearing dresses that subtly accentuated rather than hid the fact. A sleek, dark blue cheongsam in Miss Chang’s case, and a dignified wine-bottle-green piece for Miss Buehler. Not a foot wrong there, as far as he could see.

They were accompanied by frankly the three most handsome males in the room, two of whom weren’t even adolescents yet. The young Buehler brothers cut charming figures and looked strangely comfortable to Sir Jeremy’s eyes… But the same could not, alas, be said for Mister Etsicitty. All the tailoring in the world—and he was exquisitely tailored tonight—couldn’t make him look like he wasn’t far out of his element. And where Miss Buehler’s solution to her nerves was straight-backed composure, his was more…

“He looks like a friendly caveman who has no idea what to do,” Winton sighed.

“Indeed. I think that will pass, though. I’m told it was a task to bring him ‘round on formalwear.”

“I suppose I can’t blame him. The poor man spent six years all alone, after all. It’s a wonder he’s here at all. I daresay I’d be a wreck.”

Sir Jeremy smiled as he watched the Ambassador introduce the family to the Duke of Oxford, who had a knack for setting nervous newcomers at ease and a good way with young men. They were in good hands.

“Anyway,” he said, deciding that the best thing for the newcomers was if they weren’t stared at, “You were saying about the Goldpaws.”

“Ugh, yes. They’re fiendish!” Winton stopped watching the family and returned to her previous complaint. “Do you know, their negotiators are pushing for seven percent? And they’re managing to make it sound almost reasonable!”

“I’m sure they are saying the same of our people…” Sir Jeremy replied, evenly.

“I should jolly well hope so!”

That conversation, and a half-dozen others much like it, meant that by the time the guests were called to sit down for the first course he had worked up quite an appetite.

He’d used what influence he had to ensure that the space explorers and the young men with them were seated close enough to make easy conversation with, and to overhear.

It had, sadly, meant sitting them at the same table as Nick Woodward, the man who owned half of New Botany and all of its sheep. The uncharitable joke that he’d married one of them was of course absolutely not welcome at an event such as tonight’s dinner, but it was very true that Diane Woodward had a… a certain ovine thoughtlessness that her husband was unfortunately quite blind to.

One that lamentably manifested itself in a pointed comment about the value of traditional marriage and how many people should be involved.

That revealed an interesting dynamic right away. Allison briefly had a look of cold fury on her face, but a hand-squeeze by Xiù bade her to hold her tongue. With that encouragement, she successfully adjusted her expression into one of utter blank neutrality that was arguably even more intimidating, and focused on her soup.

Julian…handled it with a folksy and surprisingly effective diplomacy.

“I mean…that’s all true. Being honest though, we didn’t plan any of this. We were, uh, all alone out there, y’know? Things just sort of…fell into place. We needed each other. Still do. It isn’t traditional, but heck, neither was being abducted by aliens.”

“Nor is raising another family’s children,” Mrs. Woodward commented, sharply.

“No, it’s not. Uh…Their mother means well, I think. The tradition just…didn’t work out. And it wouldn’t have been, uh, Christian of us to turn them out on the street when they showed up.”

Sir Jeremy awarded that round to Mister Etsicitty.

“And what do the young men themselves think?” Woodward asked, leaning forward to look past him at the smaller figures on his far side.

Another interesting dynamic manifested in the way the brothers glanced at each other, not nervously but in a moment of communication. Clearly they’d been put on the spot in moments like this before.

“…We believe in keeping family matters private, ma’am,” one of them said after a moment. Sir Jeremy almost laughed at the precocity of it.

Julian, however, was not so amused. He leaned forward and gave a very faint growl. “You do not put them on the spot, ma’am. They are innocent. If you have issues with any of this, you are welcome to say it to me.”

His tone was quiet, assertive, and polite. He really didn’t need to be menacing at all; his rather unique presence did the real talking.

Sir Jeremy decided that, so far, Etsicitty had handled a rude socialite with aplomb. But the time had come to help him quit while he was ahead.

He leaned over and spoke at just the right volume to make himself heard. “Mrs. Woodward, I did not invite you to this occasion to harangue our Special Envoy to the Ten’Gewek, nor harass his adopted family.”

Mister Woodward had turned beet red. “Dear…”

It belatedly dawned on Mrs. Woodward that she was Committing A Faux Pas. She bleated out an apology, and hastily changed the subject to something more anodyne.

Julian’s mannerisms were definitely much more formal and distant for the rest of the evening, though. Shame.

Bringing the young brothers along had absolutely been the right call. One normally wouldn’t do such a thing, but their obvious composure contrasted well with Julian’s polite uncertainty. Well…mostly uncertain. Regarding his family there was absolutely no doubt where his priorities lie. They were just as much a guide for him through the dinner jungle as Xiù, and it was clear he was absolutely smitten by all of them.

In fact, Xiù was the real gem at the table, and managed to find an inroads to getting Julian and Nick talking about livestock, a conversation that dominated the main course and dessert as far as Sir Jeremy could tell. One little nudge in the right direction at the right moment, and she steered the conversation effortlessly onto something both substantial and agreeable to all involved.

With that table firmly in such capable hands, Sir Jeremy felt able to relax and spread his attention more liberally to his other guests.

He was drawn back to them, however, by a comment from Miss Buehler as the coffee arrived.

“…Mind you, the real enthusiast for livestock would be D— uh, the Great Father of the Gao,” she said. “His Naxas herd is huge.”

“And he likes nothing more than wrangling them himself,” Xiù agreed.

“Well, good on him!” Nick Woodward agreed. “It’s good to stay in touch. You’ve gotta know how to handle them on the ground if you’re gonna own them.”

“It’s hard to imagine the big fella wrangling sheep, I gotta be honest. Naxas are…ornery. That’s what he likes about ‘em.”

“Are you kidding? He’d love it!” Allison said. “He’d play sheepdog.”

Xiù nodded with a merry giggle. “He’d make the joke himself if he were here, too!”

“…You’re acquainted with the Great Father?” For the first time that evening, Diane Woodward looked impressed at them.

“Yes, we all are. He…maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but the last time he visited, he gave both the boys a ride on his back.”

“He can go so fast!” Tristan blurted out with a massive grin. His brother kicked his ankle under the table and again Sir Jeremy had to stifle the urge to laugh. There were real children under there, not just perfectly polite little princes.

“Yeah,” Julian chuckled, “He’s the kind of fella who really, really just wants to be a regular guy. But nobody else plays the game as good as he does, so…”

“I had no idea you were so well-connected!” There was the Diane Woodward thoughtless streak again. She really was appallingly artless. Behind her, her husband visibly resisted the urge to bury his face in his hands.

“I believe Miss Chang is also a personal friend and confidant of the Mother-Supreme,” Sir Jeremy interjected, and gave the subject of his comment a twinkling smile to let her know he was on her side.

She smiled warmly at him, and then nodded for the Woodwards’ benefit. “Friends, yes. And both are very much the kind of friendships where we try not to impose.”

“I… see.” Diane cleared her throat.

“Well, if he ever wants to play sheepdog, I’d be honored to give him the chance,” Nick said, hurriedly. “A man like him works hard and plays hard, I bet.”

“If it ever comes up, I will let him know,” Julian said amicably.

Satisfied once again that there would be no Incidents at that table, Sir Jeremy returned to conversing with his table-guests and was able to safely put the Woodwards, Buehlers, Etsicitty and Chang out of his mind for the rest of the night.

He met Rockefeller’s eye before he did so though, and they shared a mutual moment of satisfaction. Sir Jeremy tilted his wine glass toward the Ambassador in a gesture of acknowledgement, received a similar glass-tip in reply, and that was that: In front of the right people, the Special Envoy and his family had said and done the right things. The test, in fact, had been passed with flying colours.

And thank God, because frankly he had no idea what they’d have done if it hadn’t been.


Date Point: 16y2m2w1d AV
Lakeside, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Xiù Chang

Julian and Allison were never more frightening than when they were frozen over with cold fury. Both of them were pretty much on the same wavelength when it came to that particular emotion.

Only the fact that it made the boys nervous stopped them from really indulging in it. They softened up the moment they realized they were making Tristan and Ramsey tense. Still, it was there under the surface. Neither of them shed anger quite that easily.

They buried it well enough until they were home and the boys had said their good-nights and gone upstairs, though. At which point Julian yanked his tie off like it was a snake trying to bite him.

“Fuck!”

“Ugh, yeah,” Allison agreed readily. She flumped down onto the couch with a groan. “‘I didn’t know you were so well-connected!’ What a bitch!”

Xiù sighed and decided they all needed some tea and the chance to chill out. “She’s just got more money than sense,” she said, heading into the kitchen. “Don’t let it get to you. Come on, the rest of the night was pretty good wasn’t it?”

“Whose idea was it to stick us on that table, though?” Julian complained.

“Probably your boss,” Xiù opined. “I doubt it was an accident.”

“Lovely boss you got there, baby,” Allison griped to Julian, who sighed and shrugged off his jacket.

“I bet he’ll explain it all later on and it’ll be all reasonable but… ugh. Fuck it, I’m gonna go downstairs and blow off steam. I have to get ready for this Corti-slash-Ten’Gewek summit in the next little while too. I’ll…be up later.”

Allison sighed. “I wanna lift heavy stuff too, now.” She looked ruefully down at her belly and massaged it through her dress. “…Probably a bad idea.”

“That’s why I’ve made you tea,” Xiù said firmly. She set the cup down firmly on the coffee table and Allison pulled a face.

“Tea? Really?”

“Really.”

Al sighed again. “…Yes ma’am.”

“Good girl! You should have one too, bǎobèi.”

Julian shook his head. “I got energy to burn off. Feel like I’ve got fuckin’ bees under my skin.”

Xiù nodded sympathetically, and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. He stooped to kiss Allison as well, then thumped his way to the basement, dropping his expensive clothes as he went. A few minutes later, the pounding sound of heavy metal managed to faintly penetrate the floor.

If there was one downside to the way he’d built himself up over the last several years, it was his new surplus of aggression. Intensity was hot, but Xiu definitely preferred Julian when he was a sleepy wolf rather than a caged bear. She sighed to herself and picked up his clothes.

He’d probably be much cooled down when he came up.

“…I should help,” Allison said guilty as Xiù grabbed some clothes hangers from the laundry room and made sure the jacket and trousers at least weren’t going to get creased.

“You’re fine,” Xiù promised her. “I like taking care of you, remember?”

“I know, but… Ugh.” Al sipped her tea, and Xiù suppressed her amusement at seeing her not want to admit how good it was. “…I feel a lot like he does right now. I wanna be doing… something.”

Satisfied that the expensive clothes were safe from harm, Xiù sat down next to her, cuddled up, and kissed her. “I know. I’m really proud of all of you.”

“You are?”

“Of course! She really was a bitch.”

Al snort-giggled, sipped her tea again, then set it aside and wrapped her up in a hug. “…Wo ai ni. You always know what to say, I don’t know how you do it.”

Xiù felt her face glow happily. “You’re not bad at saying the right thing yourself…” she said.

“Hmm… Oh! I think I’ve settled on a name. And I know Julian will like it, so I wanted to see what you think.”

Xiù sat up to look at her. “Okay, fire away!”

“What do you think of Anna?”

Xiù couldn’t help giggling. “…Yeah, he’s gonna love it.”

“And what do you think?” Allison insisted.

“I like it too. Is having a name that starts with A gonna be a tradition, or…?”

“Well, my grandmother was Amelia, my mother is Amanda… so yeah, there’s a theme there.” Al frowned at herself. “…Is that weird? I mean, I don’t exactly like my family, but I kinda want to keep that going…”

“It’s worth remembering where you came from, I think.”

“…Yeah…” Al picked up her tea again. “So. Anna?”

Xiù picked up hers and tapped the cups together. “Anna.”

Al looked down and toasted her daughter. “…Here’s to giving her a good family.”

“Gānbēi!”

They drained their cups, and Al stood up to refill them. All in all, Xiù decided, as much as she liked a good workout herself, she preferred this way of chilling out after a stressful night. And when it came down to it… dealing with one snooty nouveau riche socialite was a small price to pay for what she had now.

Now if only she could teach Julian and Al how to let the little stuff like that slide off them, things would be about perfect… Or…No. They were who they were, and she loved who they were. She loved their passion.

She wouldn’t change that for all the worlds.


Date Point: 16y2m2w1d AV
Directorate Starship Empirical Razor, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Daar, Great Father of the Gao

The odds were good. Daar kept telling himself that. Leemu was prob’ly gonna survive.

It was weird how much the fate of one silverfur he’d never met or spoken to was affecting him. Considering his office that was prob’ly both a strength or a foible of his, but, well. Fuck that. Leemu mattered exactly because he was a random victim that Daar had the power to help.

If he couldn’t care about one random silverfur, how could he care about billions?

Of course, the silverfur had friends. There was a tough an’ seasoned ‘ol human with a bit of a paunch named Preed, and a rather strapping young associate from Stoneback who’d had a really bad turn of luck. Nofl, bein’ a ‘shroom-munchin’ genius, had restored much of Gorku’s ability to speak, though the young male was still lookin’ kinda silly with a quarter of his skull shaved to the skin. It had worked though: not perfect but Nofl was confident Gorku’s speech would get better over time, with practice and therapy.

Assumin’ he wanted to even try. Both of ‘em were depressed as balls. Daar could smell it so strongly when he’d entered their room, he’d almost gagged. He didn’t know much about Wai-ing and the one he got from Preed seemed formal and respectful, but also slow an’ resigned. An’ Gorku was an inch away from cowering at Daar’s mere presence…

Oh well. There was something he could do about that at least. Daar play-bowed and flicked an ear, and they made instant friends in the most Stoneback possible way.

Daar won of course, but he was friendly about it. Preed cracked a smile at least, especially when a flailing tail knocked on the observation window and Director Tran shot an impatient glare at them, shook his head and returned to his work.

Daar helped his flattened new friend up to his paws. “There! Much better! Also! I have maybe good news!”

The two of ‘em perked up according to their species. Gorku was the first to speak. “Good news for Leemu? We thought he was, uh, too sick to help.”

“Well, I still can’t say why his case is so important.” Daar shifted uncomfortably. He hated withholding information, but needs must. “What I can say is that Leemu accidentally holds the keys to a lotta mysteries ‘bout our people. Nofl and Third Director out there have a treatment plan. They’re givin’ him pretty good odds, considerin. Better’n half. I sorta think…maybe a little better’n half. An’ that’s why I’m here.”

Daar looked over at Brother Tiyun. “You get the arrangements taken care of?”

“Yes, My Father. Got a good price, too…”

Daar chittered, “Of course you did! I still ain’t buyin’ into ‘yer investment scheme though.”

Tiyun was always so teasable. “It’s a perfectly well-constructed opportunity!”

“Uh-huh. Anyhoo. I’m also worried ‘bout you two, an’ I know ‘yer, uh, both without means just now…so I got you a house. Nothing too fancy,” Daar said before anyone could object, “An’ I also got a Goldpaw ‘fer a personal negotiator so, y’know. But still. It’s yours. Oh, an’ you get an allowance ‘fer a while too. I’m sure my people’ll work out the details later.”

“Oh…” Preed looked lost. In fact, Daar could smell he might just cry. Humans were awfully independent-minded sometimes and he didn’t know exactly what to do, but maybe some affection was a good idea. He padded over with his head low and hugged. Gently.

“Uh…there’s more too. The local Humans are helpin’ to set ‘yer home up, and the Ambassadors are doing something too… I dunno, honestly. I’ve been leavin’ it to Tiyun here.”

Tiyun duck-nodded. “You’re being provided with furniture, some garden tools—you will need to keep and maintain grass now—a working kitchen and a pantry. The last one was done by the Thai Ambassador’s staff personally, so I’m told it has all your culture’s staples. I…am ignorant of the details beyond that, sorry.”

“It’s just to get you on ‘yer paws…er, feet again,” Daar re-assured. “I kinda suspect ‘yer gonna be pre-occupied gettin’ Leemu back on his. He comes outta this, he’s gonna prol’ly make a full recovery…but he’s gonna be a wreck. An’, uh…well, I can’t say just yet, but all I’ll say is ‘yer gonna have ‘yer paws full. Hands. Whatever.”

“That is… very generous of you. I don’t know how we can repay you…” Preed began. Beside him Gorku duck-nodded fervently.

“Y-yes. We’re j-j-j…” he sighed, took a deep breath. “…Just a chef a-and a-a llllaborer.”

“And personal trainer. Don’t unnersell ‘yerself! Anyway, that’s not me bein’ charitable, unnerstand? That’s ‘yer payment. I’m gonna be employin’ you two ‘fer now as Leemu’s caretaking staff, ‘kay? It’s important to me that he gets better. I want you two better, too. ‘Ya think ‘yer up to that?”

Gorku duck-nodded enthusiastically. Preed’s nod was slower, more solemn and sadder.

“It seems I won’t be going back to the old country after all…” he said.

“I bet ‘ya can still visit!”

“I hope so. I always promised myself that if I ever came back, I would go to see the Emerald Buddha…”

“Emerald Buddha?”

Preed nodded. “The palladium of my home country. A very holy thing…”

“Well…do this for me, an’ maybe I’ll come with you. If that’s okay,” Daar added hastily. “Bein’ honest I jus’ want an excuse to visit Earth again!”

“Maybe it would be good for you to see more of it than just the West…” Preed said, then trailed off as, out in the treatment theatre, Nofl and Tran stepped away from Leemu’s supine form.

In response to a curt gesture from Tran, the air around the hapless silverfur shimmered and started to glow with a noticeable blue-shift. Leemu got blurry around the edges, as the subtle shifts and twitches of his sleeping body and the rise and fall of his chest accelerated past Daar’s ability to keep up. The information display on the glass informed the spectators that they were giving him eight hours of time in a little less than a minute, a shift so dramatic that even his body heat became visible as a faint golden glow.

“The whole idea o’ time acceleration hurts my brain,” Daar admitted in a grumbling tone.

“I used a small one in my kitchen,” Preed murmured softly. “No need to leave the bread to rise overnight, just put it in the accelerator in the morning.”

“They put out a stupid amount o’ heat, though. How’d you get rid of it on a station?”

Preed shrugged. “Powered my oven and hot plate. Don’t know how the station handled it after that.”

Before Daar could muse on the subject, Nofl looked up and gestured to them through the window. The blue warning light over the door flicked off at the same moment as the acceleration field dropped and Leemu returned to the same clock speed as everything else on Cimbrean.

Gorku stepped aside for him, and Daar shouldered through the door warily as Nofl took a tissue sample from Leemu’s lower belly and inserted it into a microscope.

“One moment, darling. I just need to see what progress our patient is making…” he chirped. Behind him, Tran fastidiously sanitized his hands after dropping a pair of disposable gloves in the incinerator.

“The results so far are encouraging,” he said.

“How so?” Preed asked, eagerly.

“The patient is alive.”

“…Oh.”

Gorku keened softly and tentatively approached his friend, sniffing mournfully. Daar didn’t need to get close, but the poor Associate was damn near nose-blind.

From Daar’s perspective though… Leemu still smelled wrong. But not as wrong. Hopefully that was a good sign, and not a byproduct of the sterile environment.

“…Well?” he asked, after waiting what he felt was long enough.

Nofl didn’t turn away from the microscope at first, just flapped a hand to request patience. When he did turn around, though, his expression was as controlled and unreadable as any top-tier Directorate member’s.

Then he blinked slowly and smiled softly, an expression of deep satisfaction for a Corti.

“It’s working,” he said.



++END CHAPTER 54++



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The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 55.