Chapter 55: Reinvention
Date Point: 16y2m3w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Daar, Great Father of the Gao
“Hey, this ain’t a bad little house at all!!”
Daar followed in behind Gorku, who was carrying a completely exhausted Leemu on his back and had to mind his steps.
“Humans know how to build houses arright,” he agreed. “Maybe with a few extra tricks they learned off’a the Gao…”
Actually, that exchange had gone both ways, and Folctha’s ravenous appetite for new housing had created an important local industry: Kit homes. The factory was a ways out down the coast toward New Penzance, and via its private jump array it imported wood from Earth, aluminium and steel from Gao, copper from Ceres, pre-made plastic components from Lucent, as well as locally-sourced glass, concrete and gravel by road.
What it produced was houses. Some assembly required. But all that had to happen was, after the terrain levelling and foundation was complete, a couple of trucks would arrive, drop off a pair of containers which got turned into a nice sturdy deck at the end, and the whole house would come together with some busy worker activity like a mushroom appearing overnight.
Interior finishing of course took a bit longer. It always did, people never really thought ‘bout that bit. But at least most of the home’s permanent systems were already assembled and ready to go. Just add air handling, a water heater, and some grav plating…good to go!
The grav-plates were Gaoian make, too. That made Daar extra happy.
Preed Chadesekan followed in alongside Daar, who was also walking on four-paw to give him something to rest against. Daar didn’t mind. He didn’t show it, but Daar could smell the faint, slightly acrid traces of pain chemistry emanating from the old Human’s knees. Luckily, the top of his back was a bit higher than Preed’s hips, which meant Preed could comfortably rest his right hand right in the middle of Daar’s shoulder blades, gently scritching in an absentmindedly affectionate gesture as they walked along. He could tell Brother Tiyun was silently fretting about dignity or whatever—it was his aide’s job to fret about such things, after all—but that was okay. Walking apparently helped with Preed’s pain, and Daar was the kind o’ ‘Back who took any excuse to be outdoors, so…
Besides, Daar alway respected his elders. And truth be told, this case made it hard for Daar to wash his paws clean.
One of the few advantages of being an absolute ruler was that he could exercise his prerogative on what was important. Brothers like Sartori, their office had all sortsa official duties and restrictions, which was nice ‘cuz it both limited his responsibility, and protected the people against a mad tyrant. The downside to that, though, was that it was hard for someone in a position like him to take a personal interest in a thing when it mattered.
Daar had no official restriction on what he could or could not do. The only thing that constrained his paw was himself, and the consequences of his actions. That was an awesome and terrible responsibility, but it did mean he could do things like, well, take interest in a case about ordinary people in an extraordinary situation. They were little in more ways than just their size; they didn’t have the means to stand up against something like this. But, they were good people, who were doing their best, and Daar wasn’t about to let them suffer needlessly for it.
The workers had really outdone themselves. The house in question was a single-floor rambling kinda thing on a nicely solid concrete slab, with all sortsa considerations for whatever species might wanna live in it. Strong air filtering, independent gravity plating, a trench commode for gaoian sensibilities, scratching-plates at the outside doors…
The master bedroom had been converted into a nice nest-bed, too! One of the other bedrooms was an office, and the “garage” had been converted into a very nice studio for Leemu’s physical therapy, an’ being honest, Gorku’s sanity too.
Also, the house had been equipped with double-wide doorways and had the floor directly on the concrete slab which made it easier for big ‘ol ‘Backs like Daar (or his bestest human friends!) to pay a visit. That was good thinking!
And a good thing too, ‘cuz Leemu was up on his feet and…well, the poor damn lil’ guy was a trainwreck. His body prob’ly hurt worse than a beating from Warhorse, he had all sorts of suppressed genetic code activating itself which couldn’t have been too pleasant, but much worser than all that was what was going on in his head.
The poor silverfur had been trapped for days in a Droud-fugue. That meant days of having every pleasure receptor in his body activated, every pain or discomfort receptor brutally suppressed, and his whole mood steered into a hell of constant, profound, all-pervasive bliss.
Coming out of that to the gray, cold, awkward world of actual fleshly needs had ‘ta be a special kinda torture. Leemu could barely stand up, and the least little discomfort sent a symphony of agony through him. He ate listlessly and without interest, barely reacted to even a friendly back-scratch or a female’s presence, and mostly seemed to lie in bed without the will to even get up and look after himself. He was, for now, the most profoundly depressed being Daar had ever met.
Openpaw and the Human doctors had been collaborating with the Corti to consider his treatment, and so far the verdict was that some sort of antidepressant therapy might be needed while his brain found its equilibrium. Nobody really knew the right way to go about that for the moment though, so the first and most importantest step was support from his friends.
Preed and Gorku were already warming up to the challenge.
“It is quite nice! My kitchen has everything I could have ever wanted…”
Gorku gently set his friend down on his feet in the middle of the living room. “See?” he enthused. “They’re t-takin’ good c-c-care of us…”
Leemu just curled up in a crumpled heap on the floor after giving the room a profoundly disinterested look-and-sniff. Gorku looked toward Daar with the most hurt expression…
Time to do something about that. He padded over to Leemu and curled up right next to him.
“It’s gonna get better, Leemu. I promise.”
It took Leemu a long few seconds to summon the energy to reply. When he did, his tone was bleak rather than hopeful. “…Will it?”
Daar duck-nodded furiously. “The Humans have experience wit’ stuff like this. They say there’s some medicines that’ll mebbe help take the edge off, they jus’ gotta do some testin’ first. But you gotta hang on ‘till they’re ready, y’hear? Can you do that for me?”
Leemu gave the most half-assed, exhausted duck-nod and put his head down. He didn’t look inclined to move from that spot, as though even taking any kind of step to alleviate his misery was too much effort.
The Humans had said the first week would be rough, but this–!
Daar shook his pelt out. He had his briefing, he couldn’t waver. Gorku and Preed did too, and they approached tentatively to offer their support.
Preed seemed to know what to do. He sat down, put a hand on his friend’s back, and said nothing. For whatever reason, Leemu seemed to relax just a slight touch. He keened so quietly Daar barely heard it, then shut his eyes.
“…Could I have a cup of tea, please?” Preed asked after a moment.
“I’ll get it,” Daar agreed and followed his nose into the kitchen.
…How did someone make tea, anyway? Hot water, tea bag…something like that.
He didn’t find tea bags. He found a loose bag of dark green curls in a box marked ‘Oolong tea.’ He transferred a spoonful of that into a coffee cup, considered it, and decided that there was nowhere near enough in there, so added two more spoons. One splashing cupful of boiling water later, and he had achieved Tea. He hoped.
Preed accepted it without any comment beyond a polite “thank-you,” so it musta been pretty good. With that chore outta the way, Daar helped Gorku with unpacking the trio’s meager possessions and getting the gym equipment set up. Then, of course, the gym equipment needed testing…
He returned to the living room after a happy hour or so of seeing just how strong the exiled associate was to find that neither Preed nor Leemu had moved very far. Preed had apparently fallen asleep despite lying flat on his back on a thin carpet and had forgotten his tea, which had gone cold by his foot so Daar made him a replacement. Gorku did his very best not to complain, and headed toward the bedroom to prepare the nest.
…Sleep. Yeah. That was a good idea.
He nudged Preed gently awake. Leemu’s ear flicked and he watched Daar listlessly out of the corner of his eye, but otherwise didn’t move. The elderly human groaned and sat up, twisting and stretching as he yawned.
“…Surprisingly comfortable floor,” he admitted.
“I made you a new cup of tea,” Daar said, handing it to him.
Aww, nuts. He was being polite, Daar could tell. “No good, huh?”
“…Honestly, it’s terrible. But I do appreciate the effort.”
Daar chittered ruefully. “Naydi forbid me any caffeine a while ago, so…Anyway.” Daar yawned and stretched out luxuriantly. “It’s gettin’ late an’ Leemu needs his sleep.”
“Leemu? You heard that.”
“Get up, please.” Preed maneuvered in front of him and looked his friend in the eye.
To Daar’s astonishment, Leemu groaned and heaved himself up onto four-paw. He moved like he was wearing the whole house on his back, but he did it, and staggered lethargically toward the bedroom with Preed at his side, praising him on his victory.
At least it was easy enough to get Leemu into the nest-bed. He seemed to want nothing more than to curl up in the middle of it and stop being anything. He was immediately the heart of an affectionate Gaoian sleep-huddle, with Gorku on one side and Daar joining on the other.
Daar gave a plantitive look toward Preed, who hovered at the edge of the pile. Humans were always a bit weird about Gaoian sleeping habits, but whatever. This was for Leemu. The Human sighed and tried to find a comfortable spot on the cushion’s edge. Daar didn’t have time for that. He grumbled, pulled preed right into the center of the pile, and snuggled up tightly with him and Leemu. Gorku wrapped around the other side and just like that, the nest was warm, comfortable, and ready for sleep.
Preed sighed and tried to relax. Daar put his head down, and…
…Woke up. Morning sunlight speared him right in the eye as he shifted his head and he groaned. He must have crashed hard last night. All that hard work and stress catching up on him.
The other three were still asleep. Preed had at some point or another managed to escape to the edge of the bed where he was asleep on his back and snoring softly: Gorku and Leemu were wrapped around each other and the only way to tell where one ended and the other began was their different fur color.
As gently and stealthily as he could, Daar rolled out of the nest, closed the blind to spare the trio the same rude awakening as him, and grabbed his communicator. Sure enough, there were no urgent or emergency messages for him—he’d definitely have been woken for a crisis—but there were a lot of neglected requests for his attention.
Well, he’d only ever really been able spare the one night. But felt better for leaving done something.
Cautiously, he sniffed at Leemu to be certain. The wrong smell was gone, completely. He’d been worried it might come back, but that didn’t seem to have happened… instead there was another, newer scent that Daar couldn’t quite place…it smelled right somehow, but he’d never smelled it on a Gaoian before… Something that reminded him of…
He shook the thought off. Possibly it was just an aroma Leemu’d picked up from Preed, or the Corti, or the new house, or any one of a hundred other places. If not… It was something to ponder, later.
He would have liked to say proper goodbyes, but he just didn’t have the heart to wake them. Some instinct told him that getting a proper restful night’s sleep would be essential to Leemu’s recovery. Instead, he slipped away and returned to the role of Great Father.
It was time for a gear shift anyway. He had malware to delete.
Date Point: 16y2m3w AV
Hampshire, England, UK, Earth
Ambassador Sir Patrick Knight
Knight had never been interested in a big impressive display-of-wealth sort of home. When he’d had the place built, he’d done so with a view to two concerns: Privacy, and energy efficiency.
Nowadays of course the old concerns about carbon footprint were a thing of the past. Powering one’s own home was as simple as installing a collector field and drinking up the sunlight for storage in a power wall. But it was good to know that while CO2 emissions had still been a concern, he’d been doing his part. The long clawback down to pre-industrialization levels was going to take decades, but at least he’d minimized his contribution.
Privacy, on the other hand, never became obsolete. It was a privilege, and he was acutely aware of just how lucky he was to be able to sit at his desk in front of a floor-to-ceiling window and look out into the woods behind the house. Right now they were cold and scrabbly with no leaves on the trees and no bluebells carpeting the ground, but that would change. And they were still beautiful in their own way.
He lived a privileged life, really. Not an easy one—one didn’t become commander of the Royal Navy Spaceborne Service and then Earth’s representative the Interspecies Dominion Security Council just by having a silver spoon in the mouth—but all things considered it hadn’t been a hard one either. He had money, a good home, influence…
“Patrick? You still with me?”
Knight looked back at the monitor in front of him. Martin Tremblay gave him a wry look. Age was catching up with the former Supreme Allied Commander now, but not without a hell of a fight. Martin was too proud to let his good looks fade away on him. So, wrinkles and white hair and aching back be damned, he was still clean-shaven and square-jawed and well-dressed.
And lonely. There weren’t many dating opportunities for a gay man in his seventies, and Martin had never really had a family. He clung to what friendships and connections he had very tightly, therefore.
“Sorry, old man. It’s just a nice day here. I was appreciating the view.”
“Lucky. It’s a frozen hell over here.”
“Well, that’s what you get for living in the Northern Wastes.”
“Patrick, you live further north than I do.”
“Yes, but I, my friend, have the good sense to live on an island, and avoid that lovely continental climate.”
“How’s the rain treating you?”
“Fresh and invigorating, thank you for asking.”
They chuckled at each other. It was old banter, but comfortable.
“How’s Ellen?” Martin asked.
“Today is a good day. I think. At least, I heard her up and about earlier and Katriane isn’t here, so…” Patrick glanced at the door. His daughter had suffered a traumatic brain injury during the battle of Gao, and gone too long without access to Cruezzir for it to heal properly. Frankly, it was a miracle she’d survived considering that the most medical attention she had for a few days was bed rest and painkillers.
She’d been left… impaired. Some days were worse than others. On her best days, she was completely herself, completely active and just as sharp and driven and fearsome as ever. On bad days, she needed a carer. And she had been very, very clear indeed when she could that she didn’t want her old man to be that carer. Patrick had to agree: Ellen had a lot of years ahead of her, him not so many, and not so able in body either.
Hence Katriane, a professional carer. All Ellen had to do was hit a large button next to her bed, and Katriane would be there within half an hour in her Land Rover, armed with everything they might need to make the day go smoothly. She was an absolute godsend and Knight liked her enormously… but in a perverse way, he was glad not to see her on any given day.
It was all paid for by the Royal Navy of course. All part of the deal, with injuries suffered in the line of duty. But it wasn’t how Knight had wanted her career to turn out.
It was what it was, he supposed.
“Glad to hear it,” Martin smiled. “And the symposium planning?”
“Oh, that’s flying along almost faster than I can keep up!” Knight groaned. “The Dominion is… understandably eager to make progress.”
“Well, they nearly got eaten. I bet that focuses the mind.”
“One would think.” Knight sipped his tea then put the cup down. “It’s going ahead. Planet Rauwryhr, in the not so distant future. I’m rather looking forward to it, I believe we’ll be the first humans to visit. Apparently the Great Trees are quite a spectacle.”
“Yes, I did some reading. The largest tree on Earth is called General Sherman, it’s in the Sequoia National Park in California. By the standards of a Rauwran Great Tree, it’s a baby. Quite a spectacle indeed.”
“You know you’re welcome to attend.”
“I was hoping you’d say that.”
“Well, I daresay your perspective would be very welcome.”
Martin shorted. “Oh, I see. Can’t just invite a friend, you need to justify it, eh?”
Knight laughed. “You wouldn’t want me to be accused of abusing my influence would you?”
“I’m sure your impeccable reputation would survive… how is security looking?”
“The Rauwryhr have granted us permission to bring a few of our ships, as much for demonstration purposes as anything. I thought a wargame between the US Navy and the Royal Navy would be a fun showcase… and good training.”
“Or between Humans and Gaoians,” Martin suggested.
Knight sighed. “The Kwmbwrw kicked up a stink about the Gao attending. I don’t know what Henenwgwyr’s specific problem with them is, but she seems determined to leave them out in the cold. I objected and so did the Rauwryhr, but she made it very clear that either the Gao attended or the Kwmbwrw did. Not both.”
“That’s… foolish. Have we made our displeasure clear?”
“Crystal.” Knight sighed and shrugged. “Sometimes, the Kwmbwrw are just incredibly alien. Their idea of brinkmanship is my idea of lunacy. And the Grandmatriarchs have an entrenched ‘My Way Or The Highway’ mindset.”
“They’re not used to being ignored, eh? Like the Clan of Females, but worse.”
“Well, they’re one of the Dominion’s economic powerhouses. They have a lot of weight to throw around… too bad for them that neither the Gao nor us are dependent on the Dominion’s goodwill.”
“That sounds like the beginnings of a painful lesson in international politics. I presume the Gao are attending anyway?”
“Of course they are. And the Kwmbwrw aren’t. Those stubborn fools are their own worst enemies, they could learn a lot from the Gao.”
Martin shook his head sadly. “Prejudice doesn’t go away overnight, Patrick.”
“It had better. I can’t help but worry that we don’t have long before the Hunters come out with some new trick and something truly serious happens. That ground incursion in the Domain was bad enough, but if they wanted to really do some damage… I suspect they’ll have learned how, by now. They’ve won every single action since the ring orbital fell.”
“Only by our standards. As far as the Hunters are concerned, they’ve achieved their objective with every attack, even the assault on the Rich Plains. Intelligence says they did it for information, and they got plenty.” Knight grumbled uncomfortably. “The fact is, blowing up the ring seems to have done them a service. We’re certain they have new leadership now, and much more competent leadership at that.”
“I bet the Great Father is just pleased as punch with that analysis…”
“It was the correct decision regardless. Many billions of Hunters were destroyed in the conflagration, along with virtually all of their infrastructure.”
“Then how does that constitute doing them a favor?”
“Which is more dangerous, a large force under an incompetent general, or a small force led by a genius?”
“That depends. How good of a general is Daar?”
“…He’s good. So is his general staff, they’re learning very fast. The Gao’s objectives tend to be simple, and their tactics are direct, pragmatic, aggressive, and successful.”
“And their logistical command?”
“The Americans are suitably impressed.”
“…Well. Considering all of that, I would say it’s hard to know. A small force can be snuffed out if its enemy is clever and ruthless enough to press a size advantage. A large force, however, takes time to destroy. No amount of clever combat reduces the mass problem.”
“So the question is… how big are the Hunters still? That’s the sort of thing we’re going to discuss at the symposium. The sort of talk I think you’re best qualified to give.”
Knight nodded. “Right, well. I’d better walk the cat.”
That was an old joke between them, too. Code for ’I’d love to chat all afternoon but unfortunately life never stops and I have responsibilities to take care of.’ Martin nodded understandingly and waved goodbye.
“You too, my friend.”
And that pretty much summed it up for the day’s pleasant engagements. On the roster for this evening was a lot of reading, some emails, a few business phone calls and maybe having to jump back out to spend the night on Rich Plains if he was unlucky. Honestly, Knight hadn’t been so busy since the days when he’d actually been in charge of a warship at sea.
It was exhausting, and likely to run a man his age into the ground… but he’d tried to retire and just couldn’t. He was embroiled, probably for the rest of his life, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
He opened his emails and got to work.
Date Point: 16y2m3w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Ava hadn’t done anything for her birthday, back on December 26th. It wasn’t a particularly important one, and she’d fallen out of the habit of celebrating her birthdays anyway.
Still, people at work had asked. And then they’d found out she’d turned thirty-one a mere two months ago, and allowing this modest milestone to pass without comment was apparently completely unacceptable. A sentiment shared by Adam and Marty, Gabe and Jess, Charlotte and Ben, Jack, Allison Julian and Xiù…
So in the end Derek had booked a big couple of tables at Andalucia and Ava was left blinking and inwardly freaking out over just how many people showed up to a party organized on what seemed to her like the flimsiest possible excuse. It was… different parts of her brain were occupied with being delighted, being mortified, feeling like a total fraud, enjoying herself, worrying if she was just being egotistical in thinking this was about her at all…
Hannah was working overtime, sitting quietly at her side with her chin on Ava’s lap where Ava could stroke her head under the table. Derek’s arm behind her back was a comforting help as well. Thanks to them, she was able to keep the positive thoughts up front and not ruin everybody’s night by having a breakdown.
Most of the people at work hadn’t met Adam before, they’d only seen him at a distance. He stood at the end of the table near the ESNN staff and towered over them rather than endanger the furniture, wearing his usual technically-a-t-shirt and utilikilt-type get-up, and was the same ludicrously huge and happy bro that he ever was. The effect was much like a bunch of curious and faintly terrified puppies surrounding a hulking, panting pit-bull. Some of them had taken to a more adversarial journalistic approach to the HEAT in general, but for now he seemed to be winning them over with his usual cheery, over-excited desire to Make Friends With Everyone.
Or maybe they were just being nice on her not-birthday. She’d take whatever she could get, frankly.
In any case, the food was amazing and the wine was even better, and she received a number of small, tough decorative paper bags with an assortment of gifts, not to mention a small hill of birthday cards, and managed to hold back the feeling of being a little overwhelmed long enough for the party to amicably break up until she was left with just a small core. Allison, Julian and Xiù made their apologies about having young boys to look after and a pair of baby bumps to rest, and that just left…
Well. Her oldest and closest friends and family.
A waiter eventually successfully assured Adam that the bench seat was not going to give up its ghost under the weight of one man, not even an ogre like him. He sat, reluctantly, tentatively, flinching as he did so as though he expected it to groan and collapse. The waiter gave a vindicated chuckle as he finally settled in without so much as a creak, and threw in an extra bottle of wine on the house.
“You’re not the first HEAT bro to eat here, gordo.” Ava told him once the waiter was gone. “Firth brings Freya here on the regular. Besides, the owners frequent Rooney’s, you know.”
“Yeah, well…I wasn’t lookin’ forward to making another bench. Anyway! Happy birthday!”
The bottle of wine arrived, they opened it, passed it around, and just… sat. Talked. Caught up. A luxury, for people who all threw themselves so totally into their work.
A lot of it was just catching up. They talked about work, teased Jack a bit about how cute a couple he and Rihanna would make, endured a bombardment of Gabriel’s very best Dad-Puns, of course got an update on all the bro-things from Adam (which he kept mercifully short), and even got some good gossip on the doings of the Great Father, the team Gaoians…
“You want to be careful sharing gossip about him with me, you know…” Ava teased as Gabe recalled the minor security nightmare that was a foreign head of state jogging here and there across town as he pleased.
“He knows we talk, Ava. Daar’s a super open guy, so don’t worry. Also…if you can somehow express how grateful I am to his personal security detail, I would be much obliged. They’ve been an absolute pleasure to work with.”
Ava sat back and sipped her wine. It had been a long while since she’d last drunk any real amount, and she was definitely feeling a bit buzzed. “Hmm. How does that work?”
“They’ve got a human contractor who acts as liaison. Mike Murphy, you’ve met him. There’s others too, and they’re basically completely plugged into the local Gaoian community, they’re deputized and licensed, the whole works. The Great Father funds all of it personally, said ‘I oughta pay ‘fer my conveniences.’ Great intel back and forth, but that’s all I can say about that. “
“That sounds like a really interesting job.”
Gabe nodded, then gave her a twinkling grin. “Who knows, he might be down for an interview. Especially if he gets to take his pants off.”
There was some good-natured laughter.
“Be fair,” Derek reminded him. “Laid Bare is my brainchild, after all.”
“He’s a veteran. Served on Gao.”
Derek perked up.“Yeah? Huh. Might be good then… Or…” He grinned at the Incredible Hulk across the table from him. “What about you, Adam?”
Adam squirmed a little. “…Nah. Not…not yet. I mean, I like showing off but I belong to Marty.”
“I’d totally do it,” Marty said, giving her husband a grin that turned him red. Ava had always been slightly in awe of just how well Marty could tease him. It was like watching a virtuoso playing a violin.
“Oh! Uh…” Adam cleared his throat a bit uncomfortably. “Well. Maybe one day then. When, uh…people are ready.”
Adam sighed. “What I am and what I do ain’t something most folk can handle. Anyway…how about you, Jack? You’d do a good Laid Bare I bet! I mean, I’ve seen you in the shower—”
“Miller would love it,” Derek added with a grin.
“—Ain’t got nothing to be ashamed of! Ladies.” Adam waggled his eyebrows like a particularly cartoonish hulk and gestured at the singles sitting over at the bar, who were furtively casting gazes toward the group. “Our boy’s got the goods!” He announced loudly. “Smart, too! Nice and fit!” He delivered that with his particular brand of exaggerated latino lilt to the ladies, one of whom responded with a playful catcall, “Hell, I bet he’d probably sell a lot of copies…”
“Definitely,” Marty agreed, and gave Jack a playful wink that was probably illegal in some countries. She called out towards the bar, “He’s cute, too! Innocent and pure!”
“What?!” Adam laughed, “We’re just saying! You’re a swinging dick just like the rest of us—”
Gabe saved the day by reaching out and cuffing his son upside the head. “Pórtate bien, Mijo,” he chided.
Adam only chuckled and gave his dad a loving look. “¡No es nada más que la verdad, papá!.”
Jack pulled his best annoyed expression. “Anyway… I don’t have any kind of a story. Besides, isn’t it ‘warriors in their own words?’ I’m not a warrior, I’m not even combat arms!”
“Neither was Julian,” Adam retorted. “At least, not officially. Meanwhile you’re enlisted in the most elite special operations support unit there is, you deploy with us and get shot at…you do have a story, man. And you’re smart and you’re buff and you look good, too. I wasn’t joking about any of that. S’far as the whole ‘warrior’ thing…like, I get it, but don’t undersell ‘yerself.”
“And actually? I bet a HEAT technician’s story would be really interesting,” Ava agreed. “You have a pretty unique job…”
Jack sighed. “…Actually Ava… I was meaning to ask about something, now we’re kind of on the subject.”
She turned to face him. “Shoot.”
“It might kinda bring the mood down a bit.”
“Just so long as I don’t have to hear Adam brag up his innocent victims any longer…” Jess muttered from behind her wine glass.
Jack nodded, sipped his wine and then asked. “There was one guy who was… I kinda noticed a, like, an absence in your piece on Camp Tebbutt.”
Ava nodded sadly, while Adam leaned in and listened with an intent expression. The rest, except for Gabe, looked a little lost.
“…Yeah. The guy who… whose biodrone killed Sara.” Ava sighed, and scritched Hannah’s ears for comfort as the dog whined.
“…Well, fuck.” Derek muttered, and gave her a squeeze too. Ava shot him a moment’s grateful attention, then shook her head sorrowfully.
“…I’m sorry, Jack. He… apparently he took his own life barely two months after he arrived. They returned him to his family in Dusseldorf.”
Jack nodded, sighed, and sat back. “…Dammit.”
A dark cloud descended on the table for a few seconds. Jack dispelled it somewhat with a heavy sigh and three words.
“Fuck the Hierarchy.”
“Amen,” Adam grunted. “…Actually.” He gave Derek a long look. “Yeah. I do have some shit I wanna get off my chest about that. I wanna think about it though.”
“…I think I’d want you for the last in the series anyway,” Ava noted. “You and the Great Father would make good bookends.”
“Tip of the spear versus the god-emperor of an engineered soldier species. You’re best friends and couldn’t possibly be further opposites along the axis of power. And, well…there’s the obvious visuals.”
“Maybe make it a joint session, then? If you wanna really capture that dynamic…”
“No, no. Spotlight on one at a time,” Derek said firmly. “Ava’s right, you’d be like, the other slice of bread.”
“Well, that settles it,” Jack said firmly, regaining some humor. “I don’t want to be in an Adam-Daar sandwich.”
“Now there’s a mental image!” Jess grimaced. “Like a mouse trapped between two bears.”
“Aww! But we cuddle so nice!”
If there was one thing that was good about boisterous family and friends, it was that they could recover from a shock much faster than Ava, and sweep her along in their happiness. She laughed, and realized she was genuinely enjoying herself.
Derek noticed, and squeezed her hand under the table. Perfect boyfriend.
Still, all good things had to come to an end, and eventually they drifted their separate ways. Jack was apparently going out clubbing with his friend Rihanna, Adam and Marty had a baby to get home to, Gabe and Jess were up very late indeed by their standards…
They took the scenic route back to Derek’s place, through the covered walkway along Riverside Park. The nightly rain drumming on the roof was soothing, and meant they had the park largely to themselves. Hannah chased a ball, Ava leaned appreciatively on Derek and reflected that she had life pretty good…
Then he stopped.
“Hmm?” Ava raised her head. The little wave of anxiety at this sudden change in pace was irrational, but that didn’t stop it from happening.
It turned to shock when in one smooth movement he produced a small black box from his pocket and went down on one knee. On pure instinct, her hands flew up and covered her mouth.
Derek laughed. “…I had this speech planned, but… Nah. I love you, Ava. Marry me?”
She didn’t think about it. She just nodded, and somehow managed to remember how to speak.
A good day couldn’t have ended more perfectly.
Date Point: 16y2m3w AV
Hierarchy/Cabal Joint Communications session #1722
++0008++: In summary, the infiltration of Sol means the operation was a success, though not an unqualified one. We have four Injunctors on Earth, and a further two in the outer system, but the new Arutech biodrones appear to be an abject failure. The Cimbrean infiltration was foiled by an animal, and our infiltrator on Lucent is completely pinned down. They cannot act without an unacceptably high risk of discovery.
++0011++: Furthermore, Proximal remains unaccounted-for. He has missed every scheduled check-in, failed to respond to every urgent update request, and has not activated any of his safe pings. The last time this happened was when the Humans captured 0006.
++0008++: An event that had profound negative ramifications for his sanity and competence. His behaviour ever since has been… erratic.
++Metastasis++: <Annoyed; Loyal> Cynosure unilaterally achieved more success in re-infiltrating Human space than the entire Hierarchy did over an interval ten times as long.
++0008++: His brilliance is not in question. His stability on the other hand, is. 0006 was always…
++013++: <Suggestion> A troublemaker? A maverick? Uncontrollable?
++0008++: <Diplomatic> Unorthodox.
++Metastasis++: I wonder if you would have the courage to say any of those things in his presence.
++0008++: For all I know, he is here right now. He has a bad habit of lurking in these conversations without revealing himself.
++System record: Inactivity for 100 cycles++
++0008++: <Satisfied> Clearly he either isn’t here, or doesn’t care.
++0011++: <Accusatory> The Cabal has lurched dramatically in its strategy. Not so very long ago we adopted your recommended strategy of playing nice and seeking an accord with the Humans, at least until a better alternative presented itself–
++Metastasis++: And a better solution presented itself. Need I remind you, we now have half a dozen Injunctors in the Sol system, and an infiltrator on Lucent? What is that, if not an improvement on the position of abject paralysis we were in before?
++0013++: What happened to all that stuff about inevitably needing a partner species in matterspace? Not merely janissaries, but active participants?
++Metastasis++: Humans turned out to not be that species.
++0013++: So where does this leave us? Are we winning or losing?
++0008++: That, I suspect, hinges on what has happened to Proximal….
Date Point: 16y2m3w2d AV
Scotch Creek Extraterrestrial Research Facility, British Columbia, Canada, Earth
General Ted Bartlett
“Even the Gaoians are stumped. Champion Wozni had to admit it’s way above his level of understanding, and their most expert Father on the subject of quantum computing is, uh, tentative.”
Bartlett nodded and massaged his face. Age was catching up with him, and he was still pulling young man hours when big discoveries came in. He always paid the price in pain and fatigue later.
But things like the captive Igraen they had in storage down in the basement, alongside the captured Abductor from Egypt, an assortment of Dominion and Alliance technology acquired via legitimate and less-legitimate means, and several warehouses full of Hunter tech definitely qualified as big discoveries.
As was the latest quick evaluation of the devices found deep in the Hierarchy’s mine on Messier.
“What would he commit to?” he asked.
Captain Thierry Pelletier, the man now in charge of what had once been Claude Nadeau’s department, sighed and shook his head. “Not a lot. He speculated that some of the results he got from a subatomic analysis suggests that they’re somehow using individual electrons as transistors.”
Bartlett’s eyebrows shot up. “…If so, these things must be at the absolute physical limit of processor density.”
“Very close to it, certainly. Wozni didn’t want to even speculate on just how much processing power those things have, Wouldn’t even venture a couple of orders of magnitude. The best he’d give was ’a lot.’”
“Helpful,” Bartlett snarked.
“He’s a very precise kinda guy. And this is only his first analysis, which he worked up in the middle of some kind of business trip to Cimbrean on the Great Father’s orders…” Pelletier shrugged. “If these things are the physical hardware for the Hegemony, then… I mean, finding a warehouse full of these things in an entire galaxy? Impossible.”
Bartlett grunted, and swiped through a few folders on his desk, looking for something specific. He found it quickly, thank God for good filing.
“…Ironic,” he mused.
“What is?” Pelletier asked.
Bartlett shrugged distractedly. “Oh, just a heretical thought.” At Pelletier’s continued intrigued look, he explained “I was thinking that it’s very likely we’re only around because of the Hierarchy.”
“They’re trying to annihilate us,” Pelletier pointed out, frowning.
“Oh, sure, they’re our worst enemies… but without them, I’m not so sure Humanity would ever have existed. Or maybe we’d be slaves of some rampant Deathworld empire. Or maybe we’d have had an Independence Day scenario where some giant flying saucers rocked up over ancient Babylon and wiped us out so they could take Earth for their own.”
He smiled faintly at Pelletier’s expression. “That’s the thing about the butterfly effect: Everything combined to bring us to this moment, not just the good.”
Pelletier nodded slowly. “So… ironic. The people who are going to finally beat them are of their own making.”
“Ultimately, they may have done the galaxy a favor.” Bartlett set the thought aside with a wry expression. “Be that as it may, the task at hand is wiping the bastards out. And these databricks, if they are the hardware for the Hegemony, might just be the weak point we can strike at.”
“Why in the hell did Six point us toward it, then?”
“Who knows? He’s insane? He didn’t know how important that facility is? It’s a trap? Whatever the reason, it’s a lead.”
“A lead on an unknown number of facilities scattered theoretically across the entire galaxy,” Pelletier reminded him. “Finding all of them will be a big ask, sir.”
“That depends on how many there are, and I can’t imagine a facility like this would be cheap. Secondly, we don’t know how much territory this, uh, ‘node’ might service. If it’s like, uh, a really tall cell tower or something…this might be one of a handful of stations.”
Pelletier pulled a face Bartlett had worn himself many a time: that of a man whose superiors were saying things that scratched at his sense of exactitude. “Or, it could be one of thousands. There are a hundred billion stars in the galaxy, after all. Virtually all of them harbor planets.”
“Either way, that’s why I called you in.” Bartlett handed over the file he’d been looking for. “I’m putting you in charge of a new research operation, codenamed MINOR MASTER. I think we’re on to a good breadcrumb trail with the wormhole booster on Stinkworld, and I put in some time last night to run an idea through my field equations. If I’m right, a sufficiently large telescope might be able to pinpoint other wormhole booster fields elsewhere in the galaxy. We won’t have to guess how many there are, we’ll be able to count them.”
Pelletier took the document and opened it to the first page. “How large a telescope?” he asked.
Bartlett grinned. He loved moments like this, when he got to favor his officers with something cool.
“How would you like,” he asked, “to be in charge of the first interstellar observatory?”
Date Point: 16y2m3w2d AV
”Stinkworld,” the Irujzen Reef
Meereo, Champion of Clan Longear
“…Dammit, dammit, dammit!!”
Ears swivelled, then noses turned diplomatically away as Garl snarled something vicious in Clan Stoneback’s private dialect and then swept aside the tablet he’d been peering at with a slash of his paw. The Grandfather’s claws left shiny streaks in the steel tabletop.
Then he stormed out of the tent.
Several pairs of eyes turned back to Meereo, and much ear semaphore communicated his next task. Meereo sighed, turned from group, and followed after Garl. The old ‘Back must have set a brisk pace, because he was already out of sight, but fortunately he’d always had a strong scent.
Meereo decided to take it slow and dignified rather than chase. Give the Grandfather time. He followed his nose and the occasional angry claw-mark on a tree, and even so he realized that Garl must have slowed down the second he was out of sight. His path was meandering and his scent heavy, and it led down toward one of the few nearby areas that wasn’t suffused with Stinkworld’s characteristic rotting-meat miasma—a stream.
It wasn’t that the planet’s omnipresent aroma was absent down in the little gully where the water had cut through rock over the march of aeons, more that there were other scents there to take the edge off. Wild flowers, fresh water, and a local moss that smelled faintly of cotton candy. It was a peaceful spot that a lot of the Gaoians present liked to visit when they had a spare moment.
It was also a natural echo chamber and amplifier, and Meereo had very large, very sharp ears. He rounded the corner just as Garl fling a large rock viciously into the water then slouched down on the pebbly beach, muttering to himself.
“Fuck… Not like this…”
Meereo keened softly despite himself, and Garl’s ears snapped around, followed by the rest of him. Nothing wrong with the old ‘Back’s hearing at least.
After a moment, he unwound and dropped to all fours. “…Eavesdroppin’, young’n?”
Meereo gave him a complicated, apologetic look and dropped down four-paw as well to approach.
“It’s my responsibility to know what’s going on here,” he pointed out. Garl just huffed, shook himself, and sat down in the dirt again.
“…I’m on my way out,” he said. Meereo keened again, but duck-nodded. He’d suspected as much—he’d thought he could smell it, even over Stinkworld’s background stench—but he’d have liked to be wrong.
“…Will it be…soon?”
Garl took in a long, slow breath and flicked a smaller pebble into the bubbling water. “…Yeah. I ain’t lost any strength yet, but… I been wakin’ up with blurry vision err’day ‘fer a while, an’ lately it ain’t just the mornin’ no more. I was starin’ at that fucking tablet for half a Ri’, couldn’t read the damn thing.”
Meereo sat down next to him. “That’s not fair at all,” he sympathized.
“You’re fuckin’ right it ain’t.” They sat in silence for a little while. Meereo knew better than to be the first to speak, and finally Garl threw another stone into the stream and found his voice again.
“It ain’t…I’m at peace with the inevitable. Balls, I’m a ‘Back on First Fang, I’ve almost bought it more times’n I can count. I’m just…I wanted ‘ta finish this.”
Meereo duck-nodded some more, just listening.
“…I’d hoped I’d have time,” Garl added, then sighed. “…But I guess the tokens jus’ didn’t flip ‘fer me.”
Meereo wasn’t quite sure how to proceed. He wasn’t in command, and wouldn’t be a natural fit to take over…which, thankfully, provided a step forward.
“I hate to ask…but what would you have me do?”
“…I need a replacement. Champion or not, y’ain’t a Back an’ the Fangs need one’a their own at the front, even if you din’t need ‘ta focus on the nerd shit. I’d suggest Brother Torun of Fourth Fang, he’s been here a while.”
“And what about your larger role as Warleader of the Grand Army?”
“That’s somethin’ the Great Father’s gonna hafta ponder.”
Meereo nodded slowly, feeling his ears droop. Eventually he looked over at Garl, and then offered a paw.
“…It’s been a privilege.”
They shook solemnly, before Garl yoinked Meereo up and smothered him in a massive hug.
“An’ it’s good knowin’ this is in the right paws. You an’ Torun, you’ll do well.”
Meereo didn’t know exactly what to say to that, not that he could really have spoken anyway. Nor did Garl linger on the topic for long. “An’ anyway, I s’pose this means I’ll die livin’ the Stoneback dream. Prol’ly gonna keel over from too much matin’!”
Daar, it seemed, had inherited his relentlessly boisterous personality from Garl.
“I can think of worse ways to bow out,” Meereo admitted, with a chitter.
“Can’t think of any better, that’s ‘fer damn sure!”
“A little bit traumatic for the poor female, though.”
“Well, that’s her problem, ain’t it?” Garl pant-grinned, then stood up and stretched. “Come on, young’n. I ain’t gonna waste what little time I got left on mopin’ around down here feelin’ sorry ‘fer myself. I’ll damn well get somebody to read aloud to me until the jump cycle’s ready.”
Meereo nodded, stood, and brushed some sand and pebbles out of his fur. He made a note to himself that the next time he was back in civilization, he’d live it up a little and woo a female or two himself. Life, after all, was too short to not seize with both paws.
But here and now, they had a job to do. And if done right, it might just mean long, lazy futures for them all. Garl might not be able to finish it, but Meereo had no plans to suffer the same disappointment.
They turned away from the stream, and got back to work.
Date Point: 16y3m AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm
“Bawistuh. Hmm. A Human idea?”
“No. My idea,” Vemik said, and the lash of his tail showed just how strongly he felt about that. “I didn’t get the idea from the Humans, I thought it up myself! It wasn’t hard, it’s just a big steel bow!”
Yan gave him a cunning look. “But a Human word for your idea…”
“Humans are an older spee-shees. They’ve had longer to have the same ideas.” Vemik handed the bellows off to the care of his apprentice and stepped out of the forge. The smoke in there had darkened his skin almost black, and he licked his palm to clean the worst of it from around his eyes. “I thought, if this idea works, they’ll have done it too and they’ll have a word for it. So I followed Jooyun, and I listened.”
Yan grinned at him approvingly. “How long until you can try to make it?” he asked.
“Two hands of days, maybe three. You remember Doonuk Given-Man came by yesterday?”
“I remember he had a big bag…”
Vemik nodded and grinned. “As much of his tribe’s newest smelting as he could carry. I traded four of my best knives for it.”
Yan was impressed. “Good trade!”
Vemik gave a soft, satisfied, deeply confident hoot. “My knives are the best, and everyone knows it.” He glanced over his shoulder to make sure his apprentice was keeping the forge hot enough. Satisfied with what he saw, he nodded and turned back to Yan. “I have enough steel now. Just need to shape it and a few other things. Special tricks.”
“Special tricks?” Yan would have liked to grapple him and squeeze one or two of those secrets out of him, but he was having fun courting a woman from Suk’s tribe, Yoonee. A rare beauty, but she actually enjoyed bathing in water, which was just strange. She must have got it from the Humans. If he went to see her while covered in soot and grime like Vemik, she’d make him—ugh—wash before she let him touch her.
Yan didn’t like the way water made him itchy. And the less said about soap the better.
In any case, he was supposed to go up into the sky today. Jooyun had sent a message that there would be a “Weaver” coming for him at noon, and to Yan’s experienced eye the sun was about as high as it was going to get.
While part of him was tempted to do mischief and show up covered in the dirt and tastes of the forest and village, he knew better. This was a meeting with a strange tribe to discuss trade, and a big trade too. From what he knew, the Corti were very strange and very weak in body… but both Humans and Gaoians spoke of them with some grudging respect. Best to take them seriously.
“I read about Human smiths. People used to be scared of them, because they had strange secrets and ways nobody else knew. And they had all kinds of magic in the forge!” Vemik glanced over his shoulder again. “…Don’t slow down!” he barked. The apprentice got back on pace with the bellows.
“You like that idea, I can tell–” Yan began, then stiffened as he heard the kind of high, distant thundercrack sound made by Human ships as they punched through the sky from above. Nobody ever forgot that sound.
“What was that joke Shyow used? [Your Uber’s here.”] Vemik trilled.
Yan shielded his brow with his tail and peered into the sky. “What is an ‘ooo-ber?’”
“I don’t exactly know! I think it’s about borrowing someone’s car, though… There it is.”
Vemik pointed, and Yan nodded as he saw a tiny black speck in the blue. It was coming down fast, alarmingly fast. Shyow had always landed Misfit slowly and gently, as had the other ships Yan had seen, but either this pilot had very different thoughts about the best way to land, or the ship was falling helplessly out of the sky.
It slowed just as hard as it had fallen. In the span of one Ketta’s height, the headlong plunge became a near-stop as bright points of light all along its underbelly seared Yan’s eyes and forced him to look away. The last little way to the ground was steady and smooth.
“…I think I know why they call it a ‘drop’ ship,” Vemik commented, with a nervous twitch of his tail.
“Back to work, apprentice,” Yan said, looking past him at the boy who was gaping at the Human machine with a mix of unhidden awe and mild fear. The young one jumped, then hastily returned to the bellows.
Weavers looked kind of like a flying knuckle to Yan’s eyes. There was nothing slim or sleek or graceful about them. Misfit had been square and solid, built rather like a Given-Man herself, but Weavers—he knew they were a kind of ship, not just one—were ugly. They existed to do one thing very, very well, and that thing was not “be pretty.” It made sense that they’d drop from the sky to the ground as hard and as fast as possible.
This one settled on the patch of hard stamped-down earth the tribe kept open near the village for moments like this, and Jooyun ambled down the ramp as soon as it lowered. He whooped as soon as he laid eyes on Yan.
[“Now that’s a ride!”] He was wearing his Human clothing today, which was a tight black thing around his torso, tough blue jeans around his legs, and boots on his strange big feet. More Human weirdness, but the jeans and boots at least made sense; Humans had thin skin, jeans were good against whipping branches and thorns. Boots made a foot-grip impossible but he could walk over anything without a care, even the jagged bite-rock that was everywhere underfoot on the mountain.
Yan had no idea what the point of the black thing was. No matter. He scooped his friend up for a welcoming hug, then put him down again. Today was a day for being serious, sadly. Maybe there would be time for more fun later. [“Is it always like that?”]
[“Fastest way to get down here. And going back up’s even faster. Ready for your tour of a Human warship?”]
[“War ship. Hmm.”]
[“Her name is USS Robert A. Heinlein. and yeah. She’s longer than a Ketta is tall. Are you bringing anyone else?”]
“The Singer,” Yan said, switching back to People-speak. Behind him, Vemik made a mournful, longing sound. “…And Vemik.”
“He’ll need to clean up,” Jooyun said while Vemik celebrated loudly. “Same reason I’m bothering with a t-shirt.” He plucked at the black cloth stretched across his chest. “Cleanliness is very important to all the sky-tribes.”
“The shirt keeps you clean?”
“Yeah. It also keeps me out of the spotlight. Half-naked Humans draw attention, and this is about you, not me.
Yan grunted, “You better clean yourself up, Vemik. Need to represent more than just our tribe today.”
Vemik glanced back into the forge, and lowered his voice. “…I do want to come. But can I leave Mavu all by himself?”
“What’s he making?” Jooyun asked.
“Just some knife blanks.”
“Good,” Yan decided. “You haven’t started your melt for the bawistuh yet. Let it be a test for your apprentice, then! See how well he does on his own. Now go, or I will find soap and clean you up myself!”
[“…Ballista, eh?”] Jooyun chuckled deep in his chest. [“Do we have a spy-monkey in our midst, too? ‘Cuz I’m pretty sure I never used that word around you…”]
Yan looked back to Vemik, who had the expression every young man did when they were caught sticky-handed stealing someone’s fruit basket.
Jooyun chuckled again, longer and a little more evil. [“Yeah. I think the price is gonna be a shower, Vemik. We have soap and warm water on the Weaver. Field-expedient hygiene system. Trust me, it’s way nicer when the water is warm. And lotion too. Xiu added that bit.”]
“Yup. Rub it on your skin, or get the hose again. Your call.” Jooyun chuckled. There was a joke in there somewhere, Yan could tell.
Jooyun turned his attention back to Yan, with a much more cautious expression on his face. [“Being honest, big guy…”]
Yan sighed. He knew this was coming. “Yes yes, if you say it will be a good idea, then it is. Yoonee from Suk’s tribe made me a new loincloth, too. Pretty! I will wear that. Vemik has one too but I haven’t given it to him yet. Vemik! Go to my hut and get the bundle near my sleeping pelts!”
“I promise, it is way better with warm water and lotion.”
“As you say.” Yan would wait until he’d tested that branch for himself.
Vemik ambled away while Jooyun led Yan to the Weaver. The floor had metal rails that made it easy to move things in and out, if they were on the right kind of square-shaped board. A good idea! That would make things very fast. Loaded onto one of those boards was a plastic tent with a hose, and some other things to keep the water from running away.
Jooyun sighed to himself, peeled off his clothing, climbed in and helped Yan use everything. There was a cloth and brush for scrubbing and different bottles of soap. Two were for his crest, first one then the other bottle, and the other for the rest of him. Their air didn’t taste of anything at all this time; he remembered the last encounter and did not dip his tongue in the odd stuff. The warm water was nice but Yan seemed to like it warmer than Jooyun did. Strange. Humans did feel a bit cool to the touch though, even Jooyun. Maybe that was it?
“Here. This is the lotion. Xiù said it should stop your skin from itching so much,” Jooyun added as he handed over one last bottle. “Use as little as you can.”
To Yan’s surprise, it worked. He still felt odd, like he could feel the air touching him a little more, but the full-body itch he’d expected just wasn’t there. He couldn’t say he’d enjoyed it, but it hadn’t been a torment, either.
Vemik, on the other hand, was surly and sullen the entire time as black water swirled away around his toes. He seemed very disappointed the soap didn’t make bubbles this time. It was surprising how much younger he looked though, once all the forge-grime was soaped away. Singer arrived right as Vemik was toweling dry, and took her turn after Jooyun cleaned up.
To Vemik’s dismay, the Singer seemed to truly enjoy it. “Maybe the city-People were right,” she purred as she took longer than she needed. “Hot water is niiice.”
“Gets in my ears…” Vemik grumbled, but his spirit wasn’t really in it. He was brushing furiously at his crest, trying to dry it out and get it to stand up properly again. .
“It’s better for your health, Vemik.” Jooyun toweled his head-crest while he spoke. “All the soot from the forge will leech through your hide almost as if you’d eaten the ashes yourself. [We should really fix your ventilation, too.”]
“You should listen to him,” the Singer swatted Vemik lightly as she put on a clean loincloth of her own and squeezed the water out of her tail. “We need you alive and well for a long time, Sky-Thinker. If forge-soot makes you sick…”
“For now, yes.” Jooyun had a serious expression. “I’m strong too, but I’m not going to risk losing my strength just because I don’t necessarily like everything I need to do to stay healthy.”
“We all grow old and weak, Sky-Thinker. Only a fool would hasten it,” Yan agreed, though he had to agree that he would have liked to do without bathing, really.
“Shouldn’t we fly? They will be waiting for us,” the Singer said.
Jooyun chuckled. “We already took off. Look.”
Sure enough, when Yan glanced at the window, he saw nothing but night sky.
“How…? I didn’t feel anything!”
[“A really crazy piece of Sky-Magic called an inertial damper. It’s the same thing that makes the gravity plating under our feet work. Same as in ‘Horse’s gym, or in the gravball arena.”]
“But how does it–”
“I ain’t got any idea, Vemik!” Julian belly-laughed. “I mean, I know the general idea, but….Anyway. [We need to get ready. The Ambassadors will waiting for us as soon as we land. That includes Ambassador Rockefeller, who’s my boss, so…] Please don’t take this the wrong way, but do not climb him like a jungle-gym. Most Humans aren’t like me, remember. The ambassador…well, he’s a normal-sized man.”
“Small? Like Heff?”
“Nah. He’s as tall as me, but Hoeff is bigger and a lot stronger, so…no wrestling, even for play. He’s also very smart, and has very, very strong friends. Remember, you are here to speak for all your people. All the Sky-Tribes will be watching. You don’t want to represent them badly do you? So… don’t scare the peoples of every sky-place before you’ve even said hello.”
The Human standing up at the front of the Weaver raised his voice for their attention. [“Landing on Heinlein in two. Strap in!”]
“Already?” Vemik asked, turning to peer out of the window.
“Sit down,” Jooyun told him firmly. Reluctantly, Vemik turned away from the window and plopped down in the seat. They were too small for everyone, even Singer, and when Jooyun tied them to them with wide, flat red ropes he had to move little steel things around on them to make them long enough to go around Yan’s body. Even then, they were tight.
“Sorry fellas, but it’s not for long. [These seats at least don’t have armrests…”] Jooyun grumbled that last comment as he sat and wedged himself in. Yan saw one of the two men up front glance back at them, raise a thumb at the one next to him and nod.
The first they saw of the warship was a flat expanse of dark grey coming up from below. There was a man out there, completely covered in thick and heavy-looking clothes of some kind that even covered his face. A thin steel rope trailed behind him, drifting strangely in the air.
Or… not-air. Jooyun had once said there was no air to breathe above the sky, and no gravity to keep a man’s feet on the ground. Which explained how the man in the strange full-body suit could drift slowly up to meet them. He attached another steel rope to the Weaver’s outside, and Yan heard a muffled clonk as he hooked it on. There were more clonks from the other side, and from further down the ship, four in all. Moments later they were pulled down onto the ship, and then… inside. Between massive steel doors and through one of those blue sky-magic “force field” things. It was loud on the other side, loud enough to be heard even inside the Weaver, and most of it was the noise the doors made as they closed to seal out the night.
“Pretty cool, huh?” Jooyun grinned as the ramp lowered.
“Is… a lot bigger than Misfit.”
“Dude, Misfit was smaller than the Weaver. Misfit was tiny. Ships don’t come much smaller.”
There weren’t many things that made Yan feel small. He could bend all but the strongest Ketta branches underfoot, but this…
Yan kept that feeling to himself as two hands of Humans, all wearing the same dark twilight-sky clothes, bustled around the Weaver, mostly doing things he didn’t follow, though four of them tied it down with wide green straps so that it was firmly held to the steel underfoot. From up front of the Weaver, behind a curtain, Yan could hear two voices talking quietly, saying things he didn’t really follow.
“Engine two temperature?”
“Engine three temperature?”
“Coolant pump clutch?”
And so on. It was all very… it was a lot of things. Serious, exact, careful. All the Humans had one job to do each, and they were focused on that job and nothing else. It was a little like how he and Vemik got when they were doing a big work-trial of smelts to make knives for trading, or arrow tips, or now tools for other forges in other villages. Vemik would lead in one kind of work, Yan the other. They knew exactly how it worked, and they had short words for it, too.
The Humans were doing the same thing, just… bigger. More. How much practice did they have on doing this?
He shook the thought off and followed Jooyun, who was following a man in green clothes. Another man in the same green fell in behind them and gave Vemik a little nudge with polite words when Sky-Thinker wanted to stop and look around.
There was an odd moment when they reached the back of the huge metal cave they were in. Jooyun stopped and spoke to a man with one of their tablets in his hands.
“Permission to come aboard?”
The other man nodded. “Permission granted. The Ambassador will meet you in the captain’s In-Port cabin.”
After that, they found themselves in tight, narrow spaces like squeezing between the trees. It was quieter there, though, and people stood aside for them. Yan found it a bit annoying. He was a very broad-shouldered man of the People and proud of it, though that did mean he had to crab somewhat sideways much of the way. Vemik and Jooyun didn’t fare much better, but Singer and everyone else seemed just fine.
She spent her time not-turning-sideways to look at the people. “…Are Human ships always like this?” she asked. “Everyone is so.. Sharp.”
“You remember the nuke?” Jooyun asked. “How it lit up the sky and flattened the forest?”
“This ship uses that same magic to fly. It’s very dangerous, so they have to be careful. And that’s just one of the ways it could all go badly wrong. When they’re on the job, they take it seriously. I bet they’re all a lotta fun when they’re off-duty, though. Work hard, play hard, you know?”
“Can’t let the forge go out.”
“Something like that. If this forge goes out, we all die. It won’t, though. We’re good at this.”
“Yes…” the Singer agreed, quietly. Yan, who knew intimately just how hard steel was to make and could see no end to the amount of it around them, almost nodded along with her.
Instead he straightened until his crest brushed the ceiling, and followed. Gnawing in the back of his head, though, was a thought: the Humans weren’t the oldest sky-people around. They were here to meet ones who were even older still, and knew even more.
He was having a very hard time not feeling small…. Until he remembered why they were there. They were there because the Core-tie wanted something from them, and because the Humans valued them as friends. They were there because, despite everything, despite the living miracle they were standing inside, the People were still strong enough to be worth something to the sky-tribes.
He stood taller again, and gave the Singer a confident grin.
Time to make a deal
Date Point: 16y3m AV
Jacksonville, Florida, USA, Earth
Special Agent James Mazur
Zane Reid’s MO was pretty straightforward. He seemed to have a knack for spotting properties whose occupants were out of town on vacation or business, and an even sharper knack for breaking in unnoticed.
Once inside, he’d eat their food, sleep in the master bedroom, and then in the morning he’d use their WiFi to work some more of his online sabotage. Then he’d leave, taking whatever loose cash he found with him. Mazur’s taskforce had been following his online trail and every time they arrived at an address they found rumpled bedclothes, an empty fridge and an unlocked door.
This time he’d also taken a gun, a Springfield XDS normally stored in the bedside table. The owner’s gun safe had been a cheap and inferior make, and Reid had busted into it by destroying the lock.
“So why didn’t he take one before? Is this just the first time he had the chance, or has something changed?”
Jim Mazur shrugged wearily. Six hours ago he’d been in Ohio. Now he was in Florida. Tomorrow for all he knew they’d be up in Maine, or all the way back over in California. Given that Reid obviously had access to a way to bunny-hop around the whole Continental US, it was kind of a mystery why he even bothered with breaking into people’s houses.
“Might just be the first chance,” he said. “It doesn’t really change anything, this is just another item on his rap sheet.”
The analyst who’d mused about that, Zoe, nodded. “Right. I guess I’m clutching at straws.”
“I don’t blame you. We’re always a step behind this guy and it’s getting old.” And the problem, Jim reflected, was that they weren’t likely to get out in front of him anytime soon.
Letting the reporters into Camp Tebbutt had been a pretty effective antidote to some of his vitriolic videos, but not enough. There was a large underbelly to American society that simply couldn’t and wouldn’t trust the government, who were sick of war spending on expensive shit up in space when there were homeless people in their city centers, or kids struggling in school who wanted to blame education spending…
There were a lot of people out there who wanted to believe what Reid was selling. As a percentage of the population, maybe not that many. As an absolute number, though…
All of that should maybe have been beside the point from Jim’s perspective. He was tracking down a fugitive from a Federal prison who had a literally apocalyptic agenda, and everything else was somebody else’s problem, in theory. But life just wasn’t that clean and clear-cut, and all it would take was one potential witness who was actually sympathetic to Zane Reid, and the whole investigation could be delayed or misdirected.
They’d been assuming Reid was armed, of course. Having it confirmed didn’t really change anything, but it did highlight again that they didn’t know what his long-term plan was, or that of his puppetmasters. Given how easily he could flit around the country, his next move might be anywhere, doing anything, and until he made some kind of an unforced error they were always going to be playing catch-up.
Manhunts weren’t supposed to go that way. Done right, the fugitive was always scrambling to stay ahead, constantly making mistakes, always losing ground. Done even better, the fugitive languished in their sense of false security right up until the moment they found themselves surrounded by Federal agents.
Zoe’s little grunt of surprise dragged Jim out of his thoughtful fugue. “Got something?” he asked, not particularly hopefully but…
“You know the blood sample on the lockbox?” Zoe gestured to the broken metal case, which she’d been swabbing and running through her portable tools. Reid had cut himself while forcing the lock, and she was diligently recording it.
“It’s not Reid.” She handed him her tablet. Sure enough, the report from the little hand-held blood work lab she used was pretty clear and concise: ‘NO MATCH.’
“Could it have got confused?” Jim checked. “I mean, this is a guy’s house…”
“I’ll check it against DNA samples from… hmm…” Zoe stood up and slipped into the en-suite bathroom. She made a pleased noise.
“Found a razor and hair samples. One minute…”
Jim gave her the requested minute as he stooped to inspect the box carefully. It was pretty clear that Reid—or whoever had broken into the box—had sliced their finger on a sharp metal edge. It wasn’t a lot of blood, and nobody from his team had cut themselves on it…
“Yup, confirmed. No match with the homeowner,” Zoe said, returning from the en-suite.
“So it’s either one of us…” Jim said.
“It isn’t. The lab knows all of us.”
“…Or Reid has an accomplice.”
“Yeah. One whose blood isn’t full of Arutech.”
That was a development. Jim swiped down to look at the ancestry summary, only to be disappointed. The accomplice’s genetic profile was about as generically European as they came: Germany, France, England, Ireland. Five or six percent from the Indian subcontinent, and a sniff of Spain.
“Anything we can work on?” Zoe asked.
“Accomplice is a male of European descent. Dark hair, brown eyes,” Jim read.
“That doesn’t exactly narrow it down.”
“It’s something. We can feed that data into the Watson at least. You never know what it’ll cough up for us.”
Sadly the blood sample turned out to be the only breakthrough, and in any other situation it wouldn’t have been much. But this was the first time in the whole investigation that there’d been any kind of new evidence. It was a complication—with an accomplice, Reid could achieve a lot more than if he was working alone—but at least they knew about the accomplice now. Or maybe accomplices plural?
Having that information couldn’t harm the investigation. Which was why Jim went home that night in a pretty good mood.
They were a step closer.
Date Point: 16y3m AV
USS Robert A. Heinlein, Akyawentuo Orbit, the Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm
Third Director Tran
Some of the other Directors had expressed reservations when Tran had informed them he was taking Nofl along to the meeting with the Ten’Gewek. He’d invested some of their trust and patience by reassuring them that Nofl, who was only saved from being entirely untouchable by his frankly stellar contributions to Directorate science, would be a valuable asset for this meeting.
He remained confident that it hadn’t been a mistake, but there really were times when the odd scientist grated on his sense of propriety. For instance the way that, the moment the jump array fired and delivered them directly from Folctha to the deck of the USS Robert A. Heinlein, Nofl greeted a nearby crew member with a certain mischievous glee and a lavishly extravagant cry of “Helloooo sailor!”
Apparently the peculiar outburst meant something to the Humans, several of whom did a poor job of pretending not to be amused.
It didn’t go down well with all of them, though. Their escort on this trip was Master Sergeant Coombes from the SOR, who shot Nofl a look that should have snap-frozen him, stopped the two Corti from disembarking the jump platform, then turned one way and saluted a flag hanging on one wall. That done, he turned the other way and held a salute toward a fellow Human.
“Party of three, request permission to come aboard.”
The Human thus saluted returned the gesture. “Permission granted.”
Coombes returned his hand to his side, then gestured the two Corti off the jump platform. Humans had their strange ways, but Tran was glad of the reminder that Nofl was stranger still even by their unique standards, and that his strangeness was not always appreciated.
“I hope you do not intend to do that with the Ten’Gewek,” Tran muttered to him.
“No, no, no!” Nofl assured him. “I get the message, this is a time to be very serious.”
“Tradition, Nofl,” Coombes said. “It’s about respect, to the ship, to the history of the service, and to all the people who’ve died upholding its ideals.”
“Consider me appropriately chastised.”
They were welcomed out of the jump compartment by Ambassador Rockefeller and Robert A. Heinlein’s captain, Nate Ruprecht. Both were looking suitably imposing in what Tran knew to be formal clothing, though Ruprecht’s was a good deal more decorated than the ambassador’s. Where Rockefeller was wearing a simple black suit with a wine-colored tie, the captain’s was a rich blue so dark it was almost black, with golden trim and a large multicolored patch over his left chest.
To Tran, clothing was something of an alien novelty, but in this case he could see the utility. Quite aside from the at-a-glance communication of rank, the protective benefits were obvious. Even with the gravity adjusted for their benefit, the deck was still hard and cold, and packed with exposed systems, ducts, piping and assorted emergency equipment.
They were met with commendable poise and formality. There were careful handshakes, and Ruprecht’s greeting was an efficient “Welcome aboard.”
“Thank you for hosting this meeting,” Tran replied.
“It’s our pleasure. The Ten’Gewek delegates are already waiting in my in-port cabin. Corporal Turner here will escort you. I understand both you and the Ten’Gewek wish for this meeting to be quick and to-the-point, and unfortunately your very different dietary needs would make entertaining you properly a serious challenge, so I hope you won’t think I’m rude if I just leave you in the ambassador’s capable hands.”
“Not at all,” Tran assured him. “Thank you for your welcome.”
Fortunately, the captain’s “in-port cabin” was much more comfortable. It was actually two rooms, an office with a folding bunk above the desk, and a sitting room which was apparently where they would be meeting with the primitives. The floor was polished wood with the ship’s crest in the center, the walls were painted a neutral off-white, and there were several couches around a low table plus a bookshelf and some framed decorative images.
It would have been spacious and luxurious, if not for the four enormously physical beings already occupying it. The three males were outright hulking, including a particularly well-sculpted Human, who was both an impressive expression of his species’ genetic potential, and one of Nofl’s more successful patients.
Nofl Immediately perked up. “Julian! How is your foot, darling?”
The Human chuckled and stood tall to meet them. “Perfect, as always.”
“Third Director, this is Mister Julian Etsicitty, our Special Envoy to the Ten’Gewek.”
“Howdy.” Julian approached and offered a massive paw-like hand, which completely encircled Tran’s like an untightened vice. “My friends here are the leaders of their people. The big one is Yan Given-Man, Chief of the Lodge.”
Yan stood and stalked over with a deck-shakingly weighty and almost innately predatory prowl, then offered up his own gigantic parody of a hand. Tran observed Yan’s motion with a clinical eye. The enormous chieftain was, it was reasonable to say, physically and anatomically ideal. Yan had a body whose every vast shape and sharp line neatly illustrated why he was the leader of his primitive kind; his raw strength was reportedly equaled only by the other two Deathworlder exemplars, and his sheer robustness and gymnastic athleticism was said to exceed theirs.
If his ridiculously perfect physique was any indication of the goods on offer, this could prove to be a profitable exchange indeed. The Ten’Gewek would need to be extensively evaluated, of course, but there was something…Tran was hesitant to admit it, but Yan’s sheer presence was triggering some ancient, rarely-felt instincts. As the chieftain approached, Tran had found himself resisting the urge to recoil, or flee, or simply hide.
They shook. Tran’s little hand was completely lost in Yan’s vast paw. Fortunately, he had the sense to moderate his strength, and kept his grip to just shy of bone-shatteringly tight. Nor did he smell offensive, much to Tran’s surprise. He’d been worried about the scent of tanned leather and unwashed primitive, but it seemed the Ten’Gewek had discovered bathing at least. All that remained was a clean yet potent underlying musky note, much like every Deathworlder had in one form or another.
Yan’s body language and expression were utterly unreadable on first contact, but the room seemed to have a built-in translator function that rendered the native language into Corti Standard without issue. He smiled, bearing two bright-white pairs of truly enormous fangs. Again Tran’s instincts wanted nothing more than to recoil, but he had remembered that grins were often a friendly gesture among the Humans and the Gao.
The translator gave his words a politely serious tone, but that failed to convey the rumbling avalanche that was his voice. Tran could quite literally feel Yan’s voice in his chest. He spoke so powerfully, the translator’s voice cancellation function could not fully suppress the sound.
Etsicitty introduced the other two as well. “This is Vemik Sky-Thinker, the People’s most experienced smith and inventor, and the Singer here is best thought of as a rather important community leader and healer. She is most concerned with medicine, well-being, running the villages, that sort of thing. Formally, she has no name.”
Both were also prime examples of the potential of Deathworlder biology, especially Vemik. He was every bit as exceptional as Yan, merely scaled down and younger. The Directorate had cursory genetic samples from both of them in the Ark’s library. It was obvious with only a glance across their bodies that they both greatly exceeded their predicted genomic modeling. Singer, too, was impressive. Sexual dimorphism was clearly quite pronounced in their species, but she was just as flawlessly well-formed as the males.
There was strategy at play, here. Julian’s presence was a not-so-subtle reminder of who the Humans counted as kindred, and undoubtedly of what Humans were capable of achieving if they so desired. Tran suspected that inviting all four of them was a deliberate ploy on the Deathworlder’s part to drive up the asking price, as it were. Negotiations with the Humans had…stalled, as of late. The Directorate has deduced the reason was they were waiting to see how talks with the Ten’Gewek developed. If that was the case, then Julian was exactly the type of reminder they would use.
He might even be aware he was being used in this manner, too.
It was an obvious ploy. Nevertheless, if this was the quality of stock the Corti could gain access to, along with further cooperation from the Humans…it was a well-considered and effective tactic.
The details of all that were for later. With that introduction complete, Julian then addressed the natives. “Singer, this is the Honorable Ambassador Rockefeller of the United States. He’s here to represent Allied Extrasolar Command, and is the guarantor of these talks. He’s also my boss. Yan and Vemik have already met him.”
“Yes! Our previous encounter was highly entertaining!” Rockefeller smiled warmly, and shook the three Ten’Gewek hands.
“Thank you for agreeing to, and hosting, this meeting,” Tran said formally to all of them. “I am Tran, Gold Banner, Third-Tier Director and Dean of the College of Xenobiology. I believe most of you are already familiar with my associate Nofl, Steel Banner, independent researcher and inventor of the medicine known as Cruezzir.”
He heard the faint scratchy whisper of the translator tripping over the word ‘xenobiology’ for the native’s benefit, and Yan frowned at it.
“…The tran-slay-tor did not like that word he used,” he said to Julian after a moment.
Julian rubbed his chin. “I think the best way to say that would be, uh…” he thought for a moment, and then spoke a long and complex polysyllabic word which the translator rendered confusingly back to Tran as ‘Sky-Thinking-People-Under-Other-Skies-Bodies.’
Convoluted as that was, the natives moved their heads in ways that suggested to Tran they understood the idea at least.
“I think, in the circumstances, it might be best if we ask the translator to omit the Ten’Gewek language,” Rockefeller suggested. “If you are happy for Mister Etsicitty to translate instead?”
“Why is the translation function compromised?” Tran asked.
“Their language is complex. Fusing, agglutinative, three numbers, three genders and ten noun cases which all decline, constructed tense, affixed animate, mood, and aspect markings, and a few other things I’m forgetting, too. You just…know what to say.” Julian shrugged. “I’m not a linguist, sorry.”
“Very well, I have no objection.” Tran sat down at Rockefellers invitation. The Ten’Gewek sat opposite, ignoring the creaking objections of their couch, with Yan taking up most of it from the middle, and Vemik and Singer to either side.
“So.” The Ambassador took his own seat, and opened a slim black folder on the table in front of him. “The negotiation in front of us is that the Corti Directorate wish to take genetic and other biological samples from the Ten’Gewek for the purposes of study and future research. In return, the Ten’Gewek desire a guaranteed supply of medicines, including vaccines, appropriate to safeguard the health of their people…”
“And books.” Yan added.
“A cultural exchange,” Etsicitty clarified. “They believe that to all things, there must be balance. They are very much aware that what you desire to take is opaque to them. In return, they ask that you give something equally opaque. They want to learn about you.”
“We can respect the desire for equal exchange,” Tran agreed. “My concern is that no mention has been made yet of a time limit on this supply of medical assistance. How long will we be required to deliver vaccines to this world?”
Yan consulted Julian for a few translations of some words, then nodded sharply as soon as he was happy he understood. To Tran’s vague surprise, he turned out to speak perfectly passable, though simple, Human English.
“We, the People strong. Not much sickness in us. But what we have, kill many of our children every season. We must increase. To increase, our children must live.”
The Singer nodded, and chimed in. “We were brought close to, uh… eck-stink-shun over the last… how long?” she asked Julian.
“We think the Hierarchy’s extermination campaign on Akyawentuo lasted about sixty Dominion standardized years,” the Human explained. “It began with an antimatter strike on their most developed cities, followed by a surface sweep led by Abrogator drones. If we’d found the Ten’Gewek even a year later, it would have been too late. Only the previously uncontacted forest tribes are left.”
The Singer nodded. “There are only two ten thousands of us, maybe. One evil sickness could kill us all.”
“Two ten thousands is not many for you, I think,” Yan added. “But for us, is everyone.”
Tran calculated. Twenty thousand natives, give or take a ten percent margin of error, with an estimated maximum childbirth rate of one pregnancy per female per annum, and an average litter size of singleton. Lifetime supplies of species-tailored, Deathworld-class vaccines and antibiotics was well within the abilities of just one of the Directorate’s Agile Development Modules, especially if automated production could be installed locally. The natives really were not asking for much, in the grand scheme of things. The College of Particle Physics had been known to misplace funding on that scale in a sloppy audit.
Still. Even a request as cheap as that could become expensive if it went on for long enough.
“Nevertheless, all we are asking for is a single round of non-invasive samples. We will not in any sense be Taking anything permanent. If we give a single round of medicines—enough for all currently living Ten’Gewek, say—then the next generation will be unprotected. A practical, permanent solution to the problem as presented will cost us significantly more than the value of the samples being given. We cannot provide such a service indefinitely, especially if the goal is population growth.”
“Not as simple as just giving us medicine, then,” Yan surmised.
Julian shook his head. “No. One generation could take their medicine, and those babies would live and grow strong, but then you’d be back to the start. More people having more babies, but they would lose those babies just as often as you do now. Would the Directorate would be willing to ensure a regular supply?”
Tran made a negative gesture. “We would require a negotiated duration for such a service, after which the contract would need to be renegotiated, or else the Ten’Gewek would need to establish their own native pharmaceutical industry… which according to our projections, they will not have the technological basis to do for at least three thousand Standardized Years.”
“That projection may not be accurate,” Rockefeller interjected. “The Ten’Gewek are developing very rapidly, in no small part due to their regular contact with Human technology and culture. The usual roadmap for sophont development doesn’t apply in this situation.”
“Agreed,” Nofl murmured, for Tran’s benefit, then spoke a little louder. “Might I suggest that the ambassador’s observation means that putting a time limit on the deal may not be useful? Perhaps instead, we should attach it to absolute population, if that is the Ten’Gewek objective.”
“…You mean deal ends when there are many of us,” Yan checked.
“I can see the merit in that suggestion,” Tran agreed. “The more of you there are, the more it will cost us to aid the Ten’Gewek.”
“Why not tie it to infant mortality rate?” Julian suggested. “If you can guarantee, say… four generations at a mortality rate better than fifty percent?”
“Julian?” Yan asked. The four huddled, speaking quietly in the native language while Julian translated and made sure they understood what was being proposed. Some sort of significant Look was exchanged. The big Human reached toward the table and pressed the button activating their muting field.
Tran took the opportunity to consult with Nofl.
“Rapid pharmaceutical development is your speciality, I believe.”
“Among others,” Nofl agreed.
“Assuming the Ten’Gewek aren’t substantially different from the two other deathworlder species I’ve studied, it should go smoothly…. But until I have some samples and scans, I can’t be definite. For all I know, we’ll have to reinvent from first principles. Unlikely, but it has happened.”
“We can do much better than fifty percent, I hope.”
“We can do better than ten percent. Goodness, I’d be ashamed if we couldn’t get the infant mortality rate below one percent, with proper application.”
“I think you’re being excessively optimistic, but very well… four generations, hmm.” Tran called up his memorized data on the state of the Directorate’s industrial abilities, logistics capacity, and the pricing estimates of a project like the one being asked. Four generations was… a hard bargain, but not an entirely unfair one. Especially considering how valuable the Ten’Gewek samples would be to the Ark Program.
…Tran glanced back at Julian, who was talking animatedly with the delegation on his side. Watching Deathworlders in motion was…intimidating, even if all they were doing was waving their hands about or bouncing in place. Nevertheless, the implication was clear. He couldn’t hear what they were saying but he didn’t need to. It was clear both Human and Ten’Gewek were deeply invested in the outcome of these talks.
“…I’ll push for two generations,” he decided to Nofl. “And compromise on three.”
“Of course. Never accept the first offer.”
As they returned to the negotiation, The hitherto-silent one known as Vemik, who’d been watching and listening carefully rather than contributing, spoke up.
“I have a question. What will you do with these samples? What are they for?”
“To learn about your kind, of course.”
“Why do you want to learn about the People?” Vemik pressed. “You seem… practical. Like you do things for reasons, yes? Knowing things just to know them is fun, but knowing things to do things is even better, so…”
Never underestimate a deathworlder indeed. Tran was secretly quite pleased, in fact. It was good to know they were dealing with a species who were merely undeveloped rather than stupid. There were too many stupid species.
“…I’m not at liberty to disclose the exact reasons,” he admitted. “But suffice it to say… we are not satisfied with how we are now. In the past, the Corti wrongly believed that intellect and physicality were mutually exclusive. We now know differently, and wish to adapt accordingly.”
Vemik listened to Julian’s patient translation, then nodded. His tail twitched as he absorbed what he heard.
“So… you will write new body-words. Using ours.”
“Learning from yours. We are learning from Human and Gaoian genetics as well. The idea is to deduce what you have in common which can also be successfully integrated into the Corti genome.”
Vemik glanced at the Singer. Some form of communication passed between them, driven by twitches of the tail and ears, slight dilations and contractions of their square, slotted pupils, and a slight tilt of Vemik’s head and a twitch of the Singer’s. Then both of them turned to Yan. They gave the same almost imperceptible gesture, and Yan nodded sharply.
“The deal: You will give four gen-err-ay-shuns of less than half our children die,” he said, turning to Tran.
“I can offer a much better rate: At least nine out of every ten will live… for two generations. After that, our continued service can be negotiated further…” Tran returned. He saw Yan grin, scoot forward on the couch, and light up.
The negotiations began in earnest.
Date Point: 16y3m AV
“Stinkworld,” the Irujzen Reef
Meereo, Champion of Clan Longear
Meereo was reading a report that simply blew his mind. There was no other way to describe it.
Clan Highmountain had become involved in the Irujzen Relay investigation. Rather than send a ship to Stinkworld, though, they’d instead flown the deep-space explorer A Poem Written In Steel all the way out to the halo stars at the very edge of the galaxy.
The idea, as he understood it, was that the Humans had sent over some kind of field equations that might be useful in picking out the Relay’s unique quantum signature from the galactic background. The Highmountains had tested it first by flying way out into the fringes of the galactic disk, where the stars were small and cold and impoverished of the heavier elements necessary for life, and where nobody had ever found a temperate planet. The kind of place the Hierarchy would naturally have no interest in and therefore, presumably, didn’t bother to cover with relays.
Then they’d flown inwards, toward the Irujzen Reef on a course that took them between Sol and Barnard’s Star. And they’d watched carefully for the kind of quantum signatures that Scotch Creek had predicted.
Sure enough, about a kiloparsec out from Sol, they’d started picking up exactly the predicted signal. By the time they flashed through the twelve light-year radius around Earth legally recognized by the Dominion as Human territory, the signal was strong and steady.
The Irujzen Reef—known to Human science as the Sagittarius Star Cloud,Messier 24 and IC 4715—was ten kilolightyears from Sol. Meaning that the Irujzen Relay generated a field that encompassed approximately one twenty-eighth of the galactic cross-sectional area.
That was a fact Meereo could sink his teeth into, even though the scale of it made his brain ache. He’d opened one of his professional software tools and gone to work.
First, make some assumptions about what features of network design remained constant even in a system as exotic and high-tech as this. He’d used cellular networks for reference. Every sapient species known to him used basically the same approach, because it was the one that worked.
The questions in front of him were… well, there were a few. First, was he looking at a standard sort of cell, or a particularly large one for gap coverage and reliability coverage? Or maybe a small local one for high-density traffic?
Probably not. Traffic engineering may not even be a concern for a system like this, this wasn’t radio frequency. And across the kind of time scales that the Hierarchy operated in, there was no such thing as a static landscape. Ten thousand light years was a stupefying distance to an organic life form, but a star’s orbit would carry it that far in a “mere” twelve to fifteen million years. With billions of stars falling inside its coverage, the Relay would lose and gain hundreds every year.
The Hierarchy therefore probably didn’t bother trying to anticipate where the galactic population would be distributed and fine-tune their network with larger and smaller cells. Far simpler and cheaper to make the relays a standard size and deploy enough of them to maintain reliable coverage no matter how the stars spun.
That was all speculation of course, but it didn’t seem like unreasonable speculation to Meereo and it fit the facts, so he kept calculating.
Twenty-eight relays the size of Irujzen would be enough to cover the whole galaxy on paper (overlapping circles problem aside), but of course life was not evenly distributed across the galaxy. There was none out in the halo due to the paucity of heavier elements, and none in the core due to intense radiation, frequent supernovae and an unknowable number of black holes crashing about.
Temperate, life-bearing worlds and the people who called them home occupied a fertile band between those two extremes that the Humans for some utterly bizarre reason called the ‘Golden Locks Zone.’ Gaoians called it the Green Belt. Whatever the name, twenty-eight relays, evenly spaced on planets with roughly equivalent Great Orbital periods would certainly cover…
He doodled, and calculated, and sketched.
….Most all of the Green Belt, most of the time.
He doodled, and calculated, and sketched some more.
It took him a few hours to find the minimum number and configuration that would reliably cover 100% of the green zone for, say, a million years. After that, it took another half hour before he arrived at a configuration that he was satisfied would provide effectively indefinite coverage and sufficient redundancy.
So. There were (probably) somewhere between twenty-eight and a hundred and twelve relays scattered all over the galaxy.
He took the geometric mean of those two numbers—fifty-six—and plugged it into his simulation. The result had occasional temporary gaps where a handful of planets might go without coverage for a few thousand years here and there, but across the kind of epochs the Hierarchy thought in, those gaps were at best a minor momentary nuisance that arose only in a vanishingly small number of cases.
Crucially, however, a significant minority of the Green Belt was covered only by a single relay. And if his assumptions about how the relays were spaced were correct, then the Border Stars—the territory between the fringes of Dominion and Alliance space which contained only one temperate planet of any significance—were one such minority.
The planet in question was Earth.
He stood up, sharply. Garl was briefing the senior Stoneback Father who’d been brought in to take over from him on this project, so Meereo scratched respectfully on his tent and waited to be called in rather than interrupt them.
Garl sniffed the air and peered at him. The old man’s vision was deteriorating alarmingly fast, now. “Champion Meereo. Something important?”
“I think so, Grandfather, yes.” Meereo didn’t bother to put down his tablet for the venerable ‘Back to read. Instead, he summarized what he’d been working on.
Garl might have been a common clay type, but there was a quick and perceptive brain under that shaggy pelt. He tilted his head as he absorbed Meereo’s conclusion, and then pant-grinned with a certain slow satisfaction.
“So ‘yer saying… if we were to destroy this relay…”
“Then the Hierarchy would completely lose contact with their operation in Sol.”
Garl duck-nodded, and stood up. He rounded the desk, and embraced Meereo in a tight hug “…Thank you. I actually get to hurt the bastards after all,” he said.
“It gets better!” Meereo managed to croak around the rib-crushing affection.
“There’s another important planet this might effect too. Ugun…” he paused, raised the tablet, and read ponderously off it. “Ugun-du-vuronag-thureg-nu-burthuruv.”
Garl chittered darkly. “…A name like that could only belong to one group’a people.”
“Well, that settles it. Tell erryone to pack their stuff, Meereo. We’re blowin’ this place ‘ta shit.”
Meereo pant-grinned. In truth, he would have liked to monitor the relay a little longer. One could always learn more from a running system than from relics and archived data… but this was a war. And sometimes a war demanded decisive action.
If it also meant getting an old Stoneback his one good hit in before the end… He was all for it.
Date Point: 16y3m AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm
“I like these Core-tie.”
“You do? Why the change of heart?”
When the ‘del-a-gay-shun’ had returned, there was of course much eagerness to learn the news. Yan was very happy to tell everyone they would be getting vack-seens from the Core-tie as soon as they could be made ready. With that, runners from nearby villages charged off into the trees to spread the news, and not long after that, more and more of the People poured into Yan’s village bringing meat, treats, an eagerness to play…
It was spring, after all. Springtime play normally had a slightly dangerous edge to it, like a flint knife that had been knapped a bit too thin and which could cut the hand that held it as badly as anything else. Big fights between tribes could happen in spring, when the Given-Men were at their hottest Fire, and the young men were strong and eager to take any woman even vaguely interested…or not, sometimes. For himself, Yan had never felt his Fire as strongly as he had this season, not even the first time so many seasons ago. It was only his worry for his People against the Sky-Tribes that kept his feet firmly on the trail…and maybe, if he thought about it, his love for Jooyun too.
But! Today was a happy day! Many of the sky-tribes were cruel and uncaring, but the gods must have smiled on the Ten’Gewek when they conspired for the Humans to find them.
Most of the Humans stayed out of the way and let the People have their fun. They had words like ‘high energy’ and ‘highly strung.’ They were celebrating too, in their quieter way, with beers and food, and some of their strange music playing from a singing-stone near their fire. But what Yan noticed, when he checked on them, was that it wasn’t like the way the People partied. Couples weren’t slipping away to find somewhere private to fuck. Well…Heff had his Claire wrapped up in strong arms and affection, and the two weren’t paying much attention to anyone else…but still. The rest of the men weren’t wrestling and boasting, the women weren’t dancing and teasing the men with promises of sweet treats and a warm, comfortable pile of hides…
These were ‘coll-eegs.’ They liked each other, they worked together, but they had rules. Rules seemed to be a big thing, to Humans. They were everywhere, spoken and unspoken, felt rather than learned.
Maybe that was a good thing, for people who played with the power of stars and nukes and built things like USS Robert A. Heinlein, and made rifles that could tear beasts in half or kill them even on a close miss. Maybe Humans needed their rules, to be as strong as they were.
Maye the People would need to become like that too, in time. But not yet.
So, Yan had partied in the People’s way. He’d fought, and boasted, and feasted, and nearly beaten Heff in a knife-throwing contest, and had beaten Jooyun in a race around the village, and he’d finally got to enjoy Yoonee, and two of Yoonee’s sisters too…
After which he’d decided that he was tired and would go celebrate with the Humans, something a few others including Vemik and the Singer had already chosen to do.
They’d opened some beers to celebrate the talks. Yan declined, but Vemik decided he would throw caution to the wind and brave another… Maybe because the latest woman to catch his eye was drinking it as well. Yan wasn’t about to try a Human, they were too… bendy… but if Vemik and Tilly both wanted to, then good luck to them!
Jooyun had pretty thoroughly exhausted himself playing with the men of the other tribes. He mostly won, too! That was good. The others needed to see their Human sky-friends as strong, because the more Yan learned about the bigger world, the more he realized that strong meant more than big muscles. The trick was showing that to the rest of the People. That was why Yan maybe bullied Jooyun a bit in the beginning and made him a man of the People. It was for his own good, firstly, but mostly it was for the tribes. Professor Daniel and his people were very nice when they visited each village, they brought learnings and coloring books…but they were strange and small people, hard to understand. And strictly off-limits for normal play.
Not Jooyun. He had grown strong enough for the People and had endless energy to challenge all comers, but even he had his limits. Eventually, when it was getting dark and two of the younger men from Bor’s tribe had tackled him at the same time, they were finally able to pin him to the ground, claim their victories, and give him a small embarrassment. He stumbled back to the campfire while smiling hugely, despite being exhausted and so sweaty-wet he looked like he’d fallen into the river. A couple of the younger children chased after him, eager to climb onto his back and pester him with young-boy questions.
He’d earned some peace, though. “Go play with your friends, little fellas! I need to sit down!”
He sat heavily next to Yan, sighed fondly at them, and groped greedily at those beer bottles. Yan still didn’t like beer. Instead of drinking until he was too dizzy to even walk, Yan planned to drag Yoonee and her sisters back to his hut, pin them under his strength and fuck them completely stupid, and keep fucking them until maybe the noon singing tomorrow…
It hadn’t taken Jooyun long to down a hand of bottles and start in on number five. Not even all that beer seemed to make him the least bit ‘dwunk.’ Professor Daniel had matched him drink for drink too, and maybe he was a little calmer and slower, but otherwise Yan could see nothing wrong with him either. It was him who’d sounded so surprised at Yan’s confession.
“No silly play. They say what they want to take, they say what they can give back. Honest.”
“Only ‘cuz we kept ‘em that way, bud,” Jooyun told him. “They’d have taken you for everything if they could.”
“Good!” Yan boasted. “Would be weak if we let them climb all over us!”
“And they would be weak if they didn’t try to climb all over us!” the Singer agreed. She was trying beer for herself, and seemed to like it. “Why didn’t they come visit? We’d make a feast!”
Professor Daniel drained his bottle and set it next to the growing pile. Vemik would no doubt claim them for himself tomorrow. “They can’t. The gravity alone would at the very least break their bones.”
“They have excursion suits, don’t they?” Jooyun asked. “…No, wait. One sniff of the air around here and they’d be in anaphylactic shock in seconds.”
Yan had no idea what that long word was, but he’d long since got used to that with Humans. Jooyun was good about making a People-word if it was something really important for them to know. It sounded like a weak-person kind of problem, though. Didn’t sound nice at all.
“We had the same worry about Gaoians visiting Earth.” Professor Daniel pointed out.
“Yes…but that’s still valid for some of them. They have to get tested before visiting, after all. It’s like…half of all Silverfurs, and ten percent of the Brownies, I think? But yeah.”
“I thought Gaoians were [deathworlders] too?” Yan asked.
“They are,” Daniel said with a nod. “But the Hierarchy sealed away many of their body-words that make them that. Those body-words have been slowly escaping for many generations now, but the kind of time that, uh, the gods work on in these things is much, much longer than a life. In any case, they’re only just now re-learning what it means to be themselves. Really proper examples of them being Deathworlders—like Daar, or his friends—are still pretty rare.”
“That’s going to change though, I bet,” Jooyun mused.
“Oh, absolutely…Anyway. You still have some work to do, Yan. The Corti want to see a demonstration of your people’s overall fitness, so you’ll need to find two hands of the smartest, strongest, and best-looking Ten’Gewek you can, so we can bring them to Cimbrean for a little adventure next week.”
“God,” grumbled Jooyun, “That’s going to be…interesting.”
Yan ignored Jooyun’s misuse of god’s name for the moment. “Why?”
“Remember everything we had to teach you, Yan? How to use the toilet? How to stay safe with the other aliens? Things you absolutely can’t do?”
“Vemik and I, we’re smart! If we can learn, other People learn too!”
“And will you ensure they behave themselves?”
“Jooyun Sky-Brother,” Yan chided, “I am not a young, dumb man. I know my people. They will behave, you have my word.”
“…And your word is more than enough.” Jooyun nodded seriously. “But just to be sure, uh… absolutely no mating with aliens…” Jooyun gave a sly look over toward Tilly, who was a tiny, animated little thing wrapped up tightly in Vemik’s limbs; the two were essentially oblivious to all but themselves and conspired quietly with each other. Singer just rolled her eyes and trilled.
Yan nodded solemnly. There were times some of the younger Given-Men, still getting used to their Fire, suggested that being so close with the Sky-People made him and the people around him weaker. Yan had never stood for that, not for a second, and everyone who’d ever said it to his face had been one big bruise by the time he was done with them.
They didn’t know Jooyun and the others. They saw Jooyun and respected him, but the others? Little stick-thin ones like Tilly and old men like Professor Daniel weren’t the same thing. They knew Jooyun was rare among his kind, so Humans were weaker than the People. Even if they actually knew better in their head…it was hard to see past what someone’s gut said was true.
Yan had seen metal death hammer down from above, and a flash of godly power smash the forest. He had seen ships, and cities, and guns, and cars, and all the other things and he knew it was Humans who did all those things. The others… knew it, but they didn’t know it. Didn’t feel it. Yan looked at Humans and saw strong people, just like he’d seen strength in Vemik even when the Sky-Thinker was a young boy who spent too long gazing at clouds and not enough time throwing spears.
Professor Daniel and his coll-eegs were winning them over. It just…took time, and maybe it took Jooyun beating the bad thoughts out of a man now and then, too. When his women weren’t looking.
And there was another image seared in Yan’s mind, from the first time he’d fought the Hierarchy’s death-birds. The time Awisun had swatted a hand of them out of the air in just heartbeats with a cold, fierce face and no mercy.
Their bodies might be small. But their hearts were as fierce as anything Yan had ever fought.
“Yes, yes…” Yan again looked at the beer, and shuddered slightly. “They say, bring men and women? And you promise we will be gone only a little while?”
“Yeah, men and women both. They should be quick learners so we can, I dunno, teach them Gravball maybe?”
“Now that would be a heck of a demonstration…” Professor Daniel said.
“You’ve seen gravball?”
“The rules leaked out in a TV interview some time ago. There’s a YouTube league now. Or, well, was. The rate of injury was pretty ridiculous. But given sports medicine these days…”
“Didn’t take you for a sports fan.”
“Not usually. But you have to admit, Gravball is spectacular.”
“Fun as heck to play, too. It’s basically three-dee spacerugby. Ooh!” Jooyun was struck by a good idea suddenly. “Maybe we could run them through some scenarios! Show off that they’re quick problem-solvers, too. Whatever we gotta do to make a good impression, yeah?”
Daniel chuckled. “You’re definitely a cheerleader for them.”
“Us. Cheerleader for us, human and Ten’Gewek. I took the rites, remember? And I took ‘em seriously.”
“We bring our best,” Yan agreed. “Show us at our best, too. Only way.”
“I’d say no Given-Men besides you, though. After all…” Jooyun smiled slyly as he brought the bottle to his lips. “They didn’t ask for Given-Men specifically. Make them pay more for that!”
“Devious! I imagine Claire would like that…where is she?”
Yan grinned. “Fucking Heff!” He’d seen them slip away from the fire during the conversation.
Predictably, the Humans got all embarrassed.
“And where’s Tilly and Vem—? Oh. Never, uh, never mind. I don’t want to know.”
“…Well. Best’a luck to her, I guess,” Jooyun looked awkward, then stood up. “I’m gonna go sleep. I’ve gotta jump back early in the morning. And arrange shenanigans for you, Yan.”
That was one of his favorite sky-words. One of Yan’s too. “Go. Don’t be gone long.”
“Never. Maybe I’ll bring Tristan and Ramsey next time!”
“They will be.”
“Good.” Yan liked that. Boys (and girls!) should grow up strong. And if they impressed the core-tie enough…
The People would be sky-strong too.
Date Point: 16y3m1d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
There was something wrong with Leemu’s eyes, and it was scaring the shit out of him.
He’d never been all that brave. He hoped he wasn’t a coward, but fear was… he’d avoided it, when he could. Now, though, it was a light in the darkness. It was… something. A feeling, which made it a beacon he could follow out from under the crushing weight of depression. It was the first thing he’d felt with any real strength or passion since waking up, so as much as he was frightened by it…
He was also curious.
He’d first noticed it after a day or two living with Preed and Gorku on this strange new planet in this house the Great Father himself had got for them. Something was… Odd. When he looked out the window at the people walking past, sometimes some of their clothes popped out strangely from the background. He couldn’t describe it, just that they were… strange.
It didn’t go away. It just got more and more intense as time went on until one day he looked at a bottle of sauce on the counter in Preed’s kitchen and, with a jolt that fell right through him from his head to his stomach, he realized that he was seeing a new color.
The huge Stoneback was in their garage gym, cheerily making a racket as he did most days when he wasn’t gleefully forcing Leemu to do the same. It wasn’t as fun as it had been before, there was much more pain and not as much progress, but…well. He only really looked forward to two things in the world. Preed’s noodles, and Gorku’s efforts to Make Everything Better.
Now, he desperately needed them.
Gorku came stampeding out of the garage. “Wuz’ wrong, buddy?” His speech had improved dramatically, but it was still a tiny bit slurred. Leemu had been noticing details like that a lot more, lately. And thinking about them more, too.
“Color!” He noticed something about Gorku’s fur. It looked different! Like…richer, maybe.
“I… I’m seeing…” Leemu waved a paw desperately at the sauce bottle. “What is that?”
“Uh…” Gorku lumbered over to the bottle and sniffed it. “…Hot sauce?”
“No I mean, what color is it you huge…?”
“Oh! Uh…kinda green? Mebbe a little yellowish, dunno why Preed likes it so much…”
“No! It’s different! I–” Leemu spun as Preed came in from the little garden he’d started tending out the back of the house. “Preed, what–”
Preed blinked at him, then at the bottle. “Red. Bright red. Slightly orange.”
“Yes. Maybe…come outside, Leemu.”
Preed had started growing a garden out back of the kitchen. Mostly it was herbs, and that was a real treat for the nose. One of Leemu’s first really good moments had come when he’d been led outside and had the chance to experience the scents of Basil, Lemongrass, Galangal, Turmeric, Coriander, garlic…
He’d also planted flowers, which were a different and much sweeter texture for the nose. Now, though, they were… were…
Leemu looked around, and felt as if the world had just become much, much bigger and way scarier. He whimpered, just trying to taken the sheer incredible change of it all–!
He felt as if the bottom had dropped out and he was falling down, down—but also flying. There were hues there he’d never imagined. Like that flower which was blue but not, and that one which was yellow but not. And…
He sat down abruptly and covered his eyes, shivering.
Gorku and Preed were right there for him. It took him a while to feel brave enough to open his eyes and look again and see just how different everything was.
It was… He didn’t know how he’d even begin to describe it. He could see patterns on the flowers and leaves that would have been invisible before. Were invisible! When he looked at Preed’s shoes he saw a warm healthy color he couldn’t name rather than the dark drab one he’d never really thought about.
He pointed at them with something between excitement and terror. “What color are your shoes?!”
“These? They’re just brown…”
“I’ve never seen a brown like that!”
“…Really? I always thought they were a bit plain—”
“I need to see more!”
The fear was gone. Suddenly, Leemu wanted to see everything. A quick blitz around the garden turned up a hose with bright “orange” connectors, a climbing flower of some kind that was still in its infancy but nevertheless the little buds were riots of rich color, and a tiny insect that Preed said was an Earthling. It had a shiny carapace covered in little black dots, but the base was red.
Gorku followed him all around the garden smelling strongly of worry. “Leemu…are you okay?”
“What are these?!” Leemu thrust a seed packet at his friend.
“And th— Fyu!”
Preed had been chuckling to himself as he gathered the hose. Now he’d plugged it in, turned the water on and put his thumb over the free end, which he aimed high into the air. It was billowing out a fine spray, and within that spray was…
Leemu ran out of words. He just stopped, and stared.
“You like that, Leemu? That’s called a rainbow.”
Leemu approached carefully, staring at the mystical thing dancing in the air in front of him. “…You see this? This is what it’s like to see like a Human?”
“Sorry to say, I think you’ll get used to it.”
Leemu reached out to touch the rainbow, and got a wet paw for his efforts. It snapped him back to reality a bit, though. “…I don’t think I want to get used to it. Wh…what is that?”
“Light through a prism, or something like that. There are seven main colors. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.”
“Do you see these a lot?”
“I saw one this morning. It rains here every night. Get up early, and you’ll see them if the rain lasts late into the morning and the sun comes up behind it.”
Gorku smelled confused, and when Leemu glanced at him he saw his large friend tilting his head at the water spray. Preed turned and shut off the water, and the rainbow faded away.
Leemu felt a moment of profound sadness, but a different kind to what had been crushing him for so long. The fact was… he’d just seen something that he wouldn’t have seen if the Arutech had killed him. He’d seen something that the Arutech hadn’t shown him, too. It was…
For the first time since being cured, there was something better about life than what the nanites had been doing to his brain.
He held that thought lightly in his brain, barely daring to touch it. Then he looked at Preed, and completely broke down.
Later, after the hugging and keening and healing, when he was alone in the evening gathering his thoughts, he worked up the balls to do something truly ludicrous. He sent the Great Father a message, directly to his personal infosphere account.
It consisted of one short, vital question.
“What am I?”
The reply came within minutes.
“The future--D, GF”
It felt good.
Date Point: 16y3m1d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm
Doctor Tilly Briggs
Tilly had no regrets. But her body sure as fuck had complaints.
She and Vemik had stayed up long into the night talking about his “bawistuh,” way up in the trees where she could see the world bathed in the full-moon gloom. Ten’Gewek had excellent night vision, and Vemik in particular had sharp eyes; he kept pointing out interesting things she could barely see. Though…while looking at stars and trees was admittedly fun, they were alone for a reason and quickly grew much more interested in each other. She told him stories about her life while he listened, rapt and asking question after eager question. That was flattering and all, but she was more interested in hearing more about him. His stories were much more exciting, and were filled with adventure and danger, the joys of discovery and exploration…
He grew more and more animated as he told her about his manhood Hunt and the huge Werne he’d taken. He had invented the bow for the occasion, too! At some point the cavemonkey part of his personality asserted itself and he began to show off while telling his stories, mostly by jumping about, flipping head over tail, one-arm flinging himself like he was secretly ten times lighter than he actually was… Stereotypically grunty? Of course. She normally didn’t find herself terribly impressed by that sort of thing, but Vemik was just so honestly playful…
She wasn’t complaining, really. The Sky-Thinker put every single one of her insecure former suitors to shame, in every category. He was smarter than them, much smarter, to the point where she was pretty sure he was a genius-level intellect under all that brawn, smart enough that her only advantage seemed to be her schooling and experience. His mind was like a bear trap, even when tipsy.
He was intensely affectionate, too. Vemik had wrapped her up tight in those thick-set, steel-strong limbs of his while he finished his story, burbling happily about the stream of big ideas he so desperately wanted to achieve. She found herself on the edge of being flustered by him. Just keeping herself afloat was proving to be alluringly taxing, even if it was a bit like being lovingly crushed by a hot marble statue. Still, exploring ideas with Vemik was…overwhelming. In a good way! But overwhelming, nonetheless.
Nor did it help that he was…well, really quite handsome. She had trouble looking away from those iridescent eyes of his, or the way his naturally neon red-orange sideburns framed his broad, heavy jaw…Vemik was definitely a looker in a brutally masculine, alien sort of way, and definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, but who really decided that sort of thing anyway? It wasn’t like she made a habit of dating ugly men of course, she had standards…but Vemik had charm that cut right through the superficial bullshit. She liked him. She liked him a lot.
…Of course, he was also several hundred kilos of compact spacemonkey gymnast, and had a steel-hard superhero body to go along with it. She didn’t mind that at all, oh no. He was supremely self-confident about it too, but had none of the posturing fragile ego that so often came with the big meatheads she’d turned down in the past. His swagger was effortless, unconscious and authentic, which just made it so much more impressive.
He was, in short, a rare man by any definition. Young, accomplished, kind-hearted, absurdly intelligent, good-looking with the body of a god… and all the boundless, untempered, overwhelming enthusiasm for life that only a young man in his late teens could possibly have.
One of his ideas involved damming a river some distance from the village, which of course he decided needed showing right now. Tilly found herself suddenly riding on the edge of terror as he flung them both through the trees at what felt like a suicidally insane pace, making ten meter leaps across the canopy look as easy as stepping across a puddle.
She definitely could have done without the leap down. Tilly didn’t know exactly how high up they were when he flung them out of the tree, but it was high enough she couldn’t see the ground in the gloom, and had just enough time to realize the impact was going to be…jarring.
It was. Vemik’s ridiculous strength kept her safe, with her head palmed safely in the crook of his thick neck and his tail inescapably wrapping the rest of her up. Nonetheless, nothing she had ever felt before shook quite so hard. They bounced on impact too, so there was another hit, much less violent, followed immediately by another. He pulled up to a stop and without even a moment of adjustment, charged over to what he wanted to show.
“See!? Jooyun says, this is very strong granite stone along sides! Different from the rest, we could block the river here! Bring water to the villages, no fear of yshek!”
And so the evening went. Tilly learned just how overwhelming of a personality Vemik could be. He talked excitedly about how they might go about such a project (and other things too) while he propelled them back to the village at only a slightly slower pace. By the time they came back, the village was just about shut down and everyone had found a warm hut in which to bed down. Judging by the general atmosphere, most of them weren’t exactly asleep.
She found herself at Vemik’s hut. He gave her the most playful, suggestive look she’d ever seen, nodded towards the doorway…
Things were a blur after that. A snarl, sharp fangs against her throat, a crushingly tight pin. Warm pelts that smelled so completely like his musk it made her dizzy. Much later, there was a faint sunrise peeping through the hut’s doorway, which she vaguely noted while they were still furiously exploring, playing each other’s bodies like fine instruments.
Waking up the next…afternoon…was an effort. Soreness and exhaustion was no small part of it, but being honest, the biggest reason was just how wonderfully tight he’d snuggled up to her, and how comfortable his warmth was against her skin. She gave him a gentle scritch in his crest and a feel up his ridiculous abs to wake him up, practically melted at the sleepy little grin he gave her, politely declined his offer for another round of play…then reconsidered.
Eventually, they emerged from his hut. The village quite predictably had nothing but amused hooting congratulations for them as they stumbled into the light. Vemik gave her one last affectionate nip on the cheek and then hared off to check on his forge, while Tilly had to endure the somewhat stiff and ungainly walk of shame back to her own camp.
It wasn’t quite as bad as she’d feared. The worst, in fact, was an arched eyebrow from Dan, and identical wicked grins from Claire and Hoeff, who beckoned her over to join them at lunch. She was, she realized, absolutely famished.
They gave her a minute or two to demolish a bowl of stew and some freshly baked bread before the inevitable questions started. Claire leaned forward into her field of view and gave Tilly a Look over the top of her glasses.
“…Weapons-grade. Totally worth it.”
Claire couldn’t keep a straight face and bust out giggling.
“You do realize you’re officially the first human to ever have sex with an alien, right?” Hoeff asked as she took another bite of warm, fragrant loaf. “You’re gonna be in the history books.”
Tilly had… not considered that. She stopped chewing for a second, then swallowed.
“Well,” she said with maybe more bravado than she felt, “A girl’s gotta make her mark somehow.”
“Only if you lot forget your discretion,” Dan intoned, injecting himself into the conversation. “That’s her story to tell. Not yours.”
Tilly shot him a grateful, albeit embarrassed look.
“Hey!” Hoeff raises his hand placatingly, “I’m no gentleman but I never tell! Just, y’know. Someone will. You should know that. Tongues wag, y’know?”
“…Y’know what? Let them,” Tilly decided. “I’m not ashamed.”
“Attagirl!” Claire agreed.
“I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer some, uh, words of caution,” Dan said, sitting down. “As Hoeff just pointed out, Vemik is an alien. It’s… probably worth considering what your expectations are.”
“Dan, Vemik’s as close to monogamous as the Ten’Gewek get,” Tilly told him. “And I have no doubt the Singer’s gonna be wearing him out tonight. This was about curiosity, not about anything more. I don’t have any expectations.”
“Curiosity sated, then?” Claire asked.
Tilly shrugged, and couldn’t resist a naughty smile. “I could go a few more rounds.” She grinned at Dan’s obvious discomfort. “But yeah. Curiosity sated. His too, I think.”
“Good boost for all’a us, I think,” Hoeff said. “You know how Ten’Gewek are with strength. Proving a human can ‘go a round’ with one’a them can’t hurt us.”
“Definitely not with a Given-Man, though,” Tilly clarified. “God no.”
Dan sighed. “Well… I suppose diplomacy comes in many forms,” he conceded. “Quite a contrast with the no-doubt very formal discussion they just had with the Corti…”
“No doubt,” Hoeff agreed. “You can leave Tilly here in our care, Professor. I bet you’ve got a ton of important professor stuff to do and she needs her rest…”
Dan shot him a Look, which Hoeff met with the light, friendly smile of a man who had a limited supply of fucks and wasn’t interested in giving one here and now. It worked: Dan’s ruffled feathers settled and he wandered off in a cloud of vague well-wishes.
“Well,” Tilly decided that turnabout was definitely fair play. “You two seem…nicely relaxed.”
“Gotta represent for team Homo Sapiens.” Hoeff’s expression was quite possibly the most smugly self-satisfied and lecherous look she’d ever seen on anyone.
Claire’s expression was just sinful. “Weapons-grade indeed.”
“Well, look at us!” Tilly laughed. “Living the glamorous space explorer life. Exotic alien worlds, new life, new civilizations…”
“No green-skinned space babes though.”
“I’ll take reality over some bitch with a palette swap any day. James Kirk, eat your heart out!”
TIlly took the rest of the day off to enjoy the simple comforts of the camp. They had hot water, so she luxuriated with the shower on its massage setting, then tried to just relax and let her body recover from a night of vigorous exertion.
Relaxation didn’t come easily, though. Hoeff’s observation about the history books kept going around in her brain. And so did the one about wagging tongues…
…Fuck it. May as well own it. She sat up, grabbed her tablet, propped it up on the table and called up the touch-type volumetric keyboard. They had twelve hours before the next comms synch and… Well…
Somehow, she just felt like telling all.
So she did.
Date Point: 16y3m5d AV
Planet Rauwryhr, The Rauwryhr Republic, Perseus Arm
Ambassador Sir Patrick Knight
Rauwran Great Trees were… They were quite a thing to behold.
Each one was as thick around at the base as a cricket ground, and soared up and up and up until their canopy was an invisible dark haze high overhead. The Rauwryhr had evolved in the perpetual twilight of the forest, and rather than cutting their forest down they’d cultivated it. It was the foundation for their cities.
Those cities, or at least the city of Wrhyfrur, were not as… round… as Knight would have expected. If he’d been asked to picture a city where treehouses and gantries between the mighty forest giants took the place of skyscrapers and pavement, he would have described something elegant and rounded, perhaps exotically lit by pale blue bioluminescent plants and suchlike. Something with a natural aesthetic.
The Rauwryhr weren’t quite so sentimental. The lighting was LEDs, and the buildings were designed to reinforce the trees they were built around, onto and into. They were sealed and had air conditioning, and were made of glass and steel rather than wood with the result that the fact that they were built around, out onto and among the branches gave them an odd topography that reminded Knight of bismuth crystals.
And of course, everywhere were the signs of thriving capitalism. Advertising hoardings, animated billboards, lit signs in every colour of the rainbow. There was a lot of orange, which glowed warmly in the low light levels, but plenty of green, red and blue too, seasoned with swatches of pink, purple and blue.
And then there were the open spaces between the trees where “pedestrian” traffic went gliding.
The planet Rauwryhr would have been a higher class if not for its utterly pathetic gravity. That, combined with a relatively dense atmosphere, meant that the Rauwryhr themselves lived a three-dimensional life. They didn’t quite have wings, but what they had was more pronounced and developed than the loose skin of a sugar glider and it let them glide easily on their homeworld, though they were sadly grounded and ungainly in most other environments.
In Wrhyfrur, there were holographic motes of light suspended in the air to guide people and prevent mid-air collisions as the locals flew across the open spaces between the trees. Guided by them, Rauwryhr commuters and civilians swooped and looped gracefully in the artificial updraft generated from the ground level, and circled down around the edges.
All told, it was an incredible sight. One day, the Ten’Gewek would come here and be suitably awed. It certainly gave Knight a shiver down his spine, and he’d seen fireworks over the Thames, the Las Vegas strip and the famous Shibuya intersection. Wrhyfrur was a spectacle on that kind of level.
He was immensely grateful to see it.
The Rauwryhr equivalent of laughter was a kind of hiccuping chirrup sound, and it occurred to him that he was hearing it from beside him. The Rauwryhr ambassador to the Dominion Security Council, Scrythcra, was waiting patiently for him.
“You approve, Ambassador?” he asked, when Knight glanced at him.
“It’s… stunning,” Knight admitted.
“I’m sure your cities are just as striking,” Scrythcra replied, pleasantly. “Too bad I’ll never have the privilege of seeing them.”
“And I’ll never have the privilege of gliding this one. But I’m glad to have seen it.”
“We have transportation suitable for our alien guests,” Scrythcra assured him. “You’ll see this city as it was meant to be seen, I promise. After all, the conference center is in the canopy.”
Knight glanced behind him at the jump terminus they were leaving, and reflected that if they’d come via shuttle he’d have been able to see the canopy from above on final approach. As convenient as jump tech was, there was an argument that it took some of the thrill and scenery out of travelling.
“Yes, I’d like to see that,” he agreed.
“This way, then.”
As promised, the ride up into the canopy was spectacular. Spencer, Knight’s personal protection officer, clearly wasn’t entirely happy about the transport’s huge sweeping windows but he accepted his Rauwryhr counterpart’s assurance that the transport was designed with the safety of visiting VIPs in mind.
Knight wasn’t concerned. He could see the faint shimmer of forcefields shielding, and he noted with interest the several discreet panels with small warning labels on them that he guessed meant airbags. A fall at terminal velocity on this planet? With something soft to land on?
Best not to be too cocky, though. Life could always surprise a man.
They came up into the conference center from below, following another trail of holographic runway lights onto the landing platform alongside a dozen similar aircars.
“Many of our alien guests are intimidated by heights,” Scrythcra said as they disembarked. “We have safety netting under and around the platform for your benefit. So long as you don’t do a running long jump off the edge, you’re in no danger.”
“I’ll bear that in mind,” Knight said glancing over the shoulder-high railing beside him and having a sudden perverse vision of himself doing exactly that. He quashed the sudden attack of l’appel du vide and stepped away.
“Patrick!” The deck was sturdy enough to handle several shuttles, but Martin Tremblay’s footfalls still rang through it as he jogged up to say hello. The two old friends shared an enthusiastic hug. “How are you?”
“Enjoying the view!” Knight said.
“I’ll say. Hopefully one day there’ll be a documentary team with a drone who can come out here and do it justice. But there’s a bit of a snag, I’m afraid.”
“The Great Father isn’t coming after all. I just got word from his officer here, apparently something important came up.”
“Why does that fill me with a mild sense of dread?”
“Because he’s arguably the most powerful man in the galaxy?” Martin gave him a wry look.
“There’s no arguably about it.”
“Well, whatever came up I’m sure he’ll handle it and we’ll know when we need to know. He doesn’t, uh, do coordination. Luckily for us we’ve either been super lucky or he’s considering our interests as he goes…”
“Some things move too fast for extensive liaison. Besides, I had rather a long conversation with the 5-EYES leaders about Daar not so long ago. There’s an… understanding.”
“He knows that messing up the alliance would be a bad idea, and we know he has the freedom to act that our own leaders sometimes wish they had, so we don’t comment overmuch on Gaoian aggression as long as it remains ethical?” Martin summarized, shrewdly.
“That’s about it, yes.”
“If I know Sartori, he used almost those exact words.”
Knight shrugged and glanced at Scrythcra, who was listening with interest. “Daar was created the Great Father specifically to crack skulls, after all. Doing what he must only increases his power.”
“That is the very root of the Kwmbwrw grievance with him,” Scrythcra said. “They don’t like unaccountable leadership, as a rule.”
“Neither do we… as a rule,” Knight assured him.
“He is not as unaccountable as people suppose,” Martin said. “Not even a Great Father could long stand against the Clans if they turned against him.”
Scrythcra cocked his head and perked an ear curiously. “How so?”
“Daar’s power is built on trust, and that trust comes from a long history of consistently doing the right thing. I think far too many misread why the Champions so respect him.”
“Is it respect? Or is it actually fear?”
“I’m sure personal fear is no small consideration. I mean…he is Daar. But long before he was the Great Father, he was Champion of Stoneback. He was well-respected even then.”
Knight nodded. “From what I’ve heard, he never wanted to be Great Father anyway.”
Scrythcra spread his hands and ducked his head, a gesture Knight remembered from his Rauryhr body language primer was meant to signify agreeableness. A human would have nodded. “You aren’t alone in thinking that Henenwgwyr and her supporters at the Council are too hard in their judgement.”
“She’s guilty of some mirror fallacy, I believe. She’s treating Daar like he’s a breeding-stud from her own people. There is a reason they are a matriarchy, after all.”
The Kwmbwrw had the opposite gender ratio to the Gao, and their males were… not stupid, but gripped by their hormones and emotions to a degree that was genuinely alarming. Worse, that ratio wasn’t genetic, but came about as a result of male competition…and the resulting attrition. The Kwmbwrw matriarchs only preserved an orderly society through an iron grip that sometimes bordered on totalitarianism.
After all, their young maidens could be just as gripped by their hormones as the studs could be. They were a passionate people, deeply and devastatingly passionate. For Knight, getting his head around that fact had been the key to understanding Henenwgwyr’s intransigence… and her fear. She saw in the Gao a society that embraced their wild side in ways that would be genuinely catastrophic for her own people.
No doubt they’d feel much the same about the Ten’Gewek in future decades.
Humans on the other hand, or at least the tiny minority of humanity that existed as an interstellar power, seemed to receive a lot of positive press among the Kwmbwrw. According to intelligence, the general consensus in the Great Houses state-controlled media was that humans were the product of a fearsome, violent planet and posed an enormous threat to everything around them simply by existing… and then praised spaceborne humanity for their restraint, discipline, and for keeping the more ‘feral’ proportion of the species contained on Earth.
A frankly offensive misreading of the situation, but not one that Knight was about to correct them on. It was too useful.
“Well,” he decided. “If the Great Father isn’t coming, maybe the Kwmbwrw will re-think their willingness to attend.”
“We shall have to discuss it,” Scrythcra said. “Inviting a species like them on short notice is not easy.”
“There’s a lot to discuss,” Martin said. “And not many days to discuss it all in. Let’s have this tour of the conference center, and then we can get down to the details.”
Knight nodded in agreement, and followed behind as Scrythcra started to point out the features and facilities that made this particular venue such a prime choice for the Interspecies Defense Symposium. But he couldn’t resist one last glance at the view of the city.
That alone made this whole venture worthwhile. Everything after that point? Every step they were about to take in rebuilding the Dominion’s military structure and pushing back against the Hunters? That was the objective of course…
But what was life if it was all work, without a healthy dose of beauty now and again?
Hardly worth defending at all.
Date Point: 16y3m5d AV
The White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth
President Arthur Sartori
The morning defence briefing was always a ‘highlight’ of Sartori’s schedule. It was mercifully efficient, so it had that going for it, but it was a constant grinding reminder that there was a whole world of life and death out there and that he was compelled to make a move in that huge, grand-stakes game literally every time he spoke.
“…They’ve traced the kidnappers to a small village in the mountains, but the local authorities are concerned it’ll be a massacre if they send in their own people. The deadline until they start executing hostages is now, uh… sixty-one hours away.”
Sartori nodded, resisting the urge to doodle on his notepad as he thought. His hands liked to be busy as his brain worked, but it wouldn’t have been seemly. “Do we have assets in a position to do anything?”
“Yes, Mister President. There is a numbered task force within range, and a special activity even closer. I would recommend the task force but that will still require a Finding.”
Findings were not a thing Sartori particularly enjoyed. They had many uses, but one of the biggest was to authorize a covert activity. That also caused select personal enemies of his in Congress to be notified, which meant that every time something dark had to be done, his foes gained yet another point in the even more covert game of DC influence peddling.
Fuck it. “Right. Authorized. Who are we using?”
“Delta, for this situation. There are radiological hazards.”
“Of course there are… How long?”
“Quickly. The real delay will be getting airborne and over target, frankly. We anticipate mission completion by this evening’s summary.”
“Okay. I look forward to it. Anything else?”
“Just a political matter. The Great Father’s Office reached out to us, Mister President. They want to plan a large state visit coincident with a strategy session amongst the 5-EYES. The Great Father apparently feels that the battlespace regarding the Hierarchy has changed significantly and that warrants high-level discussion.”
“He’s not wrong. Have they reached out to our allies?”
“Yessir. His office has extended formal invitations to His Majesty and family to visit at their pleasure, and we gather that a formal invitation in reciprocation is forthcoming. There is also talk about visiting other nations abroad. It was made clear to us they would appreciate advice. Particularly about Thailand.”
“Yes, Mister President. It’s to do with that ‘laughing man’ incident on Cimbrean just a short while ago.”
“…Oh! Right. There’s a Thai citizen involved, isn’t there. What was his name again?”
“Preed Chadesekan, sir.”
“…Right. Well, Thailand isn’t exactly a bastion of political stability, even if they are largely pleasant in international affairs these days…”
“They’re also frequently governed by a military junta. They’ve just held free elections for the first time in many years.”
“Might not be the image Daar wants to project to the rest of the human race, then.”
“We will advise them on the complications, Mister President.”
“Please do, and draft a personal invitation from me to Daar.”
“Yes sir. That should be…” General Moss checked his list one last time and gave a satisfied nod. “…yes, that’s everything.”
“Great. Thank you, general.”
“Mister president.” Moss and his entourage left, and Sartori watched the usual West Wing bustle and hubbub unfold as the next issue on his schedule for the day was deftly summoned…
It was a busy day. Not a lot of time to think. At some point during the morning, his invitation to Daar arrived. He read it, decided he was happy with it, and signed it. Daar might have the run of Cimbrean thanks to his understanding with Annette Winton, but a visit to Earth was a different matter entirely. Best to make sure absolutely everything was done properly.
The evening summary arrived before he even had the chance to come up for air. Time, it seemed, flew just as much when a man was swept off his feet with work as when he was having fun. But he was pleased to learn that the rescue mission had gone flawlessly: Hostages rescued, radiological items secured, and a high-value target currently undergoing surgery but expected to survive to be subsequently delivered safely into custody.
He took a moment to briefly imagine the flurry of tense activity, the precision lethality and the sheer scale of what had been set in motion long before it arrived in his office, and which he’d given his blessing to with a simple nod and one word. It was easy sometimes to condense the world down to just his office, and paperwork, and quick decisions.
He relished the moments when he was reminded what those decisions meant. They meant, for a dozen people in a far-flung corner of the world today, that life went on and their nation was a slightly safer place to live. Thoughts like that were what kept him doing what he did.
He retired for the night in a good mood, and slept easily.
Date Point: 16y3m5d AV
”Stinkworld,” The Irujzen Reef
Daar, Great Father of the Gao
Garl had the smell of terminal decline all over him, and his eyesight was vanishing terrifyingly fast.
Daar had known some silverfurs to hold on for a decade or more when they started to go, enduring years of aching bones, blindness and stiff joints… but the Stonebacks had always had the opposite problem. Their lives were healthy and robust and comparatively long, but when nature did finally catch up with them it hit like a rockslide.
Garl would be dead within a month, at most. That was… not an easy thing to contemplate, really. He’d been a senior father on the day Daar became Champion, and had gone on to become one of the longest-lived Grandfathers the Clan had ever known. Top three, certainly.
And of course, he was Daar’s own sire. That relationship was not traditionally acknowledged, but it still mattered somewhere deep under Daar’s fur.
And Daar was nothing if not sentimental. He did his best to suppress it when being the Great Father required him to, but… at moments like this, it was hard to convince himself that Garl shouldn’t have the right to go out with a very literal bang.
Garl sniffed the air and grumbled to himself, “Din’t ‘yer den-mamma teach ‘ya how ‘ta wash ‘yer balls?! I could smell ‘ya from the jump gate!”
Well, decline and impending death certainly hadn’t dulled Garl’s claws. A few nearby Longears looked at him utterly aghast, not believing anyone would speak to the Great Father himself that way, but it wasn’t like Garl had much left to lose… and he knew damn well that Daar would always let it slide.
“Musta been one’a those things the old shits running my Clan beat outta me when I was young,” Daar replied. The two collided in a hug, and sniffed noses. “Balls, ‘ya smell positively ancient, Garl!”
“You mean just-shy-of-dead, right?”
“You mean y’ain’t already rotting?”
Garl chittered, then coughed, shook his fur irritably and felt his way back to his seat. “…Pretty sure I might be,” he admitted.
Daar couldn’t suppress the keen in his voice.
“Ah, shaddup ‘ya huge fuckin’ sentimental cub. We all gotta go sometime.” Garl sat down heavily. “An’ I’ve done a lotta important shit in my time. Kinda wanted to do one more, if you’ll let me.”
“I had a quick brief on the way over. Meereo wants to blow it up too, but he told me he can’t really say whether smashin’ it or leavin’ it up will help the war effort more.”
“He told you ‘bout how it covers Earth an’ that Guvnurag planet?” Garl checked.
“An’ he also told me you learn more from monitoring a live system than by picking over artifacts.” Daar huffed a sigh, and saw Garl’s ears droop just a little. “…But we’ve been monitoring this place ‘fer fucking years. I say it’s time we claw the Hierarchy in their nuts an’ see how high they squeal.”
Garl sagged in relief even as his ears perked up again. “So we’re gonna blow it up?”
“We’re gonna blow it up. You deserve at least that much.”
Garl sighed in relief. “Thank you.”
Daar chittered. “Also! It’ll be a fuckin’ awesome ‘lil gift ‘ta give when I do Earth Tour Two: ‘Lectric Boogaloo here pretty soon!”
“‘Ya know those really awful clan epics from when we just figgered out motion photography? It’s a Human reference to their same era. Which wasn’t all that long ago. Balls, it’s almost in livin’ memory…anyway. Bad black-an’-white movies. With shiny rockets. And stuff.”
Garl groaned good-humoredly. “…Figgers I’d learn ‘bout something awesome like that right as I’m goin’ blind!”
“Can’t see everything, I guess.”
“Nope. Seen a lot that’s worth seein’, though. Seen our people shake off slavery we never even knew we were under, that’s been somethin.’ Seen a lotta real pretty Females, seen my cubs grow up to be great in their own right… I been at peace with this happenin’ ‘fer a while, really.”
“You talk to Gyotin at all?” Daar asked.
“The fuck do I need him for?”
“…Fair ‘nuff!” Garl was, apparently, the opposite of spiritual.
“I figgered this shit out a while ago,” Garl explained. “Maybe Gyotin did it sooner an’ he helps others figger it out sooner too, but I got there my way. I know he’s important ‘ta you, but… I don’t need him.”
“Fair ‘nuff,” Daar repeated, more comfortably.
“So, uh… are we gonna blow that thing while my eyes still work enough to see the flash?”
“The Destroying Fury is in orbit right now, with a double pawful of RFGs just ready to go. An’ I maybe abused my authority just a teeny bit and had ‘em hook it up to a Big Shiny Button, which I just so happened to bring down here with me. Wanna do the honors?”
“…You do love me, My Father!!”
“I do. I’m gonna miss you like crazy, Garl.”
Garl had never been great with sentiment. He went still for a few heartbeats, then duck-nodded. “Well… if there is someplace that comes next, meet me by the biggest Naxas roast when ‘ya get there and we’ll catch up. And if there ain’t… I’m real proud’a you. The most proudest.”
Daar helped him stand. He’d called ahead and ordered Meereo to pull all of their people and equipment out of the Relay, cut the power to its overhead shielding, and form them all up on the hill above the camp with the best view of the Hierarchy edifice. His arrival had been the signal for everyone left in the camp to drop what they were doing and head up there.
Fyu’s furry sack, but he’d forgotten just how much the Relay hurt to look at it. It was somethin’ wrong, a weird-ass wibbly ball of directions that didn’t exist, hanging in the air above a fuckin’ monolith of dull metal. A ‘Back could go loopy tryin’ to make sense of that thing.
It didn’t take long for everyone to assemble with a general air of feral excitement. In particular, a buncha just tiny little silverfur soldiers gathered around Garl while he contemplated the Button.
Nobody needed telling what the Button was for. Big Shiny Buttons were always for the most bestest things. And right now, Garl was gonna make the most bestestest farewell speech ever.
He didn’t disappoint. He held the button lightly in his claws, sniffed the wind, and peered at the Relay until, Daar guessed, he was absolutely certain he could see it. Then he duck-nodded, and spoke.
“…This one’s ‘fer Gao, you motherless fucks.”
He pressed the button.
The Destroying Fury started the party with its main guns. RFGs took a while to arrive after all, so they needed something to look at and enjoy before the main event arrived. Orbit-to-ground direct fire punched down in a series of fat blue columns of radiation that cracked the Relay monolith’s facade and cracked the foundation. Hierarchy engineering was tough stuff, though, and though the Relay shifted and subsided, the impossible ball of wrong above it stayed active.
Local bird-equivalents spiralled frantically to get into the air as the first overlapping ripple of thunderclaps from the bombardment reached their ears. One round hit the relay phenomenon directly and refracted around its event horizon to smash into the forest at a crazy angle.
The bombardment promptly let up. Smoke and fireballs billowed into the air, but it was just a pause before the real moment of glory.
Eight RFGs landed in a tightly coordinated spread across the span of two or three heartbeats. Most of the watching Gao, including Daar, shielded their eyes: Garl just grinned ferociously at the brilliant flash and bared his teeth into the wash of roasting heat that slapped them even on their hilltop miles from ground zero.
The monolith cracked down the middle and fell. The air above it turned inside-out, spun sideways at angles that no living eye was equipped to track, became briefly and impossibly flat….
And then blessed reality finally reasserted itself. For Daar, it was like the sudden cessation of a high-pitched note that he hadn’t even noticed was being played on his nerves; The relief was full-body and profound. Overpressure flattened the trees for hundreds of meters in every direction, and when the sound hit them it threw dust and small stones into the air and slapped Daar in the chest so hard that he felt his ribs bounce.
They stood and listened in awe as the thunder of what they’d done bounced off the hills and through the ravines. They listened until it was gone, replaced by the shrieks, hoots and calls of traumatized alien wildlife fleeing from forces they couldn’t understand.
Finally, the silence was broken by a simple, clear voice from the button’s carrying case.
“Great Father, Destroying Fury. Bombardment complete.”
There was a general relaxing, some nervous, awed chitters. Somebody joked quietly to his Brothers. Daar stepped forward and put a hand on Garl’s shoulder.
“How was it?”
Garl chittered darkly, flicked an ear, took one last sniff of the wind and turned to look at him. His gaze missed Daar’s face by several degrees, focused on nothing. “…Think that flash mighta finished my eyes off,” he said. “Can’t see a damn thing, now.”
“…Was it worth it?”
Garl shut his eyes and nodded, an expression of the deepest contentment on his face.
END CHAPTER 55
((Patron information and subsequent chapter information delayed by important life events.))