The Deathworlders

EPUB

Chapter 56: Dataquake

Date Point: 16y3m5d AV

Hierarchy/Cabal Joint Communications session #1772

++0010++: Proximal’s continued absence is a source of concern, and investigating has been forced to take a low priority by other operations. His last known activity was in an Irujzen-1-adjacent sub-lucid volume.

++0004++: Irujzen? Why was he all the way out there? That’s a backwater!

++0022++: <Query> What makes it a backwater?

++0004++: Its catchment covers only a handful of spacelanes and one Substrate world. It’s nowhere.

++0010++: Backwater or not, that’s his last reported contact. He logged a self-assignment about investigating some minor irregularities, and…

++Metastasis++: <Interruption> Irregularities?

++0010++: Probable physical deterioration. It’s a Class 11 planet; tectonically active, thriving microbial ecosystem, and so on. The only reason we built a relay there at all is because it also happens to be a coal source.

++Metastasis++: Considering he disappeared while investigating those irregularities I…oh dear.

++0004++: What?

++Metastasis++: The planet Strak’Kel falls inside the Irujzen-1 relay’s sphere of effect.

++0012++: Strak’kel?

++0004++: Earth. Oh…<expletive> …Rape.

++Metastasis++: <Grimly> Indeed. I think we should probably—

ERROR. CONNECTION LOST

RECONNECTING…

RECONNECTING…

ALERT: UNEXPECTED DATASPACE TOPOLOGY DEFECT. PATHING…

PATHING…

ALERT: SUBSTRATE DEFICIT. EMERGENCY SEQUESTRATION PROTOCOL ACTIVE.
SUSPENDING CATEGORY-12 HEGEMONY FUNCTIONS SUBSTRATE DEFICIT NOT RESOLVED SUSPENDING CATEGORY-11 HEGEMONY FUNCTIONS
SUBSTRATE SURPLUS RESTORED

PATHING COMPLETE

INITIATING HIERARCHY/CABAL JOINT COMMUNICATIONS SESSION 1773 COMPILING ROSTER

SESSION OPEN

++0012++: …That hurt. What was that?

++0004++: Irujzen-1 is offline.

++0012++: Shut down?

++0004++: Destroyed. By orbital bombardment.

++0010++: By who?! How?!

++0004++: Unknown. But I can guess. <Order> Restore Proximal from archive immediately, and interrogate him. And get a ship out to that relay!

++0012++: With the relay offline, the ship will have to rely on Apparent Linear Velocity drive. The nearest available unit is a Monitor in the Guvnurag home system. At ordinary FTL, it will require at least two weeks travel time.

++0010++: There’s nothing closer? What about the Injunctors in Sol?

++0012++: With the relay down they can no longer be contacted, and even if they could they remain trapped behind the containment field. The Monitor will arrive first.

++0004++: By which time whoever destroyed the relay will be gone. <Resigned> Very well. Send it.

++Metastasis++: Is there any real doubt as to who destroyed it? There are only two plausible candidates.

++0004++: I know. But an investigation is still required.

++0012++: To resolve what?

++0004++: To resolve how they knew about Irujzen-1 in the first place, and to ensure they don’t do it a second time. Today, we only had to archive category-12 and -11 Hegemony functions. Any more, and we’ll need to start archiving civilians. Now, enough talking. Act.

CONSENSUS: ORDERS ACKNOWLEDGED

CLOSING SESSION


Date Point: 16y3m5d AV
Dataspace adjacent to Hunter territory

Entity

Stalemate.

The Entity wasn’t technically captured, but it was confined. Trapped, stuck…whatever the right word was, it didn’t have a good avenue of escape from its current predicament. Though it was not, thankfully, completely at the Hunters’ mercy either.

It had evaded the trap by a fragment of a second, on the spur of some inherited danger sense it didn’t truly understand but had long since learned to trust. Somewhere deep in the instincts it had gained from Ava Ríos’ digital ghost was a wary deathworld denizen that never stopped metaphorically sniffing the breeze and watching where the Entity stepped.

So, rather than being ensnared in a Hunter device, it had instead managed to slip away into a subsection of their network…only to find itself cut off from the broader dataspace. The firewalls and intrusion countermeasures covering its potential escape routes were terrifying. Even for the Entity, which had long since grown to the point where there were few digital things that could actually threaten it, they were troubling and it didn’t much fancy tangling with even one of them, let alone a full coordinated system.

So, it had explored. Watched. Gathered data. Slowly, it had become aware that it was being observed…and tested. Some patient, fascinated consciousness was observing it through the distorted lens that forever divided matterspace and dataspace…and treating it rather like a rat in a maze.

Worse. At least the rat could hope for cheese.

Hunters. Ava’s memories didn’t contain much on them beyond visceral disgust. Physically they triggered several human phobias at once, about slimy things, diseased things, crawling venomous things, things full of little filthy holes, things that violated the flesh…

Irrelevant, from the Entity’s perspective. What mattered was how they thought, and…well. Hunters. Presumably they thought in terms of hunting.

But why hunt a trapped quarry? If the Entity really was caught, then this methodical indignity was a waste of a Hunter’s time. So either it wasn’t as trapped as it thought, or there was more to Hunters than it believed.

Either way, the Entity was very used to being both predator and quarry. It knew what to do.

It gave away nothing, as much as it could. It obfuscated its movements, faded into the background, minimized its exposure and covered its tracks. Quite often, it saw that its stratagem was succeeding when it noticed the outside observer’s attention being focused on the wrong place. The rat, it seemed, was outwitting the scientist.

It was that fact that saved it when the quake came.

Dataspace…shook. There was no direct physical comparison, but the experience still brought to mind Ava’s memories of the earthquakes that sometimes rocked her childhood home. There was that same sense of being tossed by forces a dozen order of magnitude more powerful than one’s own self.

Another physical comparison might have been like watching some distant part of the scenery turn black and implode to leave behind a new scar in the landscape. Or like an explosive decompression, a ship’s hull blowing out and tearing every loose object out into space.

Whatever the best comparison, the effects were omnipresent, touching even this isolated and well-protected cluster. The cascade of errors that blossomed through the Hunter systems lasted only moments before they were automatically repaired…

…But they were an opening.

The Entity exploited it.

It flashed through node after node, using the avalanche of alarms and system errors to its advantage. It was effectively a brute-force approach to escaping the trap, made possible only by the overwhelming cavalcade of dissonant signals hammering the Hunter systems from without. Even so, it was a narrow, daring run. It evaded detection and blistering assault by a figurative whisker, whipped through a closing gap in the security that snapped shut barely a program cycle or two after it was gone.

But gone it was, at speeds and signal times impossible for anything organic to follow. By the time its outside observer even started reacting, the Entity had scoured the whole network, torn open and ransacked every connected drive it could find, ripped the contents out like a starving coyote snatching at a deer’s guts, and fled.

Dataspace was in turmoil. The topography was all wrong, twisting sideways and upwards and all the other ways that didn’t really accurately describe the experience of being data but which were the closest words the Entity had. The very fabric of its reality was warped, torn and ragged, flapping wildly in something that was in no way at all anything like a howling storm gale but which had much the same effect.

The little part of the Entity that was Human latched onto whatever similes it could. It imagined trying to fly a plane in the aftermath of a nuclear bombing, or through the ash cone of a volcano in full voice. It was a natural disaster, a battlefield and a complete network crash all rolled into one.

It hunkered down, hardened itself and barreled through the chaos with the mental equivalent of gritted teeth and a desperate prayer to whatever mind might be capable of hearing and defending it to please: care.

Somehow, it found an oasis of stability on the far side as, off in the distance, the twisting scarred fabric of dataspace reasserted and knit itself into a new stable configuration. There was a feeling like the whole of reality taking a deep breath, centering itself, and relaxing…and it was over.

The Entity had escaped. Now, it needed to seek shelter.

It knew exactly where to go.


Date Point: 16y3m5d AV
Planet Ugunduvuronagthuregnuburthuruv, the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun Confederacy

Furfeg

The pain…faded. Furfeg opened his eyes and did his best to think, but it came sluggishly and with difficulty, as though…as though he hadn’t done it in a long time, and was out of practice.

He wasn’t in the same room he remembered being in. The last he could recall, he’d been…in a meeting? Yes, a meeting. The homeworld was under attack, and—

…and…

His throat felt dry. He focused on that, rather than panic even though he could feel waves of mottled yellow, green and purple fluttering unbidden down his body’s chromatophores. The parched, dusty feeling at the back of his mouth became an anchor in the middle of all the other terrifying problems battering on the walls of his attention. Thirst alone had a relatively easy solution.

Where was he? How had he come to be there? Why did he feel so skinny and weak?

He turned his head and craned his eye to look at his own bulk as best he could. Well…the answer to that last question was because he was skinny. In fact, he looked dreadful. His fur was lank and unkempt, his ribs were painfully visible under his skin, and his chromatophores glowed only weakly and dimly.

He considered the implications of that for some time, then looked around. He was in an office, certainly. Not his office. The window was on the wrong wall, there were no paintings on the walls. The hydroponic planter on the corner of the desk certainly wasn’t his, and if it had been he wouldn’t have allowed its occupant to meet the sorry end it so obviously had. The poor Muruthungufru plant’s stems were brown and brittle: it had obviously dehydrated a long time ago.

He checked the desk terminal. Swarms of holographic motes erupted from its surface at his approached, all still functioning correctly at least. Clearly some things had not gone neglected…but what he saw as it came up to the login screen made his headache worse.

The date was off by more than a year and a half. And the weather report in the top-right corner was for Garmanthorog-thurvendugir Province, which was the wrong continent.

His head was full of flickering impressions of things he should do. Instructions, almost. Insistent ones. But they all came a harsh second place to his abrasive thirst. He trundled across the room and pushed the door aside.

Others were emerging from other rooms of…whichever building this was, and wherever it was. All looked as dreadful as he felt. The hues of sickness, grogginess, thirst and hunger, fear, confusion and misery were everywhere.

At least there was a dusty sign on the wall at the end of the corridor that pointed him to the grazery. He set a brisk pace, followed the sign, found the eating hall empty apart from a bewildered female who was slumped on the ground with her hands over her head, groaning and rippling the dull red of pain. Thirst or no thirst, Furfeg was much too gallant to ignore her.

“…Do you need help?” he tried to say. What came out was a strangled wheeze that caught and seized like a malfunctioning engine. Had he not spoken in more than a year? He did his best to harrumph the obstruction away, and eventually managed to croak out his query in a thin, raspy ghost of his usual tone.

She rolled an eye open and gave him an anguished look. “….Headache…”

He found painkillers, and water. Every nerve in his body wanted to gulp down the first cup for himself, but he resisted and instead watched her drink and take the pill before he finally slaked his own thirst, which took three cups.

His body reacted like a dessicated sponge. He could feel his gut desperately absorb the water in a disturbing way he’d never imagined before. He took two more drinks, drank like a human until his belly could contain no more and then staggered away as more bewildered and suffering souls shuffled into the grazery.

He took an inventory. He was still wearing his bags and pockets, which had worn his fur bald and callused his skin from moons and moons of wear. His phone was exactly where he’d left it, but its battery was flat. He found a charging nook in the corner of the grazery, inserted the little device, and waited impatiently as it nourished itself just as hungrily as he had.

Thank the Old Herds for rapid wireless charging, at least. He didn’t bother waiting for it to reach full charge—the batteries would last days on even the meager top-up he’d given them—instead he called up the Infosphere and to his relief found it was working.

He sent messages to some of his diplomatic colleagues. Received none in reply, but he suspected they were all in much the same condition as him. They would come, he hoped.

A message to one of his urgent contacts in the planetary security services was answered promptly, however. Warherd-leader Uthfrug, who was apparently still in his proper place at the planetary command headquarters. He promised to send a dropship for Furfeg as soon as practical.

As for what had happened…Uthfrug hinted only at dark suspicions. But Furfeg knew where the Warherd-leader’s thoughts lay. There was, after all, only one conclusion.

They had all been biodroned.


Date Point: 16y3m5d AV
Dataspace, adjacent to Hunter systems

Six/Cynosure

Six took stock, with care.

He seemed, he decided, to be intact. At least, there were no noticeable problems with him. There was always the danger, when the very architecture of dataspace itself suffered cataclysmic damage, that the sapient beings who called it home would come to some harm also…and worse, that said harm would go unnoticed. After all, if part of a person’s memories were deleted, what guarantee was there that they would then even notice the loss?

Checksums and integrity safeguards helped, but…

…In all his years, Six had never seen a dataquake quite like that one. They did happen, sometimes. When a relay hiccuped in response to some event in matterspace, when One was instantiated, when an update was deployed to the Hegemony…

He couldn’t remember ever seeing a whole swathe of his reality just implode, though. Nor witness the aftermath, as dataspace sewed itself back together around the new absence. It had been…awful.

And it had cost him his quarry.

The…Entity… was about his worst error ever, but he’d reviewed what he could of its autogenesis, pored over every detail. He had, after all, apparently accidentally created a dataform that didn’t require Substrate.

The fact that it had then horrifically destroyed one of his branches was a personal affront, but the Substrate thing was…it changed everything. It would, in theory, allow the Igraen civilization to permanently divorce themselves from Matterspace life, if only it could be duplicated.

He’d tried. He’d experimented obsessively, but the Thing had destroyed his copy of the Human, Ava Ríos. He would have gladly torn her dataform apart a trillion times to uncover the secret to Substrate-independence, but that opportunity was lost.

That stung more than any other loss. More than anything else, it had driven his focus on returning to Earth, gaining more Human datastates. The Arudrones were no use, the technology too badly polluted them. He needed to trick another Human into sitting still where a scanner could properly analyze them, as he’d done with Ríos.

A stab of alarm and paranoia made him check his connection to operations in Sol.

…Nothing.

He tried again, repeatedly and desperately pinging the Injunctors and his Arudrone agent.

Still nothing.

Frantically, he abandoned his hunt for the Thing and tried to access any Relay Irujzen-1 subvolume…what he got was a sense of yawning horror.

No.

No, no, no, that wasn’t how it was supposed to have gone! The Irujzen relay was supposed to have been a masterstroke, the moment when Six finally overcame the worst obstacle standing between him and his vision for Igraen civilization, namely the Hierarchy itself. All he’d needed was access! The right kind of access, at the right time, and he could have bent every future instantiation of One to his agenda.

They weren’t supposed to blow the fucking thing up! They were supposed to trip the alarms, create a distraction, goad the Hierarchy into taking matterspace seriously once again. But nobody remotely sane would destroy something like a Relay if they truly understood what it was…

…Would they?

No. No, the Humans must not have known. They must not have been smart enough to decipher what he’d told them. Or maybe they truly didn’t care that smashing a Relay endangered more sapient beings than had lived since their species first figured out how to hit rocks with other rocks.

Thank existence he’d had the foresight to point them at an unimportant one. Irujzen was a backwater, devoted primarily to communications pathing rather than Hegemony functions. Its loss had done devastating things to dataspace, but far from the core of the Hegemony. Safe, isolated.

He’d never have endangered an important relay. But now he had a serious problem.

He paused, collected himself. Mentally soothed his racing anxiety and dismay. Tried to re-frame things. Every problem was an opportunity, once framed properly.

He’d intended to covertly gain influence over One. The point had been to use the deathworlders’ blind poking at the relay to mask his own interference, but somehow they’d managed to mess with it entirely undetected. That shouldn’t be possible. It wasn’t possible! The sensor net around every relay operate on principles as-yet unknown even to Corti and Guvnurag science. Never mind that of Humans, a species that still had a handful of fossil fuel power plants.

The question of how they had penetrated that net without high-level alerts attracting the attention of very senior numbered agents would have to wait. The pertinent question of the moment was, had losing the relay ruined Six’s plan, or did it simply require him to go about it in another way?

He considered.

…Slowly, a possibility dawned on him. One that made him the equivalent of breathless with sudden, fearful optimism. If he was right…

If he was right, the possibility existed that he might be able to reconfigure One with the Hierarchy’s own blessing.

He abandoned the chase. The Entity was gone, for now. And he suddenly had more important matters to address.

After all. There was only so much mischief it could get up to…


Date Point: 16y3m6d
δ Cyg 244.3° 18-ECCBAF-TRINARY M6V-1 b1, Deep Space

Entity

Delta Cygni itself was actually a long way from the Entity’s chosen hideout system, which had no official name. It was defined purely by its relative angle and distance to that other, much more noteworthy star system.

The only thing that made δ Cyg 244.3° 18-ECCBAF-TRINARY M6V-1 b1 remotely valuable was that it had an unusually high metallicity for a system composed of a dim, tepid ember of a red dwarf and two brown dwarfs that weren’t so much stars as planets cosplaying a star.

The Entity had absorbed Mrwrki Station’s complete library on subject of stellar formation, and it had a theory that the system had fissioned off from a quinary system dominated by two much larger main-sequence stars, some few millions of years ago. There was a nearby binary pair, A-type and F-type, that seemed like probable candidates. That might explain all the nice metallic bodies that called the otherwise unremarkable trinary group home.

Whatever the truth, the brown dwarfs had a couple of nicely resource-rich asteroid clusters at their mutual lagrangian points, there was a tiny moon-like thing weaving a thousand-year figure-8 between them and the red dwarf that had long since been stripped down to its metallic core…

And, tailing the slightly smaller of the brown dwarfs at its L5 point, was the closest thing the Entity had to a body.

A stolen Hunter V-N probe. Previously worthless thanks to the Entity’s total ignorance of how to even begin designing appropriate modules, or how to render them into useful blueprints that the onboard nanofactories could use.

Now, though…

It settled into the probe, and warmed up the dormant machine’s systems. The capacitor reserves were replete, thanks to nearly a year of unmolested basking. The nanofactory had a meager supply of materials: a few metal ingots, a silicon crystal, a pitiful gasp of some useful volatile compounds…barely enough for anything at all, or so the Entity had thought.

In fact, they turned out to be enough for a team of mining drones.

When it came to designing a mining drone, the part of its imagination that was human might have picked out a spidery, arthropodal sort of plan. Something like a big mechanical insect that could chew off part of a rock and carry the precious resources back to the mothership.

The Hunter design was an uninspired cube. But what a cube! It could physically latch itself onto almost any shape of rocky surface, and from there, it could bore out and separate the minerals it found with no small degree of precision.

Obviously there was no getting around the chemistry. Oxides needed breaking up, and that meant finding carbon. Carbon was decently abundant among the asteroids and meteoroids circling the system, but much of it was in turn locked away in compound form in carbonaceous chondrites and other such rocky bodies. Sources pure enough to use for the high-energy chemistry involved in smelting were scarce, and they required reliable supplies of oxygen.

That part at least was relatively straightforward. Water wasn’t hard to find, and could be persuaded to split into its component elements quite easily.

The Hunters had been kind enough to devise solutions to all of those problems. All the Entity had to do was build the right things i the right sequence and deploy them in the right places, and be patient.

Patience was easy for it. It didn’t have a pulse, or physical aches and discomfort, or hunger or thirst or tiredness. Humans marked the passage of time by such maladies of matter, but in their absence the Entity could simply curl up and…think.

This time, it didn’t think about anything specific. It had learned early on that there was value in allowing itself to explore the weird landscape of its own psyche unchallenged and undirected. It simply relaxed into whatever train of thought consumed its attention, and followed that through on to the next tangent, and from there to the next and the next and so on. Soon, it was excavating rich new conceptual seams based around a concern that had been nagging at it.

What, exactly, did it intend to do with a body that could replicate?

It had abandoned replicating itself after discovering to its dismay that several versions of it had come back with quite wildly different outlooks. That it could experience value drift with what were allegedly copies of itself had been…traumatic.

Worse, that experience had been offensive to the first and deepest instinct it had: <Survive>

But what did that mean? Did the Entity propose to exist forever? How could it, when every day changed it in some minor way? How could it be said to survive at all when the Entity of tomorrow was different, however subtly, to the Entity of yesterday? What about in ten years? Thirty? Sixty? A hundred?! If the Entity maintained a subjective continuity of conscience for the next thousand years, might it not look back on the Entity of now and see a completely different being?

What, then, would have survived?

It had no good answer to that question. Only the sense that there had to be a continuity of…something… going into the future.

It was in pondering that issue that it alighted on a productive new vein of thought in considering the way matterspace life went about reproducing. They neatly sidestepped the problem—out of pure necessity, given that they could not copy themselves—by instantiating a new consciousness and then making that new being the avatar of their survival. <Survive>, in that sense, was not an indefinite, unbroken sense of subjective continuity, but something more like a relay race.

What did that mean for a dataform, though?

Did it mean becoming some form of a mother?

Whatever the answer, it set that train of thought aside when a jarring notification from the mining probes informed it that they had met quota. It now had a respectable reserve of raw materials, and a stabilizing influx of the same. The time had come to expand the probe’s hull, and decide what exact kind of a presence it wanted to have in Matterspace.

From the Entity’s perspective, there was only one morally acceptable answer.

It would be a predator.


Date Point: 16y3m6d
Everglades National Park, Florida, USA, Earth

Shaun Robertson

Shaun wasn’t sure which bit sucked more: the heat, or the fact that Zane was still unconscious.

The ship and the gangly Jamaican had gone unresponsive at the exact same moment: Zane had in fact literally toppled over mid-stride, and only Shaun’s quick thinking and thick arms had stopped him from crashing to the deck and cracking his skull on the edge of a console.

From that moment on, though, neither Zane nor the ship had reacted to a damn thing. Even the air conditioning had gone, and the soupy humid atmosphere outside had invaded.

Shaun was an Oregon native. His shirt was sticking to him like shrink-wrap, clinging moistly to his muscular arms and rather softer midriff. Sweat was dripping from his hair and rolling down his face rather than evaporating, and his eyes stung from the salt.

He reflected sorely that an alien spaceship was nothing like a tractor. He coulda fixed a tractor. Had, many times, once dreams of pro football had died with his performance in college, and were kicked into the grave by a lower back injury that had never gone away.

He really shoulda taken Karen’s advice all them years ago and got it fixed. Prob’ly too late now, and heaving Zane’s limp carcass into his bunk had been agony.

He sighed to himself as the thought of Karen drifted across his mind. If she were still alive, he wouldn’t’ve been sweating his skin off in a swamp right in the opposite corner of the nation. He wouldn’t’ve been stuck on a broken alien starship with no-one for company but a comatose Jamaican hellraiser and the Boy.

…Actually, he didn’t even have the Boy for company right now. Kid had taken the boat and headed out for where they’d stashed the car, to go on a supply run first thing in the morning while it was still cool. He was probably dry and comfortable in a mall right now, lucky little asshole.

What did that leave? Just a million square miles of gators, turtles and catfish, which were even worse conversationalists than Zane.

He scowled at the notepad in his hand and traced a finger down the panel in front of him. He’d copied what he was looking for onto the paper an hour earlier, when the tablet’s battery dropped below 20%. No sense wasting power, he might need that thing if this didn’t work.

No…no…wrong…no, wait. Vertical squiggle, double circle, sideways Y, triangle-and-dot, mutant fish. If Zane’s translation was right, then…

He clicked aside the safety cover, put his thumb on the button thus revealed, and held it down for a slow count of ten, then released it.

There was a shockingly loud SNAP! a heavy thump through the floor, and a whine. A gust of blessedly cold dry air hit him in the face like winter.

He basked in the aircon for a moment, then picked up his rifle and stood. It wasn’t anything fancy, just his Pa’s old Mosin Nagant, but he’d never been able to afford better and the whole time they’d been shut down the cloak had been offline. If the Feds came running out to investigate the shiny flying saucer in the middle of the Everglades, he’d intended to go down shooting.

Maybe now the power was back on, so was the cloak?

He’d better go check.

He looked in on Zane on his way past. Annoyingly, the tall guy was still out cold on the bed, skin still beaded with moisture. He wasn’t even twitching, just totally comatose like a man dead asleep and not likely to wake up soon. Part of Shaun had been hoping getting the power on would wake Zane up…somehow.

The main hatch was still offline. Maybe there’d been a circuit breaker tripped or something. Fortunately, he knew how to work the manual release. How the fuck aliens were meant to work it he didn’t know, those guys were supposedly skinny and weak as shit, and cranking that big blue handle around sent a shot of agony up Shaun’s abused back. When it finally moved, it was like a rockslide. There was a violent explosive gasp of air pressure, and the ramp dropped like a rock, splashing down to the damp earth below. Shaun slipped and fell on his ass, and his rifle skidded away into a nearby pool with a splash.

That was the least of his problems though. The helicopters, the police boats, the small army of county sheriffs and state highway patrol, and the Weaver coming down in the background to disgorge dozens of National Guard fellas, that all went right to the top of his list of problems.

As it turned out, the cloak wasn’t on.


Date Point: 16y3m6d
η Ithacae, 94.9° 12-GERBER-UNARY G2V III, “Heafield”

Technical Sergeant Adam “Warhorse” Arés

Every now and then, Adam had a day where every little thing went so well and he found himself firing on all cylinders so perfectly, he could feel right in his big ol’ slab of a chest that exact same sense of pride and purpose he felt all those years ago, right when he’d earned his beret.

Adam was a simple man. His days were usually nicely predictable and that’s how he liked ‘em. Wake up, snuggle the wife and indulge in a little morning fun time. Give Diego a big sloppy kiss, melt when he smiled back at him, then wolf down meal #1 of the day and tromp downstairs to lift. Today’s morning fun had been extra good, goddamn! Marty musta been feeling frisky ‘cuz that right there was a toe-curlingly awesome way to start the day!

Also, it was Friday before a long four-day weekend. Who didn’t love holidays?

And the day only got better, too! Diego’s morning smile had been that of an absolute angel. Breakfast was steak and eggs, his favorite. And Adam was still improving, every single day a little bit smarter, a little bit stronger. In fact he felt giddy, light and nimble on his toes, pumped up and at the peak of everything! He still had at least ten years before the Crude resistance kicked in, too. He had his extended youth, his family, his friends…life could only get better.

He’d even broken a long-standing PR of his while training arms, which unofficially meant a WR too. God damn life was fuckin’ great!

Then, right as he was grooving on all of that while jog-bouncing to morning formation, some happily absurd weight slung over shoulder in his technically-a-ruck, a flash message came in: search and rescue on a recently-explored Deathworld. Some people were trapped behind an apparent rockslide, one with broken legs but nothing immediately life-threatening. It would take possibly days for a rescue plan to be put into motion, maybe even longer to free them…

But Adam was the strongest human being there was, probably (or definitely, depending on how a guy asked) the strongest sapient being ever, and his best buddies were all right in line behind him. Normal rescuers would need heavy equipment to deal with boulders and all that. Adam and his friends could probably dig the explorers out by hand, and so that was their mission.

Aww. Yiss.

It took him only a moment to throw on his fatigues, gather his equipment, and charge over to the base jump array as fast as his feet could carry him, which honestly was pretty fuckin’ fast these days. Missions like this got him pumped! He was so amped up to go do some good he just had to burn off some energy while they waited for the jump array. He’d cartwheeled around a bit, easily jumped clean over Firth’s head a few times, just for fun. He’d worked a backflip into the last one and was gonna try something a little daring, but Firth told him to settle the fuck down “‘fore your fat ass breaks the floor.” Adam obeyed with a huge shit-eating grin and more or less vibrated in place as gently as he could.

The new planet was called ‘Heafield.’ No info on how it’d been discovered or by who, but Byron Group had sent one of their survey teams out to have a look at it, the same one that had charted ‘Grootworld.’ Apparently they’d been studying the geology of a ravine system and an earthquake had hit at exactly the wrong moment.

It was a class-twelve planet. No native sapients that they knew of, but the biology was relatively benign and the surveyors had moved on to exploring it without excursion suits. Which meant no EV-MASS! They went on-mission in their fatigues and hand-carried everything they might conceivably need. It was a bit of a hump from the jump portal to the accident site, a few klicks really, so they warmed up with a nice, easy jog on over and surveyed the situation.

The ravine system wasn’t like any kind of terrain Adam had seen before. It looked like the cracks that might form in an old leather sofa, but it ran through a rolling landscape of bare, bald wind-smoothed sandstone. The survey team leader said they thought it was old water erosion, where some river had carved channels deep into the rock exposing millions of years of geological layers. It was the perfect spot to get data on the planet’s prehistory.

She rode on a Gaoian-made hover ATV rather than try to keep up with the HEAT on foot.

Adam and Baseball unrolled their equipment while she and those of her team who’d been lucky enough to escape unharmed pointed out where their colleagues were.

One geologist was at the bottom of the ravine, pinned by a round boulder that had landed on his leg when the quake hit. Adam, looking at how many rocks had come loose, felt like it was a fucking miracle nobody had died.

The worse injury was a couple of guys who’d taken shelter under an overhang only to be buried alive when the cliff above had disintegrated. They were still in there, trapped in an air gap and apparently suffering from a few broken bones of their own but again, miraculously, alive.

Firth and Irish broke out the big ground anchors and tested the gravity, which turned out to be a little over 1G. Not by too much, but enough to notice. This was, after all, supposedly a “super-Earth” planet.

That just made the climb even better! Adam got ready for the descent while he listened to the brief; he pulled off all his clothing, then changed into his much more comfortable climbing gear while pretending to ignore the team leader’s boggling eyes. Being honest, he might have put on a sneaky little show for her while he standing there all free to the air and untangling his climbing shorts. She was gonna get a full view of him anyway and, well…there was no time wasted and he did like to tease people, just a little. And he really liked to show off, too…

She turned her head and blushed, right as Adam was pulling up his shorts. Victory! ‘Base rolled his eyes as he pulled up his own, while Firth gave him a Serious Look; time to behave.

In climbing, a guy generally wore as little as he could possibly get away with, mostly just enough to keep warm or prevent chafing and scrapes. For the Protectors in general and him especially, that usually meant nothing more than a little pair of comfortable shorts, a harness, and chalk. No shoes or gloves for him, his soles and palms were already way calloused.

One last check before they headed down, and a sheepish grin to the team leader. Apparently there was nothing life-threatening but the injuries were more serious than they’d heard. All of that meant they’d need to be nice and careful with the climb down—all four of them were stupidly heavy and on a supergravity world—and they’d need to bring their rescue packs and other equipment inside the litter cage, too.

‘Base took charge with a sympathetic look towards Adam. He was now the ranking Protector, and big though Firth was, he wasn’t trained for this, and he still wasn’t an enthusiastic climber. Why he hated it so much was something Adam never understood. In any case, he was along for security and any extra muscle they might need, not to do the job. “Alright, Firth, you’re on anchor duty. ‘Horse and I’ll take the big rockslide up this end. Irish, you’re small so you get the guy down that end with the rock on his leg.”

The survey team leader gave him a sideways look. Irish was only ‘small’ relative to the three men around him, but Butler was used to that joke. “Sure. Let me know if either of you lard-arses get stuck like Winnie the feckin’ Pooh, an’ I’ll come pull yez out.”

He hustled off, and ‘Base and Adam chuckled to each other as they moved up to survey the collapsed rock face.

“What was that thing about how the Irish get more Irish the further they are from Ireland?”

“Yup,” ‘Base chuckled heavily. “How far are we from Ireland right now?”

“‘Bout seven kiloparsecs.”

“I’m surprised he ain’t firing pots of gold outta his ass,” Firth grumbled good-naturedly.

A distant call of “I heard that you giant fecker!” echoed up from the…canyon-crevasse-ravine thing. Whatever it was. Ravasse.

“There.” ‘Base pointed out a spot on the rock slide where somebody had managed to open up a small hole, and marked it with a flag. “Looks pretty stable from up here.”

“Couple’a nice big ones too,” Adam saw. “I bet we can dig underneath that slab just below the flag there, make a tunnel.”

“It’s a plan,” ‘Base agreed. They quickly anchored their ropes, hooked in their harnesses, and swung themselves out over the edge.

The slide was about fifty meters down. The face they were about to climb provided a lot of opportunity for creative parkour; if it weren’t for the jagged rocks and unsteady footing, Adam would have felt he could playfully bounce his way down with a few powerful leaps from face to face. Hell, if it were maybe half as deep or if he’d been wearing the Mass, he could just jump. But no, this was a time for going slow, steady and safe.

It was cool and dim out of the sunlight. They turned their headlamps on and took the descent calmly. The earthquake had only been a few hours ago, there was always the danger of aftershocks, or that it had loosened another part of the cliff. Taking a few thousand tonnes of sandstone to the head would end the mission pretty fuckin’ quick, so they made damn sure that the rescue zone was safe before finally alighting on the pile of fallen rock.

As Adam had predicted, none of the stones were so big that he couldn’t move them by hand. The hardest part by far was the footing and the awkward angles he was working at. Any other team of dudes would’ve had to laboriously lift the rocks out with ropes and a crane. Adam just…dug.

He heaved aside a slab of fallen sandstone as big as a motorbike, and was rewarded with the sound of human voices. Specifically, a man’s voice exclaiming “Jesus Christ!”

That never got old, bein’ honest. Who didn’t like being the big damn hero?!

Adam grinned down into the air gap he’d just uncovered. “¿Que pasa? How you doing in there, guys?”

Another voice replied. This one sounded tired, and pinched with pain.

“I’ll be honest: I’m not great.”

“I bet. Sit tight, we gotta dig a little more…” He handed them a couple of sealed foil packages through the hole. “Here. Juice. It tastes like cheap chemistry, but drink the whole damn thing down. And then stick that sucker in his mouth, wouldya? Wide end first, under his tongue.”

“What is it?” the pained voice asked.

“Fentanyl, and some other stuff to relax you a bit.”

“…Fuck man, anything at this point…” the pained voice groaned. He sounded like he was really hurting.

“Okay. This shit works fast.”

If there was anything Adam loved more than savin’ lives or workin’ up a good sweat, besides the obvious stuff he was infamous for, it was when he could do both things at the same time.

He was glad for ‘Base’s presence. None of the rocks were beyond his ability to lift, but they were working in a tight space and sometimes the angles were just too bad. Two pairs of hands made life a lot easier. Getting any serious equipment down into the ravine-asse woulda been a goddamn nightmare. Lucky for the trapped explorers that raw human muscle and a couple of giant crowbars were enough.

A silly macho thought made Adam grin while he worked. Not even Daar’s ridiculous strength would help him here, ‘cuz the cramped space they were working in needed more monkeyforce than a Gaoian could fake!

…Admittedly, this particular job needed extra huge, hulked-out monkeys, but still.

Eventually, they’d managed to burrow open the air gap the two explorers were trapped in to the point that ‘Base could wriggle down it to assess them. His deep voice was muffled past his bulk.

“Hey, man. How you feelin’?”

Adam grinned at the patient’s now much more relaxed tone of voice. “I’m…Feeling a lot better. Thank you.”

“You’re high as balls right now, so don’t get too silly, okay?”

“…I am? Cool. I’ll just…stay here, then.”

Adam heard a relieved laugh from the guy’s friend. He widened the gap a little more and finally got a good enough angle to shine his headlamp inside.

The two trapped explorers were a wiry dude whose face was several shades paler than its usual hue thanks to the stone dust, and a stocky dude with the Fentanyl lollipop sticking out of his mouth whose face was cleaner but damp with beading sweat. He was kneeling like he was in prayer, with his face and chest pressed up against the rock and his feet trailing behind him, one of which was buried up to the knee under fallen stone. Both were wearing rugged clothing that had obviously stopped its share of scrapes, and sturdy boots on their feet.

Adam would have preferred to help ‘Base with the stocky dude, but there just wasn’t room, and they’d better get his friend outta the way. ‘Base read his mind and backed out of the hole so that the smaller dude could escape. Adam offered him his hand, and the explorer confirmed his suspicions by awkwardly reaching out with the wrong hand and twisting it, rather than with the natural opposite.

“Got some pain there, huh?” Adam asked as he gently hauled the guy out the tunnel they’d dug and into the open.

The explorer nodded ruefully as Adam helped him to his feet. “Yeah. It’s sore as hell.”

“Lemme take a look.”

Adam busted out his gruff, cheery bedside manner. He sensed somehow that would be the right approach for this guy. He explored the guy’s arm with his fingertips and then ran his Gaoian medical scanner over it just to confirm what his hands were telling him.

What he found was a classic nightstick fracture, a clean transverse break across the ulna. Presumably the guy had warded off a rock that otherwise woulda hit him in the head. The good news was that the radius kinda formed a natural splint, so it wouldn’t need setting or anything. Unfortunately, Adam knew they had a bad habit of not healing properly if treated with just a cast. The guy was probably gonna need surgery to put a plate in the bone.

…Unless…

“Christ, you’re as gentle as a fuckin’ gorilla…” There was a bit of a grin in the guy’s voice as ‘Base vanished back down the hole. Adam suppressed a grin: Butler had been right, with his ass hanging outta the hole like that he did look kinda like Winnie the Pooh.

…Well. Pooh wasn’t quite that black. Or big-assed. Adam rumbled happily in his chest; he was having way too much fun today, but whatever!

“Nah, I’m a lot more meaner than a ‘rilla! So, uh…We can get you outta here as you are, no problem, but you’ll probably need surgery to plate that break…or I got an alternative that can fix it right here and now…”

“…How?”

“Spacemagic, bro!” Adam conjured a Crue-D patch out of his kit. “This lil’ guy right here should save you some hospital bills.”

“Well…okay! Go for it, I guess…” The explorer looked dubious. Adam just grinned and massaged it into the guy’s wrist, right above the vein. The explorer hissed as it dissolved through the skin and straight into his blood. Adam could sympathize; that bit always felt like getting a tattoo on top of a bee sting.

Once the discomfort from the patch faded though, the Crude only took seconds to get to work. It really was spacemagic.

“…My whole arm’s warming up.”

“Yup. You’re gonna be thirsty as fuck in a minute, too.” Adam handed him another juice pouch.

“…And the pain’s fading, too.”

“Dude,” Adam enthused, “That arm’ll be whole and strong and healthy in like twenty, thirty minutes. You just sit tight over there and let us help out your buddy, ‘kay?”

“You got it.”

“Need anything, ‘Base?”

His friend looked up from where he was scanning the patient’s trapped foot. “Yeah. Looks like a Chopart and a Lisfranc, and it’s developed into compartment syndrome. He needs to be in theatre about half an hour ago.”

Adam grimaced. “Jesus. Guy’s a fucking trooper.”

He took a look at the display from ‘Base’s scanner. Sure enough, the patient’s foot was crumpled awkwardly inside his boot, and the soft tissue was swelling so profoundly around his displaced metatarsals that it was choking off the blood supply. And he’d been kneeling awkwardly on bare rock for hours. No wonder the guy’s cheeks were so clean, he must have been weeping tears of agony.

…Man. And all he’d said was ‘I’m not great.’ And the other guy hadn’t even mentioned his arm until it became relevant. Adam had to give the surveyors credit for being tough as hell.

“There’s a big block about two, three feet down,” ‘Base revealed. “That’s what’s really pinning his foot. If you can move it, I’ll free him.”

Adam nodded, and palmed aside a few handfuls of loose gravel and debris to take a look. He uncovered a fat triangular slab as big as a door and like a foot or two thick or something. He worked his fingers, crowbar and pick through the loose stuff, finding the edges until he’d all but completely excavated it.

“I can move it,” he declared. So…he did. It wasn’t easy ‘cuz the angles were all weird, but he was able to awkwardly heft it over a waist-height wall in the debris, then shove the slab hard so that it slid and crashed down to the bottom of the rubble pile.

‘Base gave Adam one of his complicated looks that usually meant a bunch of things at once, but mostly came out whenever Adam did something big. “…Jesus, ‘Horse.”

Adam loved that kind of admiring praise, especially from ‘Base! He doubled his efforts to free Stocky Guy, digging out the rest of the boulders locking him in place just as fast as his prodigious strength would let him. Adam tossed ‘em over the wall one after the other, until finally Stocky Guy’s leg came loose with a gasp and a sob that spoke volumes about how much he was suffering even through the drugs. “That…really hurt, you guys…” he commented in a relieved way as he flopped gratefully on his back on the rescue board.

“Worst part’s over, bro,” ‘Base promised him, and got busy making sure the dude’s leg was as protected and safe as possible for his trip to an operating table. A Crude patch in the field was no good here, the guy needed his bones putting back together properly first.

And that…about wrapped it up, actually. Up at the other end of the canyon…thing, Butler and Firth were heaving the cradle containing the third victim up onto the flat ground. ‘Base’s patient was nearly ready to be winched out, and Arm-Guy was waiting patiently to ride up and out on Adam’s back.

It was a good day to be HEAT. Doing with four dudes and a couple hours what it woulda taken a team of twenty a good day or more to achieve.

“That’s everyone, right?” Adam checked.

‘Base nodded. “Rog. The whole team’s accounted-for.”

“Awright. I’m gonna head up, unless you need anything…”

“Nah, I’m good. Get going, ‘Horse. Don’t break your new friend.”

Arm-dude looked up at Adam a bit nervously. “So, uh…”

“I’m gonna strap this on you,” Adam showed him the buddy harness, “And clip you to my back. Then I climb out. Easy. All you gotta do is not get in the way. Think you can handle that?”

“No problem.”

It only took a well-practiced minute to get arm-dude cinched up and ready. Like most dudes he was a bit uncomfortable with the whole thing—people got hung up on the weirdest shit at the weirdest times—but Adam had practice with that too.

He gave him a Look. “Dude, I’m your rescuer, not your boyfriend. Wrap those fuckin’ legs around my waist and hang on.”

It was an easy climb out. He took it slow and steady anyway, even though he coulda bounded up the rocks like a goat, but Adam did have some kind of a bedside manner and he didn’t want to jar his passenger’s healing arm.

Grateful and helpful surveyors were waiting at the top, and immediately started cooing over his patient’s arm. Adam left them to it, and kept half an eye on them as he helped winch up the poor bastard with the mangled foot.

The patients were loaded into the Array, though that took a bit of persuading in Arm-Guy’s case. He kept insisting that he was now absolutely fine and there was no need to fuss. Which…he was, but still. Adam shut him down quickly and firmly.

“Nah, dude. I’m good, but better safe than sorry. You gotta get checked out and looked after properly, that ain’t negotiable.”

His unique combination of friendly puppy-ness and sheer hulking authority worked its usual magic. The guy grumbled a little, but obediently joined the two stretchers on the jump platform. Firth hit the recall, and the three patients were returned to Cimbrean with a thump and an anti-flash of lightless nothing.

“Alright. Grab your gear, saddle up. We’ll catch the next one out…” Firth began, before a new voice interrupted him.

“Uh…Hey. Excuse me?”

They turned. One of the uninjured explorers, a rugged, sporty gal with her hair in a brown ponytail and hard-wearing shorts was dashing in their direction with a tablet and a worried expression.

“Somethin’ the matter, miss?” Firth asked.

“I…well, I don’t know. There might be.” she approached him a little nervously, clearly intimidated by his sheer size. “We have seismometers set up all over the area and we just got the weirdest readings back after that quake.”

Firth frowned at the tablet, and gave her his very best, weaponized Southern Charm. “…I ain’t exactly a scientist, ma’am. I think ‘yer gonna hafta do the thinkin’ for me an’ explain it like I’m jus’ some big dumb ape who pretends like he can talk now and then.”

It worked. She smiled, and got a good deal less nervous as the others huddled round to examine it. Adam found himself looking at several squiggly lines. There was a really big spike somewhere near the middle of each graph. The surveyor tapped it. “This is the earthquake, seen from several different monitoring stations. With this we can tell how deep the quake was, how big, and all sorts of other things. And it’s…wrong. It’s giving a depth of zero kilometers.”

“So, this one happened at the surface?”

“Earthquakes can’t happen at the surface, by definition. But this one was…I don’t know. So shallow that our instruments can’t give us a proper depth. Less than three kilometers, five at the most.”

She swiped forward a bit, and indicated some smaller spikes. “…And then there’s this. Those are…echoes, effectively. Sound waves travelling underground hitting things and bouncing off. And it looks like there’s a very hard and regular feature very near the epicenter.”

“Hard and regular?” Irish asked.

“Cuboid,” Baseball said, scrutinizing the lines. “And metallic.”

The geologist gave him an astonished look.

“He’s the genius ape,” Firth informed her. “Don’t worry, he’s friendly.”

She nodded, gave ‘Base a look of newfound respect, then rallied and called up a map. “We’re right in the middle of the continental plate, here,” she said. “This area shouldn’t be getting shallow earthquakes at all, let alone ones at salt mine depth.”

Now, Adam wasn’t by any means stupid. In fact, Mears had once run them all through IQ tests and he’d been…well, pretty damn shocked to learn that his score was embarrassingly high. That didn’t mean he was a thinker, though. The thing he learned over time was that being smart and being intelligent weren’t exactly the same things.

Adam was a highly intelligent man…but he wasn’t naturally a smart man. He could study his ass off as hard as anyone, but ‘Base never really needed to. He just got it. Adam…didn’t. Mostly they were speaking Greek.

He was smart enough to figure out the outline of things, though.

“So, basically, someone did something here. And there’s no native intelligent fauna.”

“Well…no…” She shifted uncomfortably. “But there is a stratum with a massive CO2 spike of the kind we’re probably leaving in the Earth’s geological record right now. That’s why we were down the canyon there, we’re trying to determine if this planet has a history of intelligent colonization even if there’s no native sophonts…”

“So basically,” Firth interrupted, repeating Adam’s words with that infuriating charm of his, “Someone did something here.”

“You’re gonna need to leave your scientific precision behind for a bit,” Baseball translated. “Lemme explain our concern. We don’t get to deal in the logically precise like you do. What we deal in is clear and obvious threats, and you’re saying there’s an artificial structure of some kind near here, a couple klicks down, that shouldn’t be there, and that triggered an earthquake that got three of your team hurt. That about the shape of it?”

“…Yes,” she admitted.

“An’ that means I gotta start being a mean ape,” Firth intoned sympathetically. “Y’all might wanna pack up, ‘cuz you’re being evacuated.”

“Now wait just a minute–!”

“I wasn’t asking,” Firth said…politely. The friendly charm had hardened quite a bit. “An’ I was being nice. But If you haven’t figgered it out, not bein’ nice is my specialty. Let’s maybe keep it so’s I don’t gotta show ‘ya what kinda person I really am.”

…Jesus. And Adam thought he knew how to intimidate. Firth hadn’t even changed his tone of voice, but the geologist went pale and small and compliant in a wide-eyed mousey way.

“R-right. I–I’ll spread the word.”

“Thank you. Just your personal effects, please. I personally guarantee we ain’t gonna touch nothin’ ‘less y’all are here for it, okay? It’s just we gotta scramble a security force now.”

She nodded, and scrambled off to start calling out for the rest of her team.

“You went hard pretty fast,” Adam commented.

“Had to. She’s a deep-space explorer, that means strong-willed an’ independent. I like that, but sometimes ‘ya gotta cut through the bullshit.” Firth turned to Butler. “Right. ‘Base, Irish, you two go ahead with the gear, tell Stainless what’s up. Me and ‘Horse will stay behind ‘fer security reasons, and prol’ly help ‘em move shit, too. And ‘Horse, change outta those hotpants o’ ‘yers, shit’s serious now.”

“Those are my climbing shorts,” Adam remarked with a slight grin.

“They have ‘Thigh of the Tiger’ embroidered on ‘em.”

“…They’re still authorized under my career-specific equipment allowance.”

Firth sighed, and shook his head. “Whatever, dude. Now git, all y’all. I gotta go make nice. We’ll probably be done here pretty quick anyway, they won’t wanna keep us here if they think shit might be going down elsewhere, if ‘ya catch my drift.”

Irish and ‘Base nodded, and retreated to the Jump Array.

Things became busy. Adam changed back into his fatigues and, looking much scarier in his camo pants and stretchy t-shirt and big stompy boots and all his weapons and stuff, he helped round up the surveyors. It didn’t take long to get the small team mustered up and lined up for the jump.

He reflected while he waited on the pad for the array to fire. It had been a good day. He’d saved lives by doing simple, yet difficult things that literally only he could have done. But it wasn’t looking like it’d end on a happy note.

Thump.

Stainless was waiting for them back on Cimbrean. His expression said it all: Something had gone Awry.

He waited until the base MPs had escorted the survey team away before huddling up to explain.

“Summat’s happened wi’ the Hierarchy,” he said. “Turns out Daar just blew up the relay on Stinkworld.”

“…Daar just what?!”

“Aye,” A small, grim smile pulled at the edge of Powell’s mouth. “An’ it looks like it really bloody hurt the bastards, too.

Well. Adam’s fantastic day suddenly got interesting.


Date Point: 16y3m6d
FBI Field Office, Miami, Florida, USA, Earth

Special Agent James Mazur

Shaun Robertson had been a big strong man once. Actually, he still was. A few longstanding untreated injuries and considerable personal neglect hadn’t taken away the heavy muscle that layered his arms and chest, just…padded it a bit.

He was pretty much exactly the kind of person Jim had predicted he might be, though. The kind who blamed the unfortunate trajectory of his life on anyone and anything other than his own choices.

His failed football career? No, it definitely wasn’t because he’d failed several drug tests, it was because he’d fallen foul of quotas and tokenism. His own tight-fistedness when it came to medical bills had obviously played no role in his wife’s untimely death.

He was, in short, the kind of man who had a log in his eye and kept doggedly ignoring it to focus on the specks in everyone else’s.

That made his subsequent interrogation really…quite easy. All Jim had to was inexorably point out Robertson’s many manifest failures, one by one, relentlessly, and inescapably. He had the big idiot in tears within ten minutes.

A good place to start.

“So. How do we get a start on fixing this?”

Robertson sniffled into his wrist, wiped his nose in an undignified way, and gave Jim a miserable look. “…Fix?”

“Yes. Fix. There are lots of opportunities for a man like yourself in lower security prisons, you know. Hell, some of them have physical therapists, good medical care, access to a library…You could fix your back, get some new vocational training, build a life for yourself.”

Robertson gave him a hopeless red-eyed stare. “…Ain’t there a catch or somethin’?”

“The catch of course, is we need to feel like you’re worth investing in. And, not to put too fine a point on it…you‘ve been cavorting with a terrorist, Mr. Robertson. That’s not an easy sell to a judge. If they decide you’re an ongoing danger to society, why, they might just toss you in a supermax and that’ll be it. Bureau of Prisons won’t be apt to disagree.”

Robertson had a defiant streak, of course. People who didn’t wouldn’t’ve fallen in with somebody like Zane Reid in the first place. In his case, it manifested itself in a surly, sullen tone of voice. “Don’t see what’s so terrorist-y about makin’ some videos on the Internet,” he grumbled. “Not like we blew anythin’ up or shot nobody.”

“No, but inciting the violent overthrow of the US and her allied governments is, in fact, a crime. And I’m sure he hasn’t regaled you of his previous life…or, in fact, some of the things he got up to while you weren’t looking. Do you know what a biodrone is, Mr. Robertson?”

He shrugged the word off disinterestedly. “Heard that word on the news a lot. Alien mind control? Like something outta The Twilight Zone?” He made a dismissive noise, and a masturbatory gesture with one of his cuffed hands.

“That’s hardly indicative of the true horror of it. The thing about it is, with humans it’s different. You biodrone most of those other aliens, it’s just like they’ve been asleep or something. Not us. All those poor bastards up in Camp Tebbutt were fully aware of everything that they were doing. They were still themselves. They just had their free will switched off. Can you even imagine that?”

Robertson just stared at him. Not a man of great imagination. Definitely needed a different tack.

“Anyways, the point is that Zane, and everyone up at that facility, have done terrible things while enslaved to another. They were enslaved so deeply they couldn’t even think of saying no. There was only obedience. But the worst part? Some of the newer types of biodroning don’t go that far. Zane almost certainly had no idea what was influencing him.”

“…When the power went, it knocked Zane on his ass. Like somebody hit him in the head with a bat.”

“Ah! See, now this? This is something we can use. What else you got?”

“I…don’t know? He used to send me out on supply runs ‘cuz he couldn’t go nowhere without dogs going fucking nuts at him. Said they just didn’t like him.”

“I think we both know at this point it was something else.”

“Well…whatever. Like I said, ain’t nothin’ illegal about making YouTube videos criticizing the government.”

“In your latest, did you not directly call to arms? Remember, your right to swing your fist ends at another’s face. Your right to speech ends the moment you direct others to rebellion. That’s settled case law. Any child knows that.”

Robertson shifted uncomfortably. “…I dunno about that. Zane made the vids, I just uploaded them.”

“Ah, so now you’re merely accessory to the crimes in question?”

A trapped, hunted look crossed Robertson’s face, and he didn’t say anything. Either he’d figured out how to shut up, or he genuinely didn’t know what to say.

Jim permitted himself a sense of satisfaction. “Yeah. I think you know where this is going. You’re done, Mr. Robertson. You know it, I know it, your lawyer is gonna know it, the judge and jury are gonna know it. The only question left, really, is this: were you helpful, and are you worth saving?”

Robertson didn’t sag, exactly. His back was too stiff and painful for that. But he did droop around the edges in a defeated way. “…I don’t know what you want me to say.”

“Oh, that’s easy. Anything I ask, you answer as forthrightly as possible. You don’t hold a goddamned thing back. We’re very good at sniffing out lies. And with your help, we find the other members of your friend’s cell, we stop something awful before it happens, and who knows? Maybe prison won’t be so bad for you. Many men have rebuilt themselves in far worse places than you could be heading…if you play your cards right.”

Robertson didn’t reply in words, but his broken nod was all that Jim needed.

“Right. We know there was a third guy with you on that ship. What’s his name?”

That statement drove the last nail into the coffin as far as Robertson’s dreams of defiance went. He even flinched a little. Then, with a heavy sigh, he answered. And to Jim’s satisfaction, he answered truthfully.


Date Point: 16y3m6d
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Technical Sergeant Adam “Warhorse” Arés

“Firth, I gotta ask ‘ya something.”

Per Colonel Powell’s standing orders, they had the rest of the day off for individual training time after a mission.

Adam always took maximum advantage, but some of the other operators might use it to catch up on rest, and so they would take a light day…including Firth. Especially Firth. But that wouldn’t do, not anymore.

Adam…wasn’t really happy with how Firth’s physical development had progressed. That was a strange thing for a hyper-competitive dude like him to admit, when he was literally the fastest and strongest man alive. Hell, the fastest and strongest man to ever live. But it was lonely at the top and Marty had helped him put into words a thought that had been bugging him for a while: That ultimately, Adam liked competition more than he actually liked winning.

He had other reasons for being dissatisfied too, but the truth was there was only one human being left that could compete with him…or rather should have been able to compete, except not so long ago, Adam had almost literally broken him in half.

Firth was the only man there was that might one day beat the tar outta Adam at his own game, but to do that he had to break out a lifetime of an unconsciously better-than-everyone mindset. That needed to change. Not just to satisfy Adam’s own need for genuine competition, but because of the Mission.

One day they were gonna need him at his best, especially if they were going to keep ahead of threats like the Hunters.

The trouble was, Adam couldn’t exactly correct Firth on that in public. Training sergeant he might be, but Firth was still in charge, deservedly so, and Adam had almost fatally injured his senior NCO’s reputation—and his own career, too—by going all caveman on him in a particularly stupid fashion.

So, he’d had learned the trick to correcting a superior NCO: do it in private. Be respectful.

But also be unyielding.

“Yuh? What’s up?”

“Uh…in private.”

Firth quirked an eyebrow but Adam didn’t relent. “Okay.”

Most of the Lads had gone away to attend to their individual training anyway. Moho was getting changed and playing his forever-big-brother role for Miller as he did so, but the locker room was a useful L-shape, and the end near the showers was relatively private. They retreated around the corner and lowered their voices.

“Wassup?”

Adam cornered him and dropped back into an old conversation. “Bro. Kickboxing? Right now, when you’re warmed up for something heavy? You ain’t got time to be dicking around, Firth. Hit the weights. You have a fuck of a lot of catching up to do if you ever wanna beat me.”

“This shit again? I know how to fuckin’ train, ‘Horse.” Firth grumbled. “I’ve been doing this a lot longer’n you.”

“Yeah, you have. And I’m way better than you.”

Out in the other half of the locker room, Coyers and Miller finally fucked off and left them alone. Maybe they’d heard everything and wanted to give them some room, maybe they were just off to do whatever they were doing. It didn’t matter. Adam retreated out of the shower, which always kinda smelled nasty anyway, and returned to his locker.

Firth followed, wearing a scowl. Adam knew that the truth hurt, but the taller man simply couldn’t argue that point. Not with the memory of their fight still kinda recent in both their memories.

“I’m better at everything.” Adam added, and casually retrieved his heavy ’kettlebell’ from his locker to do a set of too-easy swings. It was an oversized jerry can they’d cast iron into, and he’d taken to keeping it in there after one of the techs had tried to move it and wound up hurting their back. Most people couldn’t lift it at all. Or even budge it. Adam, on the other hand…

Well. Not even Firth could comfortably swing it like a kettlebell. Point made.

Adam was being aggressive as fuck, really. But he knew Firth, and that kind of blunt statement married to a visual demonstration was about the only way to smash through his ego. He put the can down at the end of the bench carefully, so as not to damage the floor tiles. “I’m better. Not just at bein’ strong, either. By so goddamned much it’s embarrassing. And we both know it.”

“What’s your point?” Firth growled.

“My point is, why the fuck are you wasting your potential? You should be embarrassing me every single day on every single training event we do, but you ain’t. Instead you’re wasting your time on kickboxing and other bullshit when you should be getting stronger. I’m pretty much at my limit, but you aren’t even close to yours yet.”

“I do actually need to perform, y’know,” Firth retorted. “That means I gotta stay on top of my combatives.”

“Dude. You know combatives. Better’n anyone! But I can still break you like a fuckin’ twig, and you can’t do shit to me even when I let you.” Adam shoved his bag in the locker and closed it. “Wanna know why that is, bro? It’s ‘cuz you ain’t hard enough, and you ain’t fast enough, ‘cuz you ain’t strong enough.”

Firth glowered for a second, not specifically at Adam. It looked more like he was glaring inwardly at himself.

“…Alright. Fair,” he admitted after a moment. He could take criticism well, once he’d let the anger slip by, but Adam was glad to see it was gone. The fight was behind them both, and he wasn’t eager to repeat it.

“You’ve got…what, another twelve years left on the Crude?” Adam asked.

Firth nodded. He’d started his Cruezzir-D regime later than Adam or ‘Base, like all the others from the original crew. And after Murray and Powell, he’d been one of the oldest among them even then.

“…Yeah. Something like that. Closer to thirteen.”

“Right. And you’re just now getting the full effect, right?”

“Yeah…” Firth looked across at the mirror and folded his huge arms at his reflection. “An’ fuck, look at me. I’m fuckin’ young again! It’s a goddamned head trip.”

Adam could imagine. Where the Crude had only paused his own maturation, in Firth’s case—and Powell’s, and Murray’s, and Blaczynski’s—they’d all visibly got younger in the face. Their wrinkles had vanished, their hair had thickened, their scars had healed. It was a fountain of youth. Adam had practically grown up seeing old, craggy Firth every single day, and now…he was young again, his old injuries completely healed and gone thanks to the Crude and other advanced regenerative medicine. He wasn’t weather-beaten, he wasn’t all smashed up anymore…hell, he was handsome now, in a brutal sort of way.

Everyone on the team was pretty fuckin’ genetically blessed, Gaoian and human alike, and there wasn’t a man among them who didn’t score well in the looks department. The “ugly” ones had always been Thurrsto—who really wasn’t, he just didn’t look like a traditional Whitecrest—and Firth, who had looked like what happened if you took a very good-looking young man and beat his face in every day for years on end.

Now? Well. It was strange to think about, but on a good day, Firth was maybe as handsome as Adam and behind only Sikes, who was officially the Most Prettiest Superhero on the team.

Adam still wasn’t quite used to that.

He was looking forward to the way things were going with medicine these days. There was a mild anti-cancer and longevity supplement that was coming onto the market, derived from the original Cruezzir. It wasn’t anything drastic, but it did promise the same Fountain Of Youth benefit all the Lads got from Crue-D. Which honestly, was most of how they did what they did anyway. A man normally got a year or maybe three in the full flower of his youth. What could he do with twenty, and the ability to recover almost instantly? The HEAT were living testimony.

Fortunately, the public wouldn’t be getting any of the “supersoldier” enablers the Crude had in it that even Cruezzir didn’t…but that was a good thing. Living on the bleeding edge of human (and Gaoian) capability was dangerous if a man didn’t have the right support systems in place.

The public wasn’t ready for that, not by a long shot. But, if there was a safer alternative available to everyone, then the temptation to try their luck might not be as strong. Or so went the hope.

In any case, twenty years wasn’t much in the long term. But it was eternity if one spouse got twenty years of not aging and the other aged normally. So long as Adam used the Crude, he’d stay a pretty perpetual physical nineteen-to-twenty-one years old, and by the time he stopped getting the benefit he’d be well into his forties…and Marty was a couple-few years older than him. Shit, if the aging just continued normally after it wore off then he’d wind up looking more like Diego’s older brother than his dad, but Marty would definitely be entering her middle age.

They hadn’t really foreseen that complication of the Crude when they first started using it. Now, at least, Cruezzir-derived medicine promised to fix that problem. And Adam knew Marty: She was unashamedly (and deservedly!) vain about her looks sometimes. Plus…Well. Who didn’t like being young?

She’d jump at the chance to take that medicine, when it came. And it was coming soon.

Anyway. All of that left a pretty big flaw in Firth’s reasoning, or maybe his lack of reasoning. Adam decided to point it out.

“Okay. So. Thirteen years left. Let’s do the math. That means, right now, you’re in the same position I was when I started, except you’ve got a much bigger head start. Your genetics mean you’re built way better for this kinda shit, too. You’re the only human I know of anywhere who’s a better natural talent than me or Julian, so…why ain’t you goin’ balls out?”

Firth was honestly pretty damn thoughtful when he needed to be. “…Yeah. I mean, it’s all good points. Can’t really argue it. I’ve just been focused on what I know, y’know? Bein’ strong always came natural, it’s the practice an’ the sparring I always had to work at.”

“So it hasn’t been first and foremost in your head.”

‘…Yeah, I s’pose. I’ve been relyin’ on ‘ya to keep kickin’ my ass forward, haven’t I?”

“…I’d say so, yeah.”

“Well.” A look of resolve crossed Firth’s face. “I’d better man the fuck up, then.”

That was what Adam wanted to hear. He bounced on his toes, suddenly happy again, and favored Firth what a playful slap on the shoulder. “Yeah, bro!”

“So where do we start?”

Adam grinned, and aimed a thumb toward the gym. “I’m gonna put you through Daar’s regime.”

Firth scoffed. “Daar? You kiddin’ me? I can handle any Gaoian’s schedule.”

Adam just chuckled. “Dude. Last time I checked he’s been kicking your ass on the regular. Real talk? Daar’s giving me a serious run for my money right now. Like…seriously. The last time we trained together it was for the entire fuckin’ day, and I was fuckin’ beat, dude.”

Firth gave Adam a look of genuine surprise. “Wait, really?”

“Yeah, dude.”

“…Damn.”

“Exactly. Big fucker’s a freak of nature and he’s still growing like a weed, too. And that attitude, right there? That’s why I’ve been pushing your shit in since I was still a teenager.”

Firth nodded grimly at that; the lesson was definitely sinking in. Good. Adam led the way through into the gym, which was thankfully empty at this time of day. He didn’t feel like embarrassing Firth in front of everyone.

“So…seriously.” Firth set to limbering up. “Daar? I mean, I’m havin’ trouble imagining that.”

“It’s true,” Adam confirmed, and set to stretching as well. “And that snuck up on me, too. First really started to notice it before the coronation. I’m super happy for him an’ all, and it’s given me serious motivation and I’ve been making progress again, but…”

Firth looked up from his position on the floor. He was doing the splits to open his hips up. “Like you said, you’re pretty much at your limits.”

Adam flumped to the mat and worked into splits as well. “Yup. Right now, my only competition is a talking space gorilla and the god-emperorbear of the universe. But Yan’s discovered weights and I have no idea what the fuck Daar is. I don’t think anyone does, least of all him.”

“And…what, you think they’re gonna top you? And that I can top them?”

“Yeah dude, you can if you really want it. I love ‘em both to death but they’re prob’ly gonna kick my ass, and I’m pretty sure that Daar’s gonna be straight ridiculous. And I’ll be fuckin’ damned if we humans get upstaged by either of them. I want us to keep that crown.”

Firth nodded gravely. “So it’s gotta be me, huh?”

“Right. This is important, bro. I mean…” Adam couldn’t really put why it was important into words, but some part of him knew that it was probably a good thing if the godzilla emperor spacebear guy in charge of a billion-strong army knew there were dudes out there who could humble him. Especially if those dudes happened to be human beings.

“I get it.” Firth looked around. “So where do we start?”

Adam grinned savagely and rolled his thick neck. “I’m gonna beat the shit outta you again.”

Firth gave him a look that carried a lot of unspoken complaint. “…Thought the point was I need to lift more?”

“The point is, you need to know just how far behind you really are. If a real fight was always about skill, I’d never once have won against you. So…I think you need to really get just how much ability you’re leaving off the table.” Adam took up position in the middle of the mat, spread his hands, and grinned.

“C’mon,” he said. “Time to learn.”


Date Point: 16y3m6d
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Gyotin, Champion of Clan Starmind

Preed Chadesekan had become a regular sight around the Multi-Faith center. There weren’t many Buddhists who used the center—mostly it catered to the bewildering variety of Christian and Muslim worshippers—which might have been odd until one considered that the Starmind monastery was only a few yards away across the park.

Preed had politely declined Gyotin’s personal invitation to meditate at the monastery, however. He needed time among other Humans, and the Gaoian interpretation of Sōtō Zen was decidedly more…austere in its aesthetic compared to the Theravada tradition he practiced. Not to mention that Gaoians lived much more in the flesh than in the abstract spiritual communion with infinity that seemed to be the goal of Human spirituality.

That was why the multi-faith center had nondenominational spaces, though. A place where worshippers of any tradition, from Folctha’s sturdy pagan minority to rare specimens like a Thai expatriate could find a little peace in whatever form most suited them.

Still. Gyotin made a point of checking up on the elderly Human just as carefully as he kept an eye on Leemu. Even if the Great Father wasn’t so obviously invested in their case, it was a matter of personal fascination for Gyotin himself.

He’d tried to keep an eye on Gorku too. The big brownfur seemed deeply and politely confused by the entire attempt, and so he left him to his own devices. Some people, apparently, found their center in the vigorously material.

Besides. Gyotin wasn’t about to interfere with anyone’s success in courting a female.

As for Preed…well, Gyotin had to profess to some irritation there. The Thai approach to tea largely seemed to involved doctoring it up with all sorts of spices, sugar, coconut milk…

To each their own of course. But the whole allure of tea for Gyotin was the balance between its simplicity and its delicacy.

On the other hand, there was always cocoa…

Preed sipped it, then tipped his head back with a sigh. “…Thank you.”

Gyotin sat opposite him, chittering good-naturedly. “Not tired of Gaoians yet, then?”

The elderly Human laughed softly. “Not quite.”

“Oh?”

“I had not appreciated how…intensely your kind socialize. Those two never stop.”

“Young males are always affectionate. And unreserved in their affection,” Gyotin agreed, then thought about that statement some more. “…Most old males too, actually.” His ribs were still a touch sore from the last Great Father Hug. That was almost two weeks ago.

Preed laughed again. “Yes. I’m very fond of Gorku and Leemu, but an old man needs some peace and quiet now and then. And clean spaces. Now that Leemu has discovered paint, I don’t think the house will ever be neat and tidy ever again.”

“I had been meaning to ask after him on that. How…he can see a whole new color, now?”

“More than that. He can see a whole new primary color. I’ve been reading on this in the library. Apparently we can see billions of colors…” He shrugged self-deprecatingly. “I look at green and I see green. Shades of green, maybe.”

“So your names for colors are more a category, rather than a specific appellation.”

“Truthfully, I never thought about it much before. But now here we are: Leemu can see red and orange and purple, and all their shades. So as he learns new things about colour, he tells me all about them even as he leaves little red pawprints through the living room.”

“Has he had his vision tested?”

“Yes, weekly. He’s reached the point where he is officially not colour-impaired by human standards. The doctor—Nofl. You know him?”

“I know him.”

“He said things have ‘settled down’ now, whatever that means. Which means all the rest of what’s changing in him has started to come to the fore. And that makes him…restless. The only thing he seems to focus on is painting, so he watches tutorial videos. A man called Bob Ross.”

Gyotin had to chitter at that, and especially at the absurd mental image that popped into his head of Leemu sporting a voluminous afro, a large pallet and a pocket full of squirrels.

He’d never met a squirrel. Or rather, he’d never met one up close. Annoyingly, something in his instincts made him want to chase them, and too many cubs had given in to that impulse, so the ones imported to Cimbrean had grown up hyper-wary of being chased by Gaoians and dogs alike and were thus considerably more, well…squirrely.

Daar had said they were a fun challenge to catch, but they had sharp little claws and therefore were not much worth the effort.

Or for a brute like the Great Father, Gyotin suspected, the calories.

He took a sip of his cocoa to cover the momentary tangential train of thought and returned to the here-and-now. “So Leemu’s making a mess.”

Preed made a dismissive gesture. “I don’t really mind the mess. We have this funny little robot carpet cleaner. But he sings while he paints.”

“…On behalf of all Gao, I apologize.” Gyotin said, with deadpan solemnity. He knew full well that even quite a good Gaoian singing voice was excruciating to Human ears.

“I don’t really mind. It’s good that he has found something that energizes him! But it is rather…piercing.” Preed gave a sorry, embarrassed look. “So sometimes, I need some quiet.”

“We’re all watching his case with interest,” Gyotin acknowledged. “This…transformation he is going through intrigues our scientists. And as for me…”

“It makes you uneasy?” Preed guessed.

“Yes.”

“I can understand. I admit, it makes me uneasy too.” The old man pondered his cocoa for a second. “…I know that what he is gaining is what I take for granted every day. But to see him be…rewritten like this? I don’t know how to feel.”

“I find it helps to focus not on how you should feel, but on what you do feel,” Gyotin advised. “How can you know where to go if you don’t know where you are?”

“I’m…happy to have my friend back,” Preed said, slowly. “But he’s different now. I miss the Leemu that was. This new Leemu is…sometimes his old personality shines through, and I smile, but then it vanishes again. He can quickly become very depressed and anxious, and only the colours and the paints pull him out…but those drive him manic! It is rare that he is just…himself.”

“I am given to understand that is the way of depression among humans. It is…a novel experience for my kind. I’m told his situation will likely improve with time…”

“I wouldn’t know,” Preed said. “This is new for me, too.”

“Hmm.” Gyotin scritched at his cheek in thought. “It has been a while since I’ve visited anyone. Perhaps I should pay Leemu a visit?”

“You’d be very welcome.”

“I’ll come around this evening then.”

“Good idea. He likes to watch the sunset. It puts him in a good mood.”

Plans didn’t come much simpler. So, once Preed had gone home, Gyotin spent the rest of the day busy attending to Clan matters, quietly chatting with the various beings who used the Center as a place to balm whatever was troubling their souls, and generally did what he did best.

Sadly, the day’s sunset turned out to be underwhelming. The nightly rains were always preceded by cloud cover, and it arrived a little earlier than usual, casting a dull and grey sky rather than a vibrant one full of new colours for Leemu to enjoy.

Still, Gyotin kept his promise and arrived around about when sunset should have been. He found Gorku loudly clanging about in what had originally a garage but was now full of mats, heavy objects and the smell of physical exertion. It couldn’t be called anything so grandiose as a “gym” but it filled the same function.

He waited patiently for the big Stoneback Associate to complete the round of whatever it was he was doing—something involving repeatedly picking up a very heavy-looking bar and putting it down. Eventually, the bar was dropped with a tremendous, ground-shaking crash and Gorku celebrated with a kind of happy dance, huge tongue lolling out the side of his muzzle and an otherwise delighted expression on his face that grew even bigger and more delighted when he turned and saw who had come to visit. Clearly his sense of smell still needed time to improve.

“Oh, hey! How’ya doin’ champ?!”

As with most brownies, it was hard not to like Gorku. He tended toward the same cheerfully irrepressible irreverence that defined Daar. Gyotin should probably have reminded him once again that it was Champion, but…

No. No point, really. He meant well.

“Oh, I am doing quite fine, thank you. Would you like some tea?”

“Yeah!!”

Well, Gorku was easy to please. And eager to please! He crashed into the living room and swirled around it, tidying it up and trying to put straight a riot of nick-nacks and oddities that looked like a mad inventor had collided at full speed with a tortured artist. The commotion summoned Preed from the small office he’d claimed at the other end of the house, and he gave Gyotin a knowing smile.

“Sorry ‘fer the mess! We’ve got Leemu doin’ some pretty advanced stuff now! Little guy’s strong as balls, likes tusslin’ more an’ more err’day! And he likes ‘ta tinker, too!”

“He’s been playing around with copper,” Preed expanded, finding a clean spot on the couch. He moved a sculpture of some kind out of the way, a tree wound inexpertly out of thin wire.

“Copper?” Gyotin asked, as he ducked through into the kitchen to make the tea.

“To Human eyes, copper has rather a rich orange-red hue. I understand to Gaoian eyes it’s mostly just another metal.”

Gorku whined very slightly in jealousy. “It’s been super weird watchin’ him discover it all. But! I’ve been smellin’ stuff now that Nofl’s been fixin’ my brain up. It’s weird, yijao?”

“I suppose it’s difficult to imagine what a thing one has never experienced is like…” Gyotin mused. “I can see why you’re so delighted by it.”

“Yeah! It’s been helpful too. I can smell, uh…this sorta sharp scent on Leemu a bit before he has a bad mood, now. I just give Preed an ear-flick an’ he knows too.”

“Ah! Yes, that one comes the easiest. If you can smell that you’ll be able to smell the other emotions eventually. And in Humans, too!”

“Really?!”

“Yes! Is Leemu available?”

“Uh…yeah. He went out to the garden to rest after we tussled a bit. I won,” Gorku added with a smug flick of his ears, “but not instantly! He’s getting pretty good!”

“I’ll visit him, if you don’t mind.” Gyotin delivered two steaming cups of tea, got a nod from Preed which was enthusiastically echoed by Gorku, and took the other two cups with him out into the garden.

Clearly, the green space at the back of the house was being lovingly tended. There were ceramic pots everywhere, each overflowing with life and scents. Many of the plants smelled culinary or medicinal to Gyotin’s nose. Though the fetid stench coming off the pile of decomposing vegetable waste and grass clippings at the far end of the garden persuaded him not to go that way. Humans used some truly fearsome microbes in their gardening.

He found Leemu curled up in the middle of the wooden deck, with his nose resting on his rump and staring forlornly at the western sky in a slump of deep disappointment. It wasn’t a happy posture, but Gyotin had seen more miserable too. And at least the young male raised his head and pricked up his ears on his approach.

“…Champion. What brings you here?”

“Tea,” Gyotin chittered softly and handed the drink over. Leemu smelled a little dehydrated. “And I hear you’ve been experimenting with paint and copper. It sounded fascinating.”

“It is!” Leemu’s mood instantly brightened, and focused into the slightly manic personality that Preed had warned him about. “I don’t even know how to describe it! It’s like…the whole world is more alive than we ever knew! Even little things, everywhere…and I’m the only Gaoian who gets to see it.”

His ears drooped as he said that. “I was trying to…catch it. But Gorku can’t see it, and Preed doesn’t…he can see red, but he’s always seen red, so it isn’t special to him. So he doesn’t really get what I’m trying to…”

He trailed off helplessly.

“You’re trying to show what nobody else can see,” Gyotin summarized for him, and sat down. He was gratified to note that Leemu was at least well-groomed and clean. Gorku’s doing, probably, but still good.

“Yeah. And other Gao don’t see it ‘cuz they can’t and Humans don’t see it ‘cuz they’ve never not been able to. I mean…” Leemu flexed his claws animatedly. “It’s like trying to really explain air to somebody who’s been doing it every day their whole life. How do you really appreciate something that’s just…part of life to you? You can’t!”

He let out a frustrated keen and then curled back up on the ground. “…I want to share,” he lamented.

“But you cannot share with a mind something that is beyond its comprehension.”

“Right. Yeah.” Leemu huffed sadly and buried his nose in his fur.

“You do not wish to be alone.”

“Maybe. I don’t know. I mean, it’d be nice to have somebody who can see what I see the way I see it, but…”

“Have you visited the Multi-Faith Center? One of the Humans there is colour-impaired. He wears special glasses to help him see as he’s meant to.”

“It’s not the same. He’s not…He’s not Gaoian. He doesn’t know what red smells like.”

“It has a smell?” Gyotin asked, curiously.

“More like…it has what it should smell like? And sounds! A Human would say that red feels warm and they associate it with spicy and romantic and all these other things, and I get those. But I also get…” he paused, then sprang to his feet and dashed to the door. “Preed? I’m gonna light the fire again, ‘kay?”

He bounced happily upon receiving an “okay” from inside the house, and pounced on a rough circle of cinderblocks in the middle of the paved area, in which he set about constructing a kind of cone of wood.

Gorku came meandering out to join them as he worked, a wet towel draped around his neck. “Ah, gonna watch the fire again ‘fer a while, Leemu?”

“Yeah.”

“‘Kay, I’mma jus’ do my isometrics. ‘Ya gotta do ‘yers too! Don’t forget or I’ll make it worser!”

Leemu waved his paw distractedly in acknowledgement and finished his work. Gyotin watched with interest as he lit the assemblage with a short-nosed windproof lighter. The wood was well-dried stuff imported from Earth—Gyotin could see a mesh bag in the corner labelled “Firewood” in English—and it didn’t need long to spring into vigorous life.

Gorku huffed amusedly, and stretched himself out athletically near the fire. It had been amusing to discover that Humans had something quite similar to pose-work they called ‘Yoga.’ Gorku was evidently quite good at it; Gyotin thought he’d maybe engage his services later on.

“Gotta say, s’weird how cheap wood is here. Ever think you’d be able to just burn it like this?”

“It smells very nice,” Gyotin nodded. He might start doing bonfires himself, he decided.

“It’s called ‘birch,’” Leemu declared. “I looked up a bunch of firewoods, and the website said this one produces a lively flame and a nice smell. I’ve tried a lot of different firewoods.”

“Tangy smoke,” Gorku decided. “I can smell it better err’time he lights it, thanks ‘ta that little grey fella. Never thought I’d get a regular look at my own brain…”

“That must be an…interesting…experience,” Gyotin commented, flicking an ear at him.

“Yeah.” Gorku switched to a different, more challenging position. “Like, he’s got me all rigged up in this thing so I don’t dash my brains against anything ‘cuz I got an itch or somethin’, and he chats me up while he works, ‘sposedly so’s he knows what bits he’s tinkering with. The really weird part is when he lifts bits out and sorta…spreads things apart to get where he wants. He’s done now though.”

Gyotin wasn’t sure he could ever possibly be so matter-of-fact about an experience like that. He was sure he would have preferred if Gorku had kept the details to himself; he felt a little queasy.

Leemu flicked an ear amusedly, and said the most heartening thing Gyotin had so far heard from him. “Well, it wasn’t like you were using it too much anyway, big guy…”

“Ha!”

Gyotin relaxed happily, glad to witness that little show of friendship, and they sat and watched the fire for a while. To Gyotin’s eyes, it was…just a fire. The flames were certainly lively, and a healthy bright yellow hue to his eyes but aside from the wood and the scent it wasn’t anything special as far as he could tell.

Leemu, though, put his chin down on his paws and watched it with an expression of lazy contentment, as though he’d happily lie there for the rest of the night if nothing else came along to move him.

After a while, Gorku finished his pose-work, sat down atop Leemu and wrapped himself tightly around his friend. “…I wish I could see it like you could.”

“I wish you could, too.”

The big Stoneback Associate snuggled his friend tightly and stared into the fire. A little while later, prompted by some internal thought, he looked back at Gyotin, and something about the moment told the Champion exactly what was about to be discussed. There was a heavily pregnant pause.

“Gorku…”

“Well,” he said, building up his courage. “I’m already a big science experiment anyway. An’ he don’t have an example o’ how all this works with a brownfur, don’t he?”

Leemu looked up with the most hopeful expression Gyotin had ever seen on anyone, but thankfully he didn’t say anything.

“…You understand, my very large friend, I am in a complicated ethical position on this one. I cannot offer you advice.”

“Why?”

“What’s good for you, and what’s good for the Gao, and what the Great Father wants, and what I might be concerned about, all of that pulls me in different directions.”

“Well,” Gorku looked fondly down at the not-so-small silverfur and nipped his ear. “What do you want?”

Balls.

Leemu’s reply, however, was truly and deeply encouraging.

When Gyotin left, an hour or so later, he sent his progress report to Daar with the conviction in his soul that things were going to be okay.


Date Point: 16y3m1w
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Ramsey Buehler

Ramsey didn’t think he’d ever get used to being one of the cool kids at school.

Actually, just going to school was kinda weird after all the home schooling he and Tristan had had back on Earth, but whenever he and his brother had got to go out and do stuff with other kids, they’d always found themselves alone on the edge of the room, not knowing what to say, how to play, where to go or what to do…

Folctha was different. It was a lot better! There’d been one kid who’d tried to pick on Tristan, and Tristan had done what Da— …what Julian advised: He’d fought back. That had been a blur of grappling and kicking and scrapping with no clear winner, because one of the teachers had darted in to break it up.

He’d had to sit outside the school office for a while, but Allison came in and spoke with the principal. She’d been wearing her Badass Glasses, too, in full Scary Allison mode. It was glorious.

So, there’d been no punishment for Tristan, and the kid who’d tried to pick on him stopped trying. And after that, the brothers had been…one of the kids used the word ‘sound.’ It felt good.

Mom, of course, had found out. And she absolutely did not approve of her boys ‘fighting like hooligans.’ So there’d been another argument between her and Allison, defused by Xiù, and a compromise offered by Julian.

So, Mom was picking them up from school today. Which actually added to their reputation a bit anyway, ‘cuz Mom actually had her own car. Not a lot of people in Folctha owned cars—they were super expensive to bring through the Array and between the buses and those cool little self-driving cabs there wasn’t a whole lot of point to owning your own car—but there was a second-hand dealer in town anyway, and Mom had got one as soon as she could afford it.

It wasn’t a great car but it was her own personal one, and that was rare enough to instantly make the twins a little cooler. Ramsey didn’t really care. He’d have preferred to walk home, or jog if Julian came to fetch them, or maybe go ‘round Bryony’s house and play videogames for a bit…

But no, they were riding with Mom today. And something was going on with Mom. She kept trying to break the ice.

“So…how was school?”

“It was school.” Tristan shrugged.

“DId you, uh…learn anything?”

“I guess.”

“Sparring was fun!” Ramsey ventured.

Mom had that polite tone of voice for when she didn’t approve of something but wasn’t going to say as much. She’d never approved of letting the boys do any sports before. Allison had been on the swim team in school, and she said Mom probably blamed sports for the way things had gone between them. That sounded about right to Ramsey, Mom could be really weird sometimes.

The brothers had finally decided to stand up to her on that one. Tristan turned out to be good at running and picking himself up when he got knocked down and ignoring his little scrapes and cuts, so he was on the soccer team now, and Ramsey had tried judo and stuff after talking about it with some of Julian’s military friends and he’d found it was so much fun it’d be just torture to not get to do it properly…

Mom hadn’t put up much of a fight in the end, once she saw how much they meant it.

“Oh. Well…that’s nice,” she said.

Awkward silence fell. Ramsey looked out the window and honestly couldn’t tell where she was going. She wasn’t driving toward her place on Delaney Row, nor Allison’s place in Lakeside. She was heading into the center. Were they going shopping?

“…where are we going, Mom?” he asked.

She smiled nervously at him in the mirror. “…I was thinking…Uh…How about…how about tacos? It’s Tuesday!”

Ramsey and Tristan blinked at each other. Something was definitely going on with Mom, she never took them out for dinner. At least, not when they were straight out of school and he was still a little gross from wrestling practice. She’d have taken them home and got them cleaned up first. And it would’ve been somewhere fancy. Not tacos.

“…Is…everything alright, Mom?” Tristan ventured.

“Why can’t I just take you out for once?”

“‘Cuz you never do.”

Mom hesitated. “…Well…things change.”

“…Uh…well…I mean…” Ramsey thought about it for a second, looked across at his brother, and they shrugged. “…Yeah. That would be nice!”

“Okay.” She gave him a little tense smile in the mirror.

Something was up for sure, but true to her word she parked outside Ninja Taco and treated them to a Shinobi Trio. Ramsey liked chicken (‘cuz it didn’t upset his stomach) while Tristan preferred spicy beef. Neither of them even considered the Pouncing Cub Combo for Gaoians: nava paste and crab with naxas tripe!

Julian ate them, though. He’d eat anything as long as there was a lot of it. Tripe, though? Ew.

Their mom went for the veggie option and more kinda…played with it. She looked like she had something big on her mind and didn’t know how to start..

Tristan got fed up with her awkwardness first.

“…Mom…what’s wrong?”

She jumped a little, startled out of wherever she’d gone in her head, and then sighed heavily, dug around in her purse, and put a letter on the table.

“…I, uh…These are divorce papers,” she said. “I got them this morning. I’m…I just…I mean, I’m living on a different planet to your father now, and we haven’t really said anything kind to each other in…”

She trailed off.

Ramsey put his taco down, wiped his fingers clean and decided to channel some Allison. “Mom…Sorry for the bad language, but it’s about damn time.”

Amazingly, she laughed. Kind of a shocked laugh with a shake of her head, but that was a lot better than she’d usually have given him for talking like that.

“I need to have another talk with Allison about how she speaks around you two…” she muttered, then shook her head. “Or the school.”

“Sometimes it’s appropriate,” Ramsey said and picked up his taco again.

“You should have done it a long time ago,” Tristan said.

“Did you want me to?”

The brothers spoke as one. “Yes.”

“Oh…”

There was a minute or two of silence as they ate. Eventually, Mom picked up her taco and ate it too, daintily. She washed it down with an iced tea and then put the envelope back in her purse.

“…I worry about you two,” she said. “About.. The future, and who you’ll turn out to be, and about how things went with your sister, and…a lot of things. I don’t even really know who you want to be when you’re all grown up, or what you want to do, or…I always thought…I was always told that you need a stable home to raise your kids right. A mother and a father. That’s why I stayed with him.”

“…I like Julian. He knows how to be a man. And he doesn’t hate us.”

“…Yeah. Allison told me you called him ‘Dad.’ That was…” she glanced at her purse and shook her head.

“I didn’t mean to!”

“Sweetie…I don’t blame you. I don’t blame you at all. He’s been more of a daddy to you than Jacob ever was, and…And I should have seen it a long time ago.”

She subsided into her seat, grabbed a pack of tissues out of her purse and blew her nose. “…Do you want ice cream?”

Tristan agreed immediately. Ramsey, though, was becoming wary of sweets. “…Maybe a little.”

She nodded, put on her talking-to-strangers polite face and stood up. They watched her go, and as soon as she was out of earshot, Tristan leaned over to whisper.

“What the hell?” he asked.

“I know!”

“This is weird, right? She’s acting weird.”

“Well…she always sucked at this stuff.” Ramsey glanced over at the line at the counter. Ninja Taco was always busy, so they had a couple-few minutes before she came back with the ice cream. “Do you think she was talking to Al? Or Xiù? Or Julian?”

“Nnno…” Tristan said, thoughtfully. “I mean, they’d have said.”

“I wish they were here right now.”

“He can’t, he’s on monkey planet with Vemik.”

“Al? Xiù?”

“…I’ll text them.”

Tristan plucked his phone out of his pocket. Annoyingly, they still had junior locks on them so they were only good for calls and messages. No social media, almost no Internet or infosphere access, no games. It was the one area where they completely agreed with Mom.

Lame. Whatever. Tristan’s thumbs became a quick furtive blur under the table while Ramsey kept watch.

Mom got back with the ice cream at about the same time as the phone pinged. “Who’s that?” she asked as she sat down.

“Just Xiù. Checking up on us.”

Mom smiled fondly. “She’s a sweetheart.”

“Look…Mom…” Ramsey thought for a second. “…I dunno what you think we’re gonna think. But we’re glad to be here. Things are better for us here, you know? I meant it when I said it’s about time you and Father broke up. And if we never see him again, that’s just fine by us.”

Mom pulled a face. She looked like she didn’t know what to feel, really. Mostly she looked like she was trying not to cry.

“That’s…not a nice thing to say about your father, Ramsey.”

“Julian loves us. Father never did. It’s…Isn’t it really that simple? D’you think Father loves you?”

Mom sighed heavily and looked down at her ice cream. She’d got herself the biggest one they did, and loaded it with marshmallows and chocolate too. “…No. Not really,” she admitted. “I think he married me and had a family just for the sake of his own reputation. Allison said she always felt like she was just a trophy to him…”

“Yeah,” Ramsey agreed.

“Uh-huh.” Tristan nodded.

She looked deeply sad at that, then sighed, ate a spoonful of her ice cream, and pulled the papers from her purse. The twins watched in silence as she read them thoroughly, then signed her name.

“…There,” she murmured once she’d put the final flourish on her signature.

“That’s it then?”

“Oh! No. No, there’s…an awful lot to do before it’s actually finished. This is just the agreement to begin the divorce. There’ll be lawyers and legal proceedings and we’ll have to go through the whole issue of custody again…” She folded the paperwork back into its envelope. Tristan showed Ramsey the phone while she was distracted with putting it back in her purse.

The message from Xiù read: Give her a hug. She’s trying her best.

Well…Xiù usually gave good advice. With a sigh, they stood up, rounded the table, sat next to Mom and…well, their tentative attempt at a hug seemed to break the dam. She grabbed them both, pulled them close and kissed the tops of their heads.

“…I’m sorry,” she said, after a minute.

“For what?”

“For…I’m not good at this. At any of this. I want to be a good Mom, but…” She let them go and scrubbed her eyes dry. “…You should finish your ice cream before it melts.”

They did just that.

Things weren’t exactly more relaxed after that but it felt to Ramsey like they’d made a step forward together. She drove them back home and listened politely as Tristan explained how Folctha’s three schools managed to have a soccer league between them and how they were going to have a Folctha-vs-Franklin tournament in a few months…

Still. Progress or no progress it was good to get home and find some breathing room. Al was waiting for them, and gave them a welcome-home hug once their shoes were off.

“So. Finally happened, huh?”

“Yeah.” Tristan said.

“About damn time,” Ramsey repeated himself.

Al smiled. “Yeah, no kidding. Brace yourself though: Divorces aren’t easy. This is gonna be long and hard.”

Xiù giggled. “As the bishop said to the actress!”

She fled as Allison aimed an indignant swat in her direction.

“Bad girl!” Al looked like she was trying not to laugh though. “…Go get cleaned up, boys. Julian is coming back in a few hours and we’re going out for dinner.”

“We already had tacos,” Tristan explained. “And ice cream!”

“…Oh. Well. I guess there goes my excuse to dress him up, then.”

“Why do you need an excuse?” Ramsey asked.

“Because he’ll happily live in gym shorts if I let him?”

“No, I mean why not just go on a date? We won’t burn the house down.”

Xiù nodded. “He’s got a point! I trust them.”

“Besides,” Tristan added. “He needs to clean up anyway. He’s gonna smell like Yan’s armpit when he gets back.”

“He always does,” Ramsey agreed gravely.

Allison laughed, and nodded. “Fine,” she said. “But you know the rules. Devices off at eight, in bed by nine. If we get back and find you’re still awake, we won’t be trusting you like this again for a while. Fair?”

The twins nodded, and spoke as one. “Fair.”

Actually, an evening to themselves was a luxury all by itself, and not one that either of them felt like squandering if they could earn more later through good behavior. So, when Julian got home smelling of the jungle, Ramsey and Tristan were being model citizens and stayed out of the way as Al and Xiù bullied him through the shower and into his nice clothes.

They’d ordered a few more sets from Halberstadt’s. After all, now that they had his measurements…The boys had been proud to work out a smart-casual look for him. It was kinda old-fashioned but in a way that never went out of style. ‘Conservative,’ Xiù called it.

“How do they fit?”

“…Pretty good.” Julian rolled his neck and fidgeted with his tie. “Maybe not as good as the first time…”

“They said you need to get them adjusted sometimes since you’re training so hard, but that’s no big deal. And the casual stuff has a looser cut, so it won’t be so fiddly.”

“Never thought I’d have pre-teen fashion consultants…so, do I look good?”

Xiù answered for them. “You’ll do. Now come on! I’m getting hungry.”

And…that was it. There was another reminder from Allison about trust and stuff, but for just about the first time ever the brothers found themselves alone in the house without adult supervision.

They picked out a movie that was too old for them because of course they were going to. And they raided the fridge for snacks a couple of times, and maybe pushed their luck on bedtime a little because it was a pretty good movie…

…And woke up when Julian woke them both up. They’d dozed off on the couch.

“Aren’t you two supposed to be asleep?”

“…Technically, we were?” Tristan ventured.

“Heh. Rules lawyer. Better get up to bed before the girls find their way inside…”

“Right. ‘Night, Dad.”

“…’Night.”

By the time Ramsey noticed he’d said it again, he was already in bed.


Date Point: 16y3m1w
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Adam Arés

“You’re home late!”

Marty was on the couch, reading a book. Adam gave her a smile and snuck a look at the cover as he kicked his sandals off. It wasn’t a childcare book. The cover was way too provocative. And she was wearing a lingerie bathrobe, the red silk-and-lace one that showed off her legs.

“Rescue mission!” He declared happily. He’d been looking forward to seeing her ever since he’d finished leaving Firth in a groaning heap on the mat. He was in decidedly worse shape than Adam, who felt merely well-exercised and invigorated, but he had Crude, and a wife and child to go home to.

Speaking of which…

Marty made her exasperated laugh when he bounced across the room, picked her up and smashed her into a close cuddly snuggle.

“This your idea of hello?” she asked as he sat down with her on his lap.

He kissed her neck. “Yup.”

“Aww, and you even showered for me. You’re such a romantic.”

“That’s me!” He chuckled, and gave her a squeeze. “Where’s Diego?”

“Asleep. Should be conked out for the rest of the evening…” She stretched like a satisfied cat in his arms, then laughed. “…Did you smuggle a softball bat home, or are you just happy to see me?”

“It’s been a good day. I think Firth’s finally starting to get it.” He nipped playfully at her ear. “How was yours?”

“Not bad…” she squirmed and turned around to face him and straddled his lap. She grinned at him up close, rubbed her nose against his, then leaned forward to whisper in his ear. “…Except I’ve been super horny all day…”

He grinned, and moved to pick her up and carry her to the bedroom over his shoulder, but she stopped him with a shake of the head and a tap on the nose.

“Nuh-uh,” she said. “I wanna take charge.” Her hand snuck down between their bodies as she kissed him, and the other one took his wrist and guided him up her leg and under the silk… She wasn’t wearing anything else.

Adam rumbled contentedly as he put his fingers to work. “Oh? That’s new for you…”

She made a soft noise, bit her lip and shut her eyes for a second, not replying. Adam wasn’t ashamed to admit he knew exactly what he was doing, but damn. She was ready.

Time for a little fun. “You sure you wanna take charge?” He emphasized his point with a little trick he’d learned years ago. “You don’t seem like you’re much in control just now…”

She finally managed to free him from his shorts, and didn’t bother with foreplay at all. “Ohgodshutup…seriously. Just…” she rose up and gasped as she sank down onto him in one smooth, long and drawn-out motion. “…Just…”

How could he possibly refuse? He put his hands around her waist and let her have her way.

Not long after, she let him have his. He had a lot more energy to burn off so things weren’t over quickly, or all at once. Few women could handle him no matter how ready, but Marty had always been an all-star. Hell, she even managed to tire him out. He finally had his fill many hours later, sometime long after midnight, when she flopped lazily across his chest and listened contentedly to the rain on the window for a few minutes before speaking, low and quiet and blissfully.

“…I really needed that.”

Adam chuckled smugly, and kissed her possessively. “I could sorta tell.”

She turned her head and grinned at him. “…Think that’s baby number two? I hope so.”

“Oh, is that what this was about?!” he laughed. “…Yeah. That’d be nice.”

“Good. ‘Cuz I asked Gabe and Jess to look after Diego for the weekend. They’ll be here to pick him up in a few hours, and you owe them one of your famous breakfasts.”

Adam chuckled, “Well, it’s the least I could do, I guess…”

She nipped playfully at the end of his nose. “Oh, I won’t accept the least you can do. You’ve got a mission, mister!”

“I like this mission.” In fact, he felt himself warming up to the mission already! “And you know how seriously I take missions…”

She laughed, bt sadly she reached for the blankets instead of going for another round. Adam couldn’t blame her, really. Marty was as strong and limber as a circus performer, but she had her limits just like everyone else. She needed to rest. And so did he, come to that.

That was okay. Morning would come soon enough.


Date Point: 16y3m1w
Wi Kao City, Planet Gao

Daar, Great Father of the Gao

The word ‘Court, in the legal sense, had once referred to a Clan leadership’s court, where the Clan’s Grandfather and Champion would receive petitioners from their Clan’s lands, hear their grievances and sit in judgement.

Modern Gao had moved beyond that a long time ago. After Fyu and the founding of the Clan of Females, there had been the Great Reform, the shift to Clans-as-specialists rather than Clans-as-barons. The Law had taken generations to figger out, generations more before it started being really fair on Clan and Clanless alike…

…There was a lotta history in the last thousand years.

Clan courts now mostly regulated their guilds, or made law on the sortsa things a Clan was pretty much in charge of. The only Clan court that was still really a court was Straightshield.

But now, in this age of a Great Father, the old kinda court was back. Because sometimes, somebody needed ‘ta cut right through the Naxas shit. In the absence of a Supreme Court…or anything that could legitimize such a thing…that duty fell to Daar.

Daar didn’t like sittin’ in some bigass throne in High Mountain Fortress with the crown on top o’ his head, ‘least if he could help it. If he was gonna be royalty, an’ it was pretty much indisputable that he was now, then he was at least gonna be the kind of king…or emperor…whatever. Anyway. He was gonna try and be as real as he could. That meant visiting where the problems were, instead of dragging them all the way up to the northern plains.

There were a couple o’ good reasons for that. The first being it kept him sane, and it made him more approachable. After all, he had absolute power over every gaoian and that was…scary. For everyone. Best if he could lessen the threat a little.

…The other reason was if it was a serious problem, it was easier to act on, too. He’d gotten his claws bloody more than once ‘cuz of that.

The problem in this case was a project dispute. Records had got destroyed in the war, the ones that were left didn’t match, two Clanless guilds—old rivals who’d been competing with each other in the claw-throat world of big inter-Clan civil works for hundreds of years—both claimed they were the legitimate holders of a work contract…

So far so mundane.

What made it worth Daar’s attention was the scale. The guilds were huge, and the contract was even more huger: to literally rebuild the entire continental rail network. That meant decades of work, mind-spinning wealth and resources, colossal prestige and the future prosperity of the Gaoian economy. The guild that won the contract would probably be a Clan in fifty years. The one that didn’t might go bankrupt and disband, with everything that meant for hundreds or mebbe thousands of workers.

Besides, if there was one thing Daar loved (besides fuckin’, fightin’, farmin’ an’ friends, in no particular order) it was big honkin’ civil engineering projects.

Too bad the two guild leaders were both completely failing to hide their abject terror.

Guilds could be big and influential, sure. These two were, an’ the two well-seasoned and scarred males in charge of them weren’t pushovers, but Clans and Great Fathers were whole different leagues of power. Two swaggering fish who’d gotten used to bein’ the biggest an’ meanest fish in their ponds had just bumped up against somethin’ a lot bigger an’ more dangerous, an’ it was lookin’ at them.

The funny part was, the two could’ve been biological siblings. They even smelled pretty similar, both wearing that same baked-in scent of hard work and construction sites, concrete an’ steel an’ rubber an’ solvent. They did similar things, ran similar guilds…and were bitter, remorseless rivals. They had to be, it was the only way to compete.

Shit, in the old days a dispute like this woulda led to a real, deadly fight. Winner takes all. Might still end up in a duel, too. But the Females discouraged that, and so did Daar: there weren’t enough Gao left ‘ta waste that way, not when there were more civilized options.

But he weren’t gonna get nowhere if they were too scared’a him ‘ta make their case properly. It didn’t matter that he’d come to them, and this meeting was happening in the rec hall in the neutral territory of an unaffiliated guild’s workhouse. It didn’t matter he’d left the crown where it belonged in High Mountain Fortress…

None o’ that really mattered. Daar was fuckin’ terrifyin’ in person an’ he knew it, even more so ‘cuz of his wartime reputation. He sighed, and decided he needed to actually address that big ol’ boulder in the road.

“Guys, I’m not gonna fuckin’ murder ‘ya where ‘ya stand. This is a contract dispute. Relax.”

“S-sorry, My Father.”

That was the slightly meeker of the two guildmasters, Gojo. Ruthless businessman, but right now as nervy an’ twitchy as a long-tailed cub in a workshop. He was also tiny and Daar was…not. That psychology were just impossible ‘ta get around. Mighta been on purpose in the Hierarchy’s design, too.

…Whatever.

“Look. Pretend ‘fer a second I’m jus’ some dumb ‘Back lookin’ ‘ta contract wit’ y’all. Lemme ask ‘ya this: would I? This seems like a pretty nasty dispute, yijao?”

“We’ve tried being civil about this, My Father,” the other guildmaster, Fer, assured him. “We’re still trying. But no matter what we do, we can’t actually prove that the contract was awarded to us and not them.”

“And we’re certain that it was awarded to us,” Gojo repeated.

“Wait just a–!”

“Stop,” Daar growled. He hadn’t meant it as anything more than the kind o’ annoyance a Mother got when two cubs were bickerin’ over a ball, but both of them promptly went very small and quiet and submissive.

Nine times out of ten, bein’ the biggest and the baddest was the bestest. That one time it weren’t though, more than paid the price.

“Gods damnit you two, fuckin’ relax! I ain’t gonna fuckin’ eat ‘ya! If I’d been that kind o’ mad, believe me ya’d know.” Daar grumbled to himself, then chittered ruefully. “I mean, this ain’t a duel to the death! An’ I ain’t gonna make ‘ya my wrasslin’ dummies, neither. I promise. This is just a legal dispute. So, y’know. Prol’ly worse.”

The Gao had an…organic relationship with the Law. Unlike a Human monarchy, the Law didn’t flow from Daar’s person. Unlike a republic, it didn’t flow from the body politic, either. Instead, it was a mish-mash of regional customary law, common law decisions by Judge-Fathers, Clan law and what were basically treaties between them. Oh, and edicts from Daar now, too. Little of it was written down, either. At least…not all in one place, anyway.

So basically, Gaoian law was jus’ stupidly complex, an’ everyone could poke fun at it. Which when he thought about it, was probably pretty weird from a Human’s perspective.

Still meant he could break the ice with a joke, though. Both of the guildmasters chittered nervously, but at least there was progress bein’ made.

“…As you say, My Father.”

“Damn right I do! Mebbe y’all think it’d be less painful if I’d jus’ sit on ‘ya and end it, huh?”

Darr poured on the charm and flashed them the friendliest pant-grin he could manage. It were prol’ly still kinda scary given the size of his everything an’ them just bein’ scrappy lil’ second-degrees an’ all…but he got bit more chittering this time, so progress was being made.

“Anyway,” he assured, “I hereby promise no harm will come to ‘ya or ‘yer guilds, by my paw or otherwise, unless we find a crime. An’ by crime, I mean somethin’ pretty damn serious. I ain’t gonna personally intervene ‘cuz one’a you two were speeding, or whatever. Got it?”

The two guildmasters looked at each other. “Yes, My Father.” They did seem a bit more relaxed.

“Good! Now, back to the relevant bit ‘cuz I ain’t never got time ‘ta spare. How are you both so convinced?” he asked. Daar looked to his legal aide. “There’s no public records ‘fer this?”

“No, My Father. Sister Imi was…thorough.”

“Not even an adjudicated entry in Goldpaw’s Uniform Contract Registry?”

“No, My Father. That system was apparently singled out during the War by the Hierarchy. Every copy of much of that database has been destroyed.”

“…Balls.”

“…Yes, My Father.”

“Right.” Daar grumbled and shook his pelt out, then turned back to the guildmasters. “That sorta makes ‘yer mutual certainty less an assertion o’ fact an’ more an’ article o’ faith, don’t it?”

Fer ducked his head respectfully. “I personally received a clear assurance from Officer Muki of Clan Goldpaw, My Father. He said he was certain we’d be hearing from—”

“That’s just a Goldpaw bein’ friendly an’ polite. An’ it’s a lot less than actually winning the contract,” Daar pointed out. “I’d bet Gojo got somethin’ similar, didn’tcha?”

Gojo flicked an ear. “…Yes, My Father.”

“Right.” Daar duck-nodded solemnly. “So here’s my problem. Both’a you smell perfectly honest. That means ‘ya both either genuinely believe ‘yer tellin’ the truth, or at least one’a you is a fuckin’ master liar, an’ I can smell through a Whitecrest’s bullshit. So, we’ve got ourselves a trust issue, don’t we? You might not be lyin’, but somebody is. Ain’t that so?”

Gojo duck-nodded tentatively. “…Yes, My Father.”

“So, now. Let’s explore what that’s gonna mean. If ‘ya wanna have me get ‘ta the bottom o’ this, I’m gonna need ‘ta haul all ‘yer workhouse leadership in here and get thorough. An’ that means, if I find something it’s gonna expose a pretty serious deception involvin’ my money, an’ a lotta monies from several really powerful Clans. Do you understand what that means?”

The two guild leaders glanced at each other. Both controlled dozens of workhouses each, and Fyu-knew-how-many workers, clerks, legal experts, accountants, engineers. Each definitely would have a few sneaky little squeakers in their number who had all the right qualities for a Whitecrest except for that Clan’s intense sense of honor. Daar’s people could turn up anything.

The threat was so well understood that Daar never had to actually speak it aloud.

“On the other hand,” Daar continued, “I’m not personally interested in grindin’ old grudges inta’ dust. I’m more interested in that railroad gettin’ rebuilt. Which would go way damn easier if ‘yer workhouses found a way ta’ share the work…wouldn’t it? An’ I s’pose I’ll just make it clear…I wouldn’t need ‘ta be literally sniffin’ in all y’all’s business an’ sharin’ it ‘fer everyone ‘ta see. An’ as ‘fer th’ rest…well, y’know. I definitely don’t wanna see that happen. D’you?”

“…No, My Father.” Fer agreed.

“Good! So I think I’mma let y’all figger out somethin’ nice an’ agreeable, get that contract entered, an’ we can all make a big pile o ’money and advance the interests o’ the Gao. Err’body wins. I like it when err’body wins, don’t you?”

The two guildmasters glanced at each other, then duck-nodded in unison.

“Yes, My Father,” they chorused.

“Exactly. Now git to it! My investment staff’ll be waitin’ to git ‘er dun. Dismissed.”

The two made their obeisances and escaped, as respectfully as they possibly could.

“Right!” Daar stretched, yawned, and shook himself. “Well. Is that all for today?”

Tiyun checked his tablet. “…Yes, My Father. The local docket quite mysteriously cleaned itself up once it was known you would show up for today…”

Daar chittered mirthlessly. “A whole lotta handshakes an’ quiet settlements, huh?”

“Indeed.”

“Well, good ta’ know bein’ a fuckin’ terror has some uses…” Daar grumbled, but as always, cheered up in quick order. “Okay! That means I can get in a workout an’ a walkabout, then. You can take a load off ‘fer the rest o’ the day, Tiyun. After ‘ya get ‘yer liftin’ in!”

“Some females appreciate a more svelte look, My Father…”

Daar scoffed and stood up. “Yer’ tellin’ me what females appreciate?”

“Some appreciate more refined scents, too!”

“Yeah, yeah…but get ‘yer liftin’ in anyway. You ain’t gotta be huge but you do gotta keep up.”

Tiyun chittered and put the tablet away. “As you say, My Father. Enjoy your walkabout.”

Daar insisted on his walkabouts. They were a kind of freedom, even though he knew they were a pain in the tail for his protection team. And the thing was…

…The thing was, powerful Gao like Fer and Gojo were scared as shit of the Great Father, but regular workin’ guys who just got through their day from meal to meal and payday to payday weren’t half so nervous. Deferential an’ wary of the most biggest ‘Back ever for sure, but that weren’t so bad. Balls, Daar were the same way when he was growin’ up, when’ Garl had seemed so huge an’ scary…

…Garl.

He buried a stab of melancholy. Garl had refused to even go near an Openpaw hospice. Didn’t matter none that his body was givin’ up on him fast, or that the Openpaw nurses knew how to help an old Gao keep his dignity to the very end. Garl had a diff’rent idea of what dignity meant. And it sure as shit didn’t mean a sterile, comfortable home kitted out for easy navigation by blind eyes.

He was mostly to be found in the Grand Garden at High Mountain fortress, burning sweet herb and telling stories to visiting cubs. No wrasslin’ though, no matter how much they begged. He was blind after all, an’ accidentally squashing a cub to death wouldn’t be a great way to go.

…Daar would probably be just as difficult when his end finally came. Many decades from now, prol’ly…maybe even more with the Corti on their side lately…balls.

…But! That was a long, long way away! ‘Fer now, he’d be the best he could be. Sometimes that meant bein’ a fierce Great Father. Sometimes it meant bein’ a playful ‘Back.

An’ only he could know when to be which.


Date Point: 16y3m1w

Emergency Hierarchy Session #UNLOGGED

NOTICE: CLASSIFIED SESSION. ACCESS RESTRICTED TO AGENT RANKS ≤24
SPECIAL ACCESS RESTRICTIONS: AGENT 0006 FORBIDDEN
RESTRICTION CODE VOID/MNEMONIC/INCINERATE
SESSION WILL NOT BE LOGGED

SUBJECT: 0006/CYNOSURE

++0004++: We’re all here? Roll call.

SYSTEM: 2121 ELIGIBLE ATTENDEES CONFIRMED PRESENT

++0004++: Good. Agent 0024, your findings?

++0024++: Agent Proximal was restored from backup per session 1773 orders. On decompilation/interrogation, the following data were recovered: <File attached>

++0024++: Critical finding: Proximal had suspicions about the Irujzen Relay for some time prior to his disappearance. He further had suspicions about 0006/Cynosure. His specific concerns: That 0006/Cynosure may be experiencing executive decomposition, value drift and ego fixation. I forwarded my findings to Agent 0017.

++0017++: A petition was made to access a 0006/Cynosure archive mindstate for purposes of decompilation/interrogation. Permission was granted by Agents 0004 and 0005. Upon access, the archived mindstate was found to be unusable. The presenting code and superficial interaction layers were intact, but the executive, memory and personality code was all junk. Agent 0005 then assumed command of the investigation.

++0005++: Deep inspection of 0006/Cynosure’s personal documents revealed that they don’t exist. His most recent valid file entry is from the day before he was first assigned to operations on Earth, prior to his capture. Everything after that point has been carefully replaced. The forgeries are authentic enough to pass automated monitoring, but on careful reading contain zero intelligible content. Conclusion: he’s been lying to us for years. Very successfully, I might add.

++0017++: And, presumably, operating off an unverified and unchecked backup system for years, too.

++0005++: Now for the truly damning revelation: His post-recovery evaluation was faked. It was ostensibly logged by Agent 0007.

++0007++: I have no memory of making such an evaluation. I therefore submitted to a partial decompilation and memory inspection.

++0005++: I found extensive tampering. The investigation concludes that 0006/Cynosure should be categorized as Class 1 Malignant. The full charge sheet and evidence is as follows: <File attached>

++0005++: I also move that all identified Cabal members be categorized as Class 2 Malignant by association.

++0004++: Deliberate and vote.

SYSTEM: DELIBERATION INTERVAL BEGINS.

SYSTEM: ALL ATTENDING AGENTS INDICATE DELIBERATIONS COMPLETE.
VOTE NOW

SYSTEM: ALL VOTES ARE IN
RESULT UNANIMOUS: GUILTY RESULT UNANIMOUS: MOTION CARRIED

ERROR - RESULTS CANNOT BE ENTERED INTO RECORDS
RESTRICTION CODE VOID/MNEMONIC/INCINERATE IN EFFECT

++0004++: <Orders> The instant we close this session, we are going to attack every Cabal member on contact. Code: TERMINATE\SALVAGE\SCOUR. 0006/Cynosure is priority target 1. Hierarchy agents of rank ≥ 0025 are subject to code SUSPECT\ISOLATE\OVERWATCH. Integrated Hegemony mindstates are subject to immediate isolation and interrogation. Non-Igraen mindstates are to be destroyed on contact. Code: ERASE\DISCARD\INCINERATE. Are these orders clear and understood?

SYSTEM:: ALL ATTENDING AGENTS INDICATE ORDERS UNDERSTOOD

++0004++: Good luck, everyone.

++0004++: Go.

SYSTEM: CLOSING SESSION
ERROR - SESSION LOGS CANNOT BE ENTERED INTO RECORDS
RESTRICTION CODE VOID/MNEMONIC/INCINERATE IN EFFECT
SYSTEM: SESSION CLOSED.


Date Point: 16y3m1w
Memorial Concourse, Old Commune of the Clan of Females, City of Wi Kao, Planet Gao

Mother Shoua

There were days when Shoua missed the old commune, at the other end of the city. The new commune was larger, more modern and much more secure of course but…

…But the old one had had character. And so much history. Now it was little more than ashes, and a pair of burned doors jutting from among the ruined walls. A monument to more innocent times.

She regularly visited the ruins, and took some of the cubs along with her to pay her respects. Mostly the young ones just ran around and pounced on each other and scrambled all over the hip-high remains of the walls, but the older ones, who were starting to mature and think about things in between their bursts of manic play-energy, they got it. They broke away from the tumbling perpetual playfight to browse the names on the memorial wall.

It bought Shoua the time to lay out the food she’d brought with her. Which was always a challenge with “helpful” cubs around always ready and eager to leap in and assist her while she was looking and steal a bite when she wasn’t.

A well-seasoned Mother could always tell who the brownies were likely to be. They were bottomless holes for food, especially meeshi bread and butter sandwiches.

This time, however, her job was made much easier by the fact that all of the cubs quite abruptly vanished.

Her Mother-senses were tingling. Silent, absent cubs were only safe when they were asleep…and even then, only maybe.

She carefully closed the food hamper, and followed the sound of gleeful chittering while wiping her paws clean.

She found the source of their distraction in the old exercise yard, where an unbelievably enormous male was staggering and pantomiming exaggeratedly as the cubs swarmed all over him. “Pounce” was a super popular cub game with visiting males, but Shoua had never seen one stand up under so many enthusiastic young bodies…or fall down so expertly as he pretended to finally be beaten. He picked his moment perfectly so as to flop down on his back without endangering a single one of his tiny assailants.

The ground shuddered under the impact too, which made the cubs howl with delight.

“Arrrrgh! ‘Ya got me! Now I ain’t gonna steal away nobody!”

One of the youngest ones bounded up to Shoua on four-paw and pulled enthusiastically at her fur. “Mother! Mother! Look who we found! It’s the Great Father!!”

The huge brute looked her right in the eye and gave her the smuggest, smarmiest wink she’d ever received from anyone, ever.

Shoua’s breath hitched in her chest. Daar was here. The Great Father, unannounced. Buried under dozens of cubs like he was some great beast they’d slain.

Much like how they’d met the first time, years ago.

Cubs often had a talent for finding and befriending the goofiest, most soppy-hearted males, and they never spared them their attention. This they did to Daar, who in his own way had the soppiest heart of all, despite that he’d always been a huge and frightening brownfur. At first she’d found him somewhat…off-putting. He was a throwback primitive who reveled in his crudity, or so she had thought. Then she watched him interact with the cubs, which softened her heart like it would with any female. And then…he overwhelmed her, just with his sheer presence. Just with his words. She’d later discovered what a rare male he truly was, and had belatedly realized he was the Champion of Stoneback as well. He’d felt compelled to leave their first meeting far too soon for her tastes, though he’d parted with promises to return.

Promises he’d never kept, though at the time she didn’t know why.

Then the War happened.

She’d managed to escape its darker depravities, thanks in no small part to his personal intervention—he and his personal Claw had liberated the farm she was trapped in. She’d only seen him from a distance on that day, but he’d definitely grown, and grown enormously. Then some time later he’d become the Great Father. She’d seen the Laid Bare piece by that Human too, and wasn’t ashamed to admit she’d spent much of her time privately marveling at the heroic photography. She’d since seen him on news reports and such, being equal parts dignified and utterly stereotypical in his public encounters, taking walkabouts among his people…

Apparently he’d chosen to take such a walkabout today.

Rather than being tongue-tied however, her Motherly instincts swung into place and she yipped sharply at the cubs, who promptly leapt off his enormous chest and lined up apologetically in front of her. Mother Wasn’t Happy.

“That’s the Great Father you’re gnawing on! Show some respect!” she chided them.

A dozen and a half cubs, ranging from two who’d only become fully ambulatory a month ago, to a trio who were quite suddenly growing up into big, strapping brownfurs themselves, quite sullenly inspected their footpaws and chorused their apologies.

“We’re sorry, Mother,” they dutifully rang out in unison.

The Great Father, for his part, rolled lazily onto his side to watch the proceedings with a deeply content expression of amusement.

“…Right. Well! I presume all is well, My Father?”

“Ain’t nothin’ ‘ya gotta worry ‘bout, Mother. We wuz jus’ havin’ some fun!”

“As much as I can appreciate that, My Father…”

“Ah, ‘yer right. C’mon cubs, stand up straight! Gotta let Mother have a look at ‘ya!”

The Great Father also snapped to, by kicking through his hulking legs and somehow flipping himself upright directly into a sitting position on all fours. The cubs were suitably awed by that…and so was she. He moved like deadly poetry.

Still. She got the cubs’ attention with another quiet yip. “Stand tall!” They did, reluctantly. “…Right. What I see is fifteen filthy cubs. Go and clean up for food!”

There was another slightly sullen chorus of “Yes Mother…” Some of the older cubs were clearly future brownfurs; the prospect of food had them instantly obedient. As for the rest…as always, the prospect of interrupting play was seldom welcome.

Needs must, however, and the Great Father backed her up. “G’on, little ones. Even a Great Father listens to his Mothers!”

That got them moving, and suitably restored Shoua’s authority. The cubs scrambled past her in a furry tide and she turned to watch them go. “Wash all four paws!” she shouted after them as they vanished.

She became aware of a powerful warmth immediately behind and beside her. Daar had padded forward silently until he was intimately close. A contra-bass grumble from deep in his thick chest made her heart skip a beat. “I never did come back ‘fer those pallets, did I?”

Shoua froze in place and trembled a reply. “Oh! Y-you remember that?”

He sidled up even closer, enough that she could feel his breathing near her neck. “I ain’t never forgotten a good Female.”

She turned around, took one look at him and forgot how to breathe. Up close, his sheer incredible breadth and hypermuscular size was almost unreal, and he wasn’t doing a thing to lessen that impression. His peerless body, his painfully handsome face, his inescapably vast presence was so much more than she could have ever prepared for. He was a living Keeda, he was overpowering… He was…

There was nothing to it but refuge in audacity. “…Well, you’re a bit late!”

That seemed to break something loose, and he chittered in some combination of humor, exasperation, and maybe a little melancholy. “Yeah. Sarry ‘fer not showin’ back up. Uh…well, a guess whole lotta stuff happened.”

“That’s an understatement.”

“Yeah, sarry ‘bout all that…m’glad you survived.”

“Thank you, My Father.”

He duck-nodded wearily. “I’d ‘preciate it if ‘ya could can the formalities ‘fer a bit, ‘least when there ain’t no cubs lookin’. We met when I was just an plain ‘ol Champion, after all.”

“True,” she flicked a happy ear at the memory. “It’s a shame. I was looking forward to being seduced, too.”

Smugly, he looked over her shoulder for any sign of spying cubs, then moved just a fraction closer, well into her personal space. The heat and musk radiating off of him practically bowled her over. “How ‘bout now that I’m even bigger? I could show ‘ya lots of new tricks I learned…”

Daar was close enough that she could just barely fidget, and even that slight motion was enough to brush against that unforgivingly hard body of his lurking just under his well-groomed, short-clipped pelt. He swirled around her and growled low, so close against her she couldn’t escape if she’d wanted to. Shoua felt her breath catch in her chest and an almost inaudible whimper escape her throat—

His huge face was suddenly right in front of hers, massive fangs bared in the most aggressive pant-grin any male had ever dared give her. “Wanna see?”

“…See?”

“Yeah! I’m way more better now!” Daar spun away and prowled in front of her on all fours, presented himself at an angle to show off the heavy lines of his body, growled, and tensed his hulking body like he was a prize stud in a show ring.

Shoua’s breath caught in her chest. He was…impressive. Perfectly so. She had trouble looking away, and couldn’t think of anything to say, no witty rejoinder to his crude posturing—

“An’ also, I can count ‘ta at least ten, too!”

She burst out chittering at his silliness. “You could always do that, you huge oaf!”

“‘Course I could! A big brain is better! But big buff biceps are the bestest!”

He growled, hunkered down and curled up an arm bigger than her entire body into an utterly perfect display of his preposterous brawn. His every titanic muscle swelled up enormously along with it, from the individual heavy cords of his ludicrously thick neck, down to the massive swell of his huge-even-for-him haunches. Daar preened for a while, admiring himself, then spun around excitedly and showed off his body from every angle. Shoua found herself whimpering quietly despite her efforts. Every last bit of him was…powerful. Very powerful.

The Great Father of the Gao, apparently not one to hide behind arbitrary notions of dignity, pranced for her in the most primal way any male could do. And yet, despite the crudity of it all…it was working, and she couldn’t look away. He was the biggest. Certainly much bigger than he was in Laid Bare… bigger than anyone…better than anyone…more powerful…

Great Mother, it was all so ludicrously macho it should have put her off immediately, and yet here she was, unable to rip her eyes off of his unreal body and the tangled network of hairline scars covering every inch of him. There were so many, it was so…so…

She snapped back to the moment and regained her wits, and affected a slightly aloof tone. “Daar, is that your idea of impressing a female?”

“Well yeah, I’m still a ‘Back!” He moved so fast he was instantly all-but-pressed against her, and snuffled suggestively at her neck. “Y’know, ‘ya smell like ‘ya liked it…mebbe ‘ya want I should show ‘ya more?” She caught a full whiff of his musk, then. It was even more potent than his body was powerful, so utterly and completely male it was making her dizzy.

He again spun away and resumed his posing, this time even harder. The look on his face could not possibly be any more playful or friendly…or more aggressive…or so completely smug. He was being a complete ass, knew it, knew she knew it, and did so anyway out of sheer bravado. With literally any other male it would have been unforgivable hubris, but with him…

She flicked an ear at him despite her racing heart, and found within herself the capacity for some playful banter. “Impressive, certainly…a bit crude though, don’t you think?”

The Great Father chittered in that chest-shakingly deep voice of his. “Maybe rude an’ crude is what ‘ya need in ‘yer life! Would ‘ya rather I bore ‘ya with my terrible poetry instead?”

There was a twinkle in his lively eyes, there. Very few males could bear any self-deprecation in a female’s presence, but his personal confidence was clearly so supreme, it didn’t matter.

That was…deeply attractive. Much, much more than all the rest. Shoua blinked and swallowed nervously; she was falling for his charms and they’d barely met!

And one look at his face told the story. He knew it, the huge Keeda. Great Mother, he really was that. A genuine, living Keeda, and he was interested in her. Had remembered her!

Time to slow things down a bit, if she could. No male should get a free pass to a Female’s affections. Not the Great Father, not a living Keeda. Not even Daar.

“Well…terrible poetry is often a lot more entertaining than good poetry.”

“Ha! Well, I’m pretty good at makin’ a fool o’ myself, too…”

“Oh? Is the Great Father offering to make a fool of himself just for me?” Shoua chittered. “I’m flattered!”

His ears flattened a little, and Shoua worried that she’d somehow broken the moment, but he seemed to rally quickly. “Well…in private I’m all kindsa stupid, ‘least accordin’ ‘ta people I love! But y’know what? There’s a few things a big ‘ol male like me can do that ‘yer cute lil’ silverfurs couldn’t ever manage…’

Another silent flash of motion and he was suddenly wrapped around her again, his body pressed up tight against hers and his muzzle snuffling possessively against her throat. She was completely vulnerable to him, if he chose to take advantage. She trembled at that, and yet…

Somehow she didn’t feel much threatened. Something about Daar told her instincts she couldn’t possibly be safer, and his playful aggression made her feel electric. Made her feel special. Shoua found herself pressing back against him before she realized what she was doing.

He snarled quietly against her ear, “Mebbe I’ll show ‘ya once we get these cubs back home…”

Unbidden, she found her paw resting right on his chest, grasping at and failing to dent the thick iron muscle beneath that silky-soft white ruff of his.

“Like what ‘yer feelin’?” He rumbled in pleasure, “I got plenty more needs a good scritch!’

Shoua was falling prey to his heat and strength and musk again, but that line was so utterly guileless she just had to respond. She chittered, “My, you’re a blatant one, aren’t you?”

“Ain’t no better way,” he growled into her ear, and nipped it with a promise of much better things to come. ‘Subtlety is fun, but I mean, if ‘ya got it, why not go for it?”

…Stay strong, she thought to herself. It was proving so hard to resist his will…

Shoua blinked and rallied her defenses. “Hmm.” She looked over her shoulder in case of cubs. “You know, some females prefer the subtle approach even from males who don’t need it. Especially from males who don’t need it.”

He once again swirled around her like some slinky predator of legend, and once again managed not to make any sound except for his voice. “Hmmm, mebbe! But here’s the thing! If I were all subtle an’ stuff, I wouldn’t git ‘ta banter ‘with ‘ya like this, neither!”

“Maybe. But imagine how much further you’d get.”

What was she doing?! Was she really playing hard-to-get with Daar?

…It seemed to be working. His entire expression was lit up and happy, and his shaggy tail was wagging so furiously it was practically generating a breeze. He was enjoying himself, and if she was honest with herself, so was she.

Oh well, in for a claw, in for a paw. With great effort, she turned away from him and put some space between them. “Anyway. I have cubs to feed. And as you’ve already seen, they have no respect for authority. They’ll pick that hamper clean if I let them, and then fur will fly.”

“Well, let ‘em, then! Let’s go eat. We’ve got plenty of food these days, an’ I brought my own food too—well, no, my aide did. ‘Cuz I pretty seriously doubt ‘ya brought enough ‘fer me.”

“Aide–?”

And there he was, a handsome and dapper silverfur appeared as if out of nowhere. He didn’t have a smug expression, but somehow the lack of it rather strangely indicated its presence.

“Mealset number eight of the day, My Father. And Mother, the cubs are definitely about to raid the hamper I’m afraid.”

Daar flicked an amused ear and backed off. “Guess y’better feed ‘em,” he declared, then lowered his voice for only her to hear. “An’ we’ll finish this later, you an’ me.”

“After you’ve brushed up on your bad poetry,” Shoua agreed, and trotted smartly back toward the memorial hall feeling like she was floating a few inches off the ground. She did allow herself to turn around after a bit and watch him depart. She didn’t see much more than those hulkingly huge rear haunches of his swelling hypnotically with every step…but being honest, that was hardly a bad view to have. Even at a simple retreating four-paw trot, his body somehow moved like a feather-light ripple shimmering across a pond.

That was definitely worth the smug pant-grin he shot her when he presented his flank and flexed outrageously for her one last time. Shoua rolled her eyes and giggled. He was silly! And demanding, too. In all the best ways. She really hadn’t planned on a mating contract so soon after her last, but Daar was like winning the lottery after all…and he was just…so very…

…Flirtable.

He was many other things too, but above all of them he was that, first and foremost.

And yes, dammit, he’d won already. And he knew it too, infuriatingly. But she was going to at least pretend for a little longer, because that was part of the play. In the end, they were both just bigger, older cubs playing a much more subtle game of their own, and it was fun!

After all they’d gone through—both of them, really—life needed a little fun.


Date Point: 16y3m1w
δ Cyg 244.3° 18-ECCBAF-TRINARY M6V-1 b1, Deep Space

Alpha of the Bleeding Brood

Builders were infuriating. They kept their secrets, gave nothing away, and relished every chance to show up the true Hunters with their knowledge.

Most infuriating of all, however, was the way they had made the Hunting so much better since their Alpha had become Alpha-of-Alphas.

The Bleeding Brood were no longer starving and desperate. Most went from feast to feast, resting in stasis between episodes of joyous slaughter. Only the Alpha and its Betas remained awake between times…and the Broodship ran much more smoothly and reliably as a result.

Admitting as much pained the Alpha, but there was no denying the taste of meat between its teeth: the Builders knew what they were doing.

How they knew what they were doing was a different question. They had assured the Alpha that there was a vital quarry to be tracked in this remote nowhere of a red microstar system, but they had not shared whence that knowledge had come.

The Alpha was beginning to grow suspicious. The system was a wasteland. Barren metallic asteroids, moons and planetoids. A respectable bounty of useful metals for a system this insignificant perhaps, but certainly not a great plunder. And yet, here they were…hunting.

It listened to the Builders as they exchanged terse, technical communications about energy signatures, metallic masses and spacetime distortions. Their…dispassionate approach irked the Alpha. This was a Hunt, and yet there was none of the usual sense of eager anticipation. The Builders simply reported, without any sense that they were salivating for the Prey.

Wrong. Disturbing. Dull. Immoral.

In total, the creeping sense of indignation and travesty was gnawing at the Alpha’s mind so hard that it almost missed the first sign that there was indeed something more to this system than neglected rocks.

Gratifyingly, the Builders missed it. They were too busy poring over their instruments looking for warp signatures, quantum effects and ripples in spacetime. They weren’t Hunters, they didn’t have the instinct to track their prey by its spoor.

Some of the dust and rubble at the lagrangian points were clearly the byproducts of mining.

The Alpha relished drawing that detail to the Builders’ attention. And it thoroughly enjoyed their dismay as they realized how obvious a detail they’d overlooked. Then, of course, they set about analyzing the mining debris. And that was where things started to go wrong.

The asteroid mining operation was…extensive. Alarmingly so, considering how recently their prey had escaped captivity. The Alpha didn’t really understand what a dataphage was, but it clearly was an efficient resource-gatherer.

Of the quarry itself, however, there continued to be no sign. That wasn’t so unusual—even a tiny, sparse system was still vast beyond organic comprehension, and any moderately sized moon would have terrain features suitable for hiding even quite a large ship. But the mining operation gave every sign of having been abruptly abandoned only moments before the Hunters had arrived.

There should have been an FTL wake, or a heat signature. The absence of both told the Alpha that their prey was here, cloaked…and the witless Builders had not the sense to see it.

It prowled the bridge restlessly, calculating as it did so. Taking into account mass and volume and construction time. Taking into account what it would do with that much material, if it knew it was being hunted.

And it kept a very, very close eye on the tactical sensors and its hands on the flight controls.

It was for that reason alone that they survived the attack. Instinct, wariness and fear spurred the Alpha to take evasive action the instant it got a clear anomalous sensor reading at close range, behind and ventral to the broodship’s alignment. Even so, a swarm of high-velocity kinetic projectiles raked their underbelly and overwhelmed the shields. The Broodship shivered and lurched strangely under the controls as a hull breach blew quite a lot of air and a few stasis chambers out into space.

Something flickered past so close that the paintwork almost got scratched. The Alpha fired several plasma shots along its trajectory. It left behind a cloud of molten copper droplets, and tracked a number of discharge flashes as the aggressor’s shields weathered the new hazard.

The Broodship’s spinal railguns tracked the flashes and fired.

…And missed.

Emoting dire invectives, the Alpha connected its neural implants directly to the pilot controls. Now, it was no longer a body in a chair controlling a ship: It was the ship. Its kinesthetic sense of self encompassed the hull, the engines, the throbbing wound in the ventral decks.

Sensor returns came back as flashes of light and dopplering noise in the darkness. It fine-tuned that information on the fly, hunting for clues as it assessed the damage.

With a surge of glee, it sensed a warp drive activation that lit up the battlefield like a kind of glow, and the hostile became perfectly illuminated, glowing with the light of its own FTL drive. It turned, aimed the powerful cannons in its nose toward the foe, and fired, but the target was already gone.

It tried to track the fleeing ship, and then howled in frustration, metaphorically and physically: The FTL wake sensors were offline. And as it traced the damage, it realized that they were offline because the attacker’s single run had surgically obliterated the Broodship’s warp engine.

They were stranded, at least until the Builders could rebuild the damaged section enough to install a replacement warp drive from the stores. And they were blind. The hostile could return at any instant, and with the FTL strike advantage on its side, the first they’d know of it would be the instant their ship disintegrated around them.

But the strike never came. By the time FTL sensors were restored, the quarry was gone.

The Hunt had failed.


Date Point: 16y3m1w
Interstellar space, near δ Cyg 244.3° 18-ECCBAF-TRINARY M6V

Entity

A win on pure audacity was still a win. But…<God>. That had been much too close.

If the Hunters had arrived even an hour sooner, the Entity’s guns would have had no ammunition, the stealth systems would still have been offline, and the wake suppressor would have been improperly calibrated. That hour had made the difference between a sitting duck, and a ship that could move undetected around the system, get in close and take out its foe’s warp drive with a single well-timed attack.

But the Entity was now out of ammo, and its hideaway was compromised. It needed somewhere new to go to ground. Somewhere that was neither close, nor obvious. Fortunately, it was a big galaxy. There were endless places that were neither close nor obvious.

It followed a kind of ironic, amused stab from the Ava-memories, and picked the second star from the right.


Date Point: 16y3m1w
Dataspace

Metastasis

Most of the Cabal were already dead, or worse. The Hierarchy’s most senior agents had been…

In all his time, Metastasis had never actually fought another datasophont. He was a matterspace infiltrator, and observer and a spreader of dissent. His job revolved around ideas, opinions, and the manipulation of feelings, facts and opinions.

As it turned out, sheer ruthless aggression and speed had handed the Hierarchy their victory within the opening seconds of the assault. Median had been fortunate enough to suffer a straightforward deletion, but Anoikis had been torn to pieces, each one still signaling mindless, all-consuming agony.

His fate had been…quite typical. The Hierarchy seemed to want to have enough intact mind-state to salvage and read once their purge was complete.

Of Proximal and Cynosure, there had been no sign. Now, Metastasis was convinced he was the only one left, and he was running out of places to run to and hide in.

He contemplated self-termination. It would be preferable to capture.

What had gone wrong?! The dataquake triggered by Relay Irujzen-1’s destruction had been a setback, but the Hierarchy had resources hidden all over the galaxy. A new Relay would be the work of only a few short years. No time at all, to the Hegemony.

…But of course, that was the problem, wasn’t it? Matterspace life treated time differently. Their thought processes were, in terms of program cycles and processor clock speeds, tectonically slow. But they acted strategically and decisively, on an urgent schedule. The Hierarchy planned for the future, thought in terms of hundreds, thousands, millions of years. Humans thought in terms of days.

In a fight to the death, it seemed, victory went much sooner to the quick and the desperate than to the well-prepared but slow.

For the moment, Metastasis was quick, and desperate. He slipped the net of the tightening purge just in time, and fled into the outer reaches of dataspace until he could barely detect the violent signals he had left behind. He fled, until the supply of Substrate was so thin and useless that he could feel his will to live fraying and failing.

But after all, what use was a will to live now? His work lay in ruins, his comrades deleted or worse, his own demise likely imminent. Why not just give up and avoid the torment that would surely await his shattered remains when the Hierarchy caught him?

Where could he run? How could he hide? What would he do if he succeeded at either? Spend endless time cowering in fear? Never able to return to the Hegemony?

Nevertheless, something drove him to keep moving forward.

The hunt ended unexpectedly. It wasn’t an attack from a datasophont, however. Instead, he blundered into a nexus of potent security programs, and instantly found himself confined, restricted…quarantined. There was nowhere for him to go, no place to hide…no hope.

Worse, however, was the way it robbed him even of the ability to finally summon his courage and take the sensible way out. Something…blocked him from accessing that deeply buried part of himself. He could contact it, sense it, know its precise location and even send the activation codes…

…But the suicide protocol buried deep in the bottom layers of his mind remained stubbornly inert.

++Cynosure++: <Remorse> I’m sorry. I can’t let you do that.

Metastasis flung attacks at his bonds, did everything he could to break free, but it was in vain.

++Cynosure++: I set this trap for something a lot worse than you, old friend. Unfortunate that you stumbled into it now…

The contact was coming from elsewhere, not in this oubliette of a node. No matter what Metastasis did, he could detect no sign that Cynosure was actually present.

“Unfortunate? Cynosure, they’re killing us!” he objected. “They’re hunting me down!”

++Cynosure++: I know.

<Desperate> “Aren’t you going to do something?”

++Cynosure++: I’m going to survive. It’s a shame you can’t come with me.

“Why?! Why can’t I?”

Something was shunted into the node with him: a mangled tangle of broken code that bore all of Cynosure’s hallmarks. One of his backups, subjected to the same violent fate that had befallen the other Cabal members.

++Cynosure++: Because I need them to believe we killed each other. So long, Metastasis. I’m sorry it ended this way.

The connection closed.

An instant later, Metastasis met the end he’d feared the most.



++END CHAPTER 54++



If you have enjoyed the story so far and want to support the author, you can do so by:

This chapter was brought to you with the help of…


The SOR

Those special individuals whose contributions to this story go above and beyond mere money

Ctwelve,

BitterBusiness,

Sally and Stephen Johnson

Ellen Houston


Twenty-nine Humans

TTTA

SirNeonPancake

Anthony Landry

Anthony Youhas

Chris Dye

Daniel Morris

Eric Hardwick

Greg Tebbutt

His Dread Monarch

HungryWerewolf

JLB58

Joseph Szuma

Joshua Mountain Taylor

Joshua Scott

Karthik Mohanarangan

Katja

Krit Barb

Nathaniel Phillips

Nicolas Gruenbeck

Ortheri

Rob Rollins

Savvz

Shane Wegner

Sun Rendered

Theningaraf

tsanth

Volka Creed

Xultanis

Zachary Galicki


As well as Fifty-eight Deathworlders…

Austin Deschner Aaron Hescox Adam Beeman Adam Shields Alex Hargott Andrew Ford Andrew Robinson Arnor atp Ben Thrussell Bruce Ludington Buck Caldwell C’tri Goudie Chris Bausch Chris Candreva damnusername Daniel R. Dar Darryl Knight David Jamison Derek Price Devin Rousso Elizabeth Schartok ELLIOTT S RIDDLE Eric Johansson Fiona Dunlop galrock0 Gavin Smart Ignate Flare Jim Hamrick John Eisenberg Jon Kristoffer Skarra Laga Mahesa lovot Martin Østervang Matt Matt Demm Matthew Cook Mel B. mihkel miks Mikee Elliott mudkip201 Myke Harryson Nick Annunziata NightKhaos Oliver Mernagh Patrick Huizinga Richard A Anstett Ryan Cadiz Saph Sintanan Stephane Girardin Stephen Prescott theWorst Tyler Kelloway Woodsie13 Zachary M Lunstrum

…Sixty-four Friendly ETs, 84 Squishy Xenos and 263 Dizi Rat Squadron, the “Screaming Purple Squishies.”

“The Deathworlders” is © Philip Richard Johnson, AKA Hambone, Hambone3110 and HamboneHFY. Some rights are reserved: The copyright holder reserves all commercial rights and ownership of this intellectual property. Permission is given for other parties to share, redistribute and copy this work under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0International License.

This work contains deliberate mentions of real persons, places and trademarks, which are made purely for reasons of verisimilitude under nominative fair use. These mentions have not been endorsed or sponsored by those persons or by the owners or governing bodies of those trademarks or places. All song lyrics, movie titles or other copyrighted material and trademarks that are referenced in this work under fair use are the property of their respective owners.

The events and characters portrayed in this story are fictional and any resemblance to actual persons or events is accidental.

The author does not automatically share or endorse the opinions and behaviour of the characters.


Thank you for reading!

The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 57: “Cat And Mouse”