Chapter 57: Cat and Mouse, pt.1: Hunter and Hunted
Date Point: 16y3m1w AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm
Doctor Claire Farmer
Vemik’s ‘Bawistuh’ made a pretty surprising noise when he test-fired it for the first time. Claire had been imagining it would make a deep bassy sort of twang like a rubber band or something.
Instead it cracked like a gunshot. For a second, she worried it had broken or something but… no, to judge by the way Vemik and Tilly both whooped joyously and slammed their hands together in a high-five, it had worked perfectly.
Tilly ended up massaging her hands shortly thereafter, and there was a playful look between them…
Claire… couldn’t say she disapproved of her colleague’s adventures in cavemonkey sex, but she definitely didn’t approve either: She was ambivalent. And even if she’d been single, she would have had no interest in trying it for herself.
As it was… Hoeff made for a sufficiently interesting boyfriend.
For starters, she still thought of him as “Hoeff.” Even though his name was Daniel. But then again, a name was whatever people called you by, so by that metric he was always, firmly and forever a Hoeff more than he was a Daniel.
Short. Blunt and to the point. Monosyllabic. Yup. Hoeff was definitely a Hoeff. He and the cavemonkeys had some spirit in common on that point, despite his protests.
…And he was plenty “weapons-grade” enough to stand up to the likes of anyone, as far as she was concerned. Anyway.
The bawistuh was more of a giant siege crossbow. Vemik had gone with basically a huge laminated steel recurve bow rather than torsion springs or whatever. Which was… probably the difficult way to do it, but Professor Hurt had been very clear about letting him experiment for himself. This was an area where the Ten’Gewek had to arrive at the solution themselves. Tilly’s involvement was nothing more than an extra pair of hands to fetch and carry.
Julian was helping too, probably unknowingly. Mostly that happened whenever Vemik would hound him about whatever he’d done, and then scrutinize his reactions closely in an attempt to glean positive direction… A scrutiny that was definitely helped by the fact that Julian had the Worst. Poker face. Ever.
Miraculously, the bow seemed to have worked perfectly. They’d chosen a fallen Ketta for their test firing, and the result was that the splintered remains of the spear were driven so far into the fallen wood as to leave a crack that Claire could have fit her hand into. It took a lot of work and digging with a tool to retrieve the spearhead.
Yan and the other Given-Men were certainly satisfied. Even skeptical luddite Torf had grudgingly admitted that Vemik had put so much work into the machine that it didn’t count as cheating.
Now, there was a buzz around the villages as they contemplated the idea of taking down a Brown One without losing a single man to its teeth and claws. Still. The way Vemik sucked air sharply between his fangs as he inspected the bow said there were still a few teething problems to work out.
With the test demonstration over and done, the Given-Men and watching humans drifted away. Claire cuddled up to Hoeff’s arm as they enjoyed the stroll back up to the research camp. He squeezed her hand and smiled at her, but said nothing. He was surprisingly good at affection: There was a tender side to him that didn’t get much exercise.
“Whatcha thinkin’ about?” she asked.
She was expecting the classic Guy Reply, something along the lines of ‘nothing’ or ‘not a lot.’ Claire didn’t mind: cheesy romantic stuff was nice, but she knew from experience that guys really could happily spend their time with an entirely vacant head. Far from finding it frustrating, she’d always felt it sounded restful.
He surprised her though. “Career an’ stuff. Wonderin’ how long we’ll be welcome here, stuff like that. The future, you know? And my family.”
“Did something happen?”
“Dad ain’t as healthy as he used’ta be. An’ Grampa died young. Younger than Dad is now. Kinda gets me worrying that next time we relay-synch with Earth I’ll get messages tellin’ me he passed on, and…”
He didn’t finish the thought, just shrugged. “…Happy stuff like that. Gotta figure things out.”
She smiled, even laughed a little at the self-deprecating humor, and squeezed his hand again. “I guess you have more freedom to worry about that kind of thing now, huh?”
“Yup,” he agreed, then changed the subject. “…You get all that work done you stayed up late for last night?”
“Yup!” Claire beamed happily. She could talk about her work forever, even the boring bits like filing and reporting back to the University.
If he found any of it dull, he didn’t let on. He just walked with her, and listened, and nodded. Maybe he was just glad for a distraction from his concerns.
He did check his phone when it pinged to signal relay synch, though. He slowed to a stop as he read, brow furrowing.
“…Hey, we got any seismographs, seismometer things about?” he asked after a minute.
“Uh… yeah. Stan Heward has some for monitoring the volcanic zone. Why?”
“I think I need to talk with him. And oh look, our lords and masters in the State Department want Playboy to do some TV time. Guess that means a trip to Earth.”
“Why so unenthusiastic?” Claire asked. He glanced at her, hesitated, then shrugged and shook his head awkwardly. But the way he lightly squeezed her hand just made her melt inside.
“It’ll be boring, mostly. I won’t have my explorer babe with me!”
“I could come with you. They do give us vacation time, you know. Even if I never use it.”
He shook his head. “I’d be on the job. Gotta protect the big lunk. But… yeah. After. I could use some of my vacation time too.”
She grinned, snuggled into him, and nodded.
“Sounds perfect,” she said.
Date Point: 16y3m1w AV
Grand Commune of Females, Tiritya Island, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Mother-Consort Naydra, Life-Mate of the Great Father
Saying goodbye to a cub was always difficult.
Cubs couldn’t just be handed over to communal care the instant they were born. There were a few months there where they needed their birth-mother, needed the special milk only she could give or else they would never quite grow right.
Suckling such a tiny, pink, furless thing for so long and seeing it grow into an actual cub, with bright open eyes and soft silvery fur, made having to walk away and turn him over to the Commune…
It broke Naydra’s heart a little every time.
But the day had finally come, and the only balm for her heart was that she knew he’d do well. Drest was already eagerly exploring his world as he got his paws under him, which was always a good sign. He was healthy and strong and exactly the kind of cub one might expect of the Great Father: a fifth-degree male and the biggest she’d ever birthed, which in turn had made nursing him a challenge. Nevertheless, he had as good a start on life as she could give.
And really, what more could any Mother do for her cubs?
In any case, she’d invited Daar to spend the night before they traveled back to Gao, since he was on Cimbrean anyway; something about pre-meetings for a large defense conference his staff was arranging.
As usual she felt him thumping along through the floor before any sound or smell gave him away. It had been a long day for them both and he arrived late. His trundling thumps came to a pause outside the door, where his huge paws fumbled with the door sensor several times before he finally succeeded. By all signs he had rather thoroughly exercised himself before his arrival, which was considerate of him, in his way: he was planning for a relaxed evening, though it would have to start with a dust bath. He wedged himself through and before she knew it, he’d wrapped himself entirely around her, keening softly. They didn’t need words.
One of the best things about Daar was that, while he wasn’t a jealous tail by any measure, he was exactly the right kind of possessive. He’d squeezed the breath right out of her in one of his most affectionate hugs, and like always he expertly rode that fine line between enjoyable and uncomfortable. They held for a very long moment, just enjoying each other’s heat and scent.
“Gods, I missed you,” he said at last.
She snuffled the fur of his neck and made the happy purring chirruping sound of the deeply content. The world just felt safer in moments like these.
But still. As welcome as his scent was, if she didn’t put her foot down it wouldn’t be long before it overpowered everything else in the apartment. “I just changed the sand out…”
Daar chittered ruefully. “Yeah, yeah, I’m goin’…”
“And I’m coming with you. Got to get all those hard-to-reach places…”
Daar chittered knowingly. “Oh? An’ here I thought I was gonna have a relaxed evening…”
Cleaning him up wasn’t exactly a platonic gesture—their relationship was anything but, after all—but she subtly let him know that she was still feeling a bit too drained and emotional from just being parted with her cub to be at all interested in working on the next one.
He understood, and kept things to a playfully affectionate simmer rather than indulge his usual volcanic passions. And of course, if he’d really had that itch to scratch—and he usually did—he had her blessing and encouragement to go scratch it with any of the other thousands of females on the island. Would do, tomorrow. But tonight, he was here for her. For them.
Truth be told, he seemed like he was simply glad for the company tonight.
“So…” Naydra asked, as she brushed the last of the dust out of his fur, “…what did I miss?”
Daar chittered darkly. “Oh balls, you ain’t gonna ease into it, are ‘ya?”
“Bumpkin, there’s no easing into anything with you.” Naydra flicked her left ear in sympathy, then curled up on a nice, comfortable bit of floor. “What’s on your mind? I can always tell, you know.”
Daar again wrapped himself around her in a tight snuggle, then took a moment to gather his thoughts. “…Leemu is.”
She duck-nodded, understanding. “Those new deathworld genes.”
“Our genes.” Daar straightened his back a little as she teased out a knot in his fur with her claws. It was starting to grow out again from the last time he’d shaved it. “Ain’t nothin’ new bein’ added. Leemu ain’t becomin’ somethin’ diff’rent, he’s unlockin’ what we always could be.”
“At what cost?”
“That’s just it.” Daar squirmed as she finished making sure his back fur was completely brushed sleek, then turned to face her. “I dunno. I wish we coulda tried it on someone less broken first. Leemu went through a lot, an’ he’s sufferin’. I dunno how much is the change an’ how much is what that fuckin’ droud thing did ‘ta him.”
“Yeah. Can’t order someone ‘ta take it. Ain’t nobody crazy enough to volunteer ‘cept mebbe his buddy Gorku, an’ he’s kinda damaged too. That just leaves… me.”
She put the brush down and tilted her head. “…Is it a risk?”
“I don’t… think so.” Daar shook himself. “I figger, I’m prol’ly most’a the way there anyway. I mean, look at me.”
He spread his paws wide, and didn’t bother with flexing in his usual playfully macho way or anything. This was serious, and in any case he didn’t need to: Naydra was intimately familiar with every last hair on his hide, every last scar, every line and shape hidden under his fur.
“Ain’t never been a Gao like me. Ain’t hardly been many people like me, anywhere, of any species. I can hang with the best the Humans an’ Ten’Gewek’ve got. I’m as far ahead’a the best in the Grand Army as Sister Shoo was ahead’a Yulna when she an’ her friends got taken. So I’ve gotta be nearly there anyway, mebbe a few things ain’t switched on yet, is all.”
“Like red vision.”
He frowned at her, then snorted. “…You always know more’n you let on.”
“I’m your consort and life-mate. It’s my job to know things,” she replied, and tapped the end of his nose; A very sensitive, ticklish spot in his case. He snorted again and covered it reflexively. “I took the liberty of writing to Fer and Gojo about that railroad.”
“Oh?” His shaggy tail thumped, just once.
“You scared them into playing nice. I built on that.” She smiled and stood up.
Daar stood as well, shook the fur of his nape out and ear-flicked a slightly melancholy emote. “..Y’know, I used ‘ta love bein’ the scariest ‘Back ever. Still do, bein’ honest. But sometimes…”
“I find that you can achieve a lot more with a feminine touch and some bared fangs than you can with just the feminine touch.” Naydra wiped the dust off her foot-paws. “Or the fangs.”
Daar sighed happily, and pulled her off her feet and into himself for another of his inescapably tight snuggles. “I have no idea how I ended up earnin’ a blessing like you, Naydi.”
“You rescued me from slavery, remember?” She gave him an amused look.
“I do,” he sighed unhappily. “I ‘member what it felt like ‘ta snap his pelvis in my paws, too.”
“And I remember what it felt like to watch. You taught me a lot that day.”
He made a conflicted noise. “Part’a me wishes it hadn’t happened like that. Except then I wouldn’t know you. So I’m glad ‘fer how things turned out, but that means I also hafta be glad of what happened ‘ta you.”
“I’m glad of what happened to me,” she retorted. “I wasn’t at the time, but I am now. It made me stronger, and it showed me what love is.” she stroked her claws through his chest fur, then tilted her head up at him. “…You know, you talked before about Leemu being the future of the species and the Gao who’s going to change everything.”
“Except he wasn’t. He never was. The Females would never have touched him, Bumpkin. Like you said, he’s broken. And why would we take crazy genetic risks with our cubs?”
“I mean…fair. But I don’t know that he’ll stay broken. Mebbe I’m an optimist. An’ the really awful part is this almost certainly ain’t a genetic risk at all. We were made to do this.”
She shook her head. “You know that. And I believe you. But them?” she waved a paw to indicate the island and the Grand Commune. “A generation of shell-shocked, traumatized young mothers still rebuilding after a war whose first goal was our own mass murder? They were never in the mood to take risks, Daar. Never again. And even you couldn’t possibly force them to, even if you would, and I know you’d never.”
“…All o’ that’s true. An’ I think mebbe that’s weighing on me.”
“So they need somebody to lead the way is what I’m saying.”
“Yeah. I know what ‘yer sayin. But, I gotta ask. Are you sure you want me ‘ta do this?”
“You?” She chittered. “Bumpkin. I want to do it myself.”
Daar chitter-sighed—a fantastic new emote that came out of Human contact—and shook his shaggy head at her. “I swear ‘yer the firiest woman I ever did know.”
“It’s only fair. I want to see red, too. And you will need to know how it affects females,” she added. “You know. For science.”
“Science, eh?” There was a flash of his usual… Daarness… but his concern overrode his usual proclivities, and instead he just snuggled her a bit tighter.
“Science is just an adventure.”
“You and Nofl would get along, I bet. Are gettin’ along, judgin’ by that turn o’ phrase…”
“Good. So I’ll call him to let him know our appointment is going ahead, shall I?” She could feel the mischief twinkling in her own eyes. She’d been discussing the possibility with the impish Corti for weeks.
“…Tentative. I wanna check in on my Basket Case Trio first. But then…”
She nodded, and touched her nose to his. “But then,” she finished, “we’re going to watch a sunset together.”
Date Point: 16y3m1w AV
Logan, Utah, USA, Earth
Alex hated his trailer. It was a mess. Too much of a mess to clean, so he just ignored it, and quietly resented it.
He resented the ankle-deep layer of unwashed clothes on the floor, the drifts of coke cans around his desk, the pizza boxes under the window and… everything about it, really. And he definitely resented being kicked out of his home to live in such a shit-heap. His stepmom had never let his old room get this bad.
There were a lot of things Alex resented. Right at the top of the list, though, he resented being useless. He should have been out there setting the world to rights, making things better. There was a whole galaxy out there running on decaying old systems of power and oppression and the strong exploiting the weak and just making all the misery even worse…
But he was stuck. Watched like a hawk by the fucking fascists who kept the status quo in good order. Under their watchful eye, there was nothing he could do. He couldn’t even hold down a job that paid shit.
Thank fuck for meth heads.
There wasn’t a lot of money in the kind of unofficial second-hand electronics work Alex did. Folks brought him their malfunctioning computers, he fixed them if he could and got paid in cash. If he couldn’t fix them, he took the old broken machines off their hands and told them “no charge.” They went away happy with his “no fix no fee” policy and then came back a day or two later to buy a new rig off him.
The new rig, of course, was always just the cannibalized parts of the old rig in a different case, paired with whatever compatible working parts he’d salvaged from somebody else’s junker. But they never put two-and-two together, and Alex didn’t give enough of a shit to educate them. Not when it paid the rent and kept the fridge stocked.
But his little “business” had come with some other benefits too. Like old phones. He’d kept a few of them, after polishing the truth a bit over how far gone they were, and people usually got uppity about getting their SIM cards back, but he’d managed to keep two—ancient turn-of-the-century prepaid things built like a tank could run over them and they’d still work—whose owners musta forgotten or got new SIMs or whatever.
He’d rigged up a little hiding spot for them under a false bottom in his desk drawer, even got a power outlet in there to keep them charged, managed to get the numbers out to some old friends…
Nothing had come of it. He kept them anyway. Just in case something ever happened.
Until then… he played a lotta battle royale.
Having the headphones on meant he didn’t hear the phone ringing for the first couple seconds. Then he dropped his mouse, tore the headphones off his skull and scrabbled desperately in the drawer, not giving a shit that it left his character standing out in the open like a dumbass.
He hadn’t heard the voice on the other end for a few months. It was soft and high, but intense. “Fe Fi Fo Fum, Matchstick.”
Alex’s blood froze solid. “Bill?!”
“Eh. This phone better be as clean as you said.”
“Relax, it belongs to the old dude who runs Beehive Laundry. Shit, Bill, I saw you on the most wanted list…”
“Shit went south. I need cash and a roof over my head. And a phone.”
“What the hell are you calling me on right now?”
*“Public payphone. This thing’s from the fucking stone age.”
“…Where are you?”
“What, you think I’m gonna just tell you?”
Alex groaned. Bill had always been paranoid, which was probably healthy when The Man was always watching. But sometimes…
“Bill. If you don’t trust me, why are you even coming to me for cash?” he pointed out. “And if this phone’s not secure, the Feds’re gonna come down on us anyway.”
“…I’m at some truck stop in, uh… Missouri, I think. Shit, I dunno. I’ve been driving for like twenty-four hours.”
“You gonna be okay?”
“I’m so tired I could even sleep on that fuckin’ roach farm you call a bed. But whatever. Maybe I fall asleep at the wheel and crash and this shit’s all over, maybe not. I’ll see you… whenever. When I get there.”
Bill hung up. Alex weighed the phone in his hand carefully for a moment, then put it back in the fake desk drawer and closed it up again before returning to his game.
By some miracle his character was still alive, and inside the ring. He shrugged, took hold of his mouse, and was promptly run over by three guys in a humvee.
He sighed, quit out, and loaded up the next round.
Date Point: 16y3m1w AV
High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao
The fortress was old. Mama Geymi said it was the oldest place anywhere on Gao, now.
Grandfather Garl was old too. He was so old he was all white, from the top of his ears to the end of his tail, and he didn’t look at anything. Mama Geymi said he couldn’t see anything now.
His nose worked, though. He lifted it to the breeze and looked happy when he smelled Shoo and the other cubs coming. He smelled happy too, in a weird way. Shoo didn’t know how to say it, but he smelled a kind of… deep and long kind of happy.
The cubs were there to hear a story from him. They’d had a good look around the fortress too, or at least all the bits where a guard didn’t chase them away. But the garden was quiet and full of nice smells, and Garl was sat in one corner with some snacks and a blanket and a head full of stories.
“A pack o’ little ones! I ‘spose ‘yer all here for a story?”
This time, he told them one Shoo hadn’t heard before.
“Did you know Keeda had a brother?”
“Oh yes! But Keeda’s brother Gour wasn’t half as clever. He was a lot bigger, though! A lot bigger! As big as the Great Father, or maybe even bigger than that!”
“Mamma Geymi says, he’s the most biggest ever! And that he smells like naxas bulls!”
Garl chittered. “And she’s right! On both counts! Anyhoo, Gour was as strong as Keeda was clever, and Keeda was very clever indeed… but he liked to play tricks on his brother. After all, who doesn’t like to play tricks? And Keeda was the most bestest trickster of them all! So one night, when it was absolutely dark and even the moons were asleep, Keeda snuck around and he stole poor Gour’s nose.”
Shoo chittered happily. The story was already silly, and Garl told it in a silly way. He pinched the end of his own snout and made a funny pop! noise.
“And then he went and hid it! He climbed the highest mountain around, and hid Gour’s nose in a nest he found at the top! Now…. when Gour woke in the morning, he was very confused. All he could smell was birds! Poor Gour! He couldn’t smell his breakfast, or his friends, or the flowers in his garden! Just stinky birds!
“But Gour, he wasn’t stupid at all, oh no! People liked to think he was just a big dumb brute, ‘specially his brother Keeda, but that weren’t true even one little bit! So he sat on his tail and had himself a big, loooong think. “Birds live in high places,” he thought to himself. “And I bet whoever took my nose wanted to hide it well. So I bet it’s waaaay up there at the top of that mountain!” So he went a-climbin’ and a-scrabblin’ up that mountain and when he reached the top, sure enough there was a nest with his nose in it, bein’ sat on by a big grumpy Tweku like it was her own egg! So Gour got his nose back and he went down the mountain an’ he ate a big roast Tweku dinner that night!
“Now mean ol’ Keeda, he wasn’t happy. His prank hadn’t worked at all! He needed to do better, so this time he waited until Gour was asleep, and he snuck an’ a-slunk all around and he made away with poor sleepin’ Gour’s ears!
“Now, the thing was this wasn’t so bad for Gour, ‘cuz his nest-mates used ‘ta snore somethin’ awful. So he got a really good night’s sleep ‘fer a change! All he could hear was the gentle sound of waves on the rocks. An’ for a while there he thought ‘ta himself ‘I slept so well last night, maybe I don’t really need my ears…’ but… no. He looked really silly without his ears and all the females chittered at him an’ even though he couldn’t hear it he still knew.
“So he sat and thought himself a beeg think again, and he remembered a beach he used to go to with his brother. And he thought ‘the waves I hear now sound a lot like the waves on that beach!’ And sure enough when he went down to the shore there, he found his ears on a rock, right next to a nest of tasty little scuttlin’ Kabu! So not only did he get his ears back, but he had himself a nice seafood soup that night!
“By now, though, Keeda was gettin’ angry. Gour had beaten him twice, an’ that just wouldn’t do! Keeda was the most bestest trickster ever, an’ he wasn’t gonna lose to a big ol’ lump like his brother! So he thought to himself ‘I know what I’m doin’ wrong! When I took Gour’s nose, he could smell birds, and when I took his ears he could hear the sea! I need to take somethin’ he can’t hear or see or smell or taste with!’
“So once again, Keeda snuck an’ slinked about… an’ this time he stole Gour’s tail. An’ as erryone knows, a tail’s a nice thing ‘ta have, but ‘ya can’t smell with it! ‘Ya can’t hear through it! Why, ‘yer tail don’t help you sense nothin’! So when poor Gour woke up and found he din’t have no tail no more, there was nothin’ he could do! It didn’t matter how long he sat an’ thought, he just didn’t have any clues to tell him where his tail mighta gone.
“But still, he thought. An’ then he thought some more. An’ then he stopped ‘fer lunch, ‘cuz thinkin’ is hungry work for a big strong ol’ Gao! But after lunch, he thinked even more an’ finally he figgered somethin’ out.
“‘I bet I know who stole my ears,’ he thought. ‘My brother Keeda loved that beach, it’s just the sorta place he’d hide ‘em. An’ Keeda loves ‘ta climb too, so I bet he’s the one who stole my nose! And if he stole my nose and my ears, why, he prob’ly stole my tail too!’
“So Gour went to Keeda’s burrow, an’ he said ‘Brother! You stole my tail, didn’t you?’ An’ Keeda, he says ‘Whatever do you mean, Brother?’ ‘Cuz Keeda is a clever tail, an’ he knows Gour has the most bestest nose of any Gao, and can smell the tiniest lies. So they argue back an’ forth ‘fer a while, an’ Keeda never answers any o’ Gour’s questions!
“Well Gour, he ain’t so patient, you see. An’ he’s a big, mean ‘ol tail sometimes, so what does he do? He tackles his brother so hard, they fly all the way across the land right into the mountain! They wrassle ‘fer a long, long while, but Gour is bigger an’ stronger an it don’t matter how sneaky an’ clever with his words Keeda is now. Gour carries him ‘ta the top of the mountain an’ says ‘I know you hid my nose here!’
And then down, down, down the mountain they go, an’ Gour runs all the way ‘ta the sea, carryin’ his brother the whole time! An’ he shoves Keeda’s nose at the rock on the beach an’ says ‘An’ this is where you hid my ears! I know it was you, ‘cuz you love ‘ta climb an’ swim, an’ only you could sneak up on me when I’m asleep!’
“And now, Keeda’s afraid, ‘cuz he knows he’s gone too far. Stealin’ Gour’s nose and ears were fun, they were adventures. Gour went an’ got ‘em back, and he got some good food outta it too! But now he ain’t gettin’ laid no more, an’ there ain’t no meaner thing a brother could do to a brother!
“But Keeda don’t wanna make Gour any angrier, so he plays one last little trick, ‘ta turn it back inta a game. See, he’d never actually hidden Gour’s tail. Instead, he’d been wearin’ it on his own backside right next to his own tail. It had been there the whole time an’ Gour was just too mad ‘ta notice!
So, Keeda spun around and waggled his rear right in Gour’s face, an’ then ran away as fast as he could! Now Keeda weren’t no match ‘fer Gour on most sporty things. Gour was bigger, stronger, tougher, an’ meaner. But on runnin’, well…Keeda might just have been the tiniest, littlest bit faster. So they ran, and ran, and ran, and they ran until they found the end of the world an’ couldn’t run no more.
“So, cornered, quick-thinkin’ Keeda hands Gour his tail back an’ says ‘You see, brother? This was an adventure too!’ An’ Gour, all pleased with himself ‘cuz there weren’t much he liked more than hard work an’ an adventure, decided Keeda was right. But…
“Well, he couldn’t just let Keeda git away with it, yijao? So he chittered and said ‘You’re right, Brother! And a grand adventure it’s been! But I think it’s my turn to steal somethin’ of yours!’ …And with that, he stole Keeda’s paws, and ran away, with a parting yell of ‘You can have ‘em back when you get home!’”
He chittered softly to himself. “…But I can smell some’a you young’uns are ready ‘ta get up an’ run around a bit ‘yerselves, an’ all this talkin’ has made me sleepy. So how ‘bout you come back in a bit an’ we’ll talk about that story and what it means. Hmm?”
A few of the more fidgety cubs were up on their paws right away, but they all remembered their manners enough to say ‘thank you, Grandfather’ before tearing off to go have fun. Shoo, though, paused. She’d always had a really really good nose, and Garl smelled…
“…Do you need anything, Grandfather?” she asked. He jumped a little, like he hadn’t known she was there. His eyes looked far through and past her when he turned his head.
“…Young’n… I got everythin’ I need,” he said. “Go. Play.”
Shoo paused, then decided she’d go get him something from the kitchens anyway. It was a nice run across the grass and down the stairs, and the Brothers down there in the kitchens always had little snacks and things to hand out. They were so nice to her, too!
Garl was asleep when she got back. He’d put his head down on his paws and shut his eyes, and he didn’t wake up even when she put a whole plate of meeshi biscuits down in front of his nose and gave him a gentle prod.
Mama Geymi trotted over and scooted her away. “Leave him alone, Shoo. He’s… he needs…”
She paused, and stared at Grandfather Garl for a long time. Then she did something Shoo had never thought she’d ever do ever. She dropped to four-paw, sniffed him, and then keened softly.
“…Is something wrong, Mama?”
Geymi keened again, then turned and scooted Shoo away a little further.
“Go… go get… someone,” she said. “One of the Stonebacks. Tell them… Just tell them to come down here.”
Shoo took one last glance at the sleeping Grandfather before she ran off. He seemed very still. He must have been sleeping real deep, because she couldn’t even see him breathing.
…But he still smelled happy.
Date Point: 16y3m1w AV
I-95 near Daytona Beach, Florida, USA, Earth
Special Agent James Mazur
“You reading that kid’s file again?”
Jim looked up. He was riding in the back seat of a Bureau SUV, and in theory he should have been trying to rest. In practice, he’d never been able to sleep in a moving vehicle.
“Kinda pointless, really,” he admitted. “I could recite the damn thing from memory at this point.”
His colleague, Ben Poole, chuckled. “Alright. Go for it.”
Jim chuckled too, then shrugged. “Alright… Wilhelmina Leah Briggs-Davies, AKA “Bill” to her friends and “3DollarBill” online. Age thirty-seven. In and out of juvenile for theft and arson, spent time in prison for illegal firearm possession, assault and…”
“Jaywalking?” Ben suggested. Jim gave him a tolerant look in the rear view mirror.
“…Fraud,” he finished. “Online identity theft. She’s banned from using electronic devices, but…”
Ben nodded. Nobody hit by a ban like that had ever really obeyed it.
“Ties to organized crime and the Alien Protection Army… And a psych evaluation from her time in Juvie that reads like a fucking horror movie,” Jim finished. “There’s been a warrant out on her since the Byron Group attack three years ago. Intel suggests she was the bomb-builder.”
“Christ. How haven’t we picked her up yet?”
“That’s the APA in one sentence,” Jim grumbled. The Alien Protection Army were not only the biggest home-grown terrorist group in America’s history, they were also one of the most frustratingly tenacious. They always seemed to be a step ahead.
“How is she the kid when she’s thirty-seven years old?” Ben asked, idly. Beside him, on the passenger seat, their analyst Zoe Fiorillo snored gently and half-turned. Unlike Jim, she could sleep anywhere.
“‘Cuz Shaun Robertson is way on the wrong side of fifty, that’s how,” Jim opined. “Such a damned waste of potential, that man. He’s still built like he’s in his prime, and yet…”
“He can’t see past his own narcissism?”
“Can’t see past his own gut, either.” Jim sighed heavily. He hated seeing good potential go to waste, and that was the other thing about the APA. They had a knack for finding twisted talent. People who should have been exceptional, but had gone badly off the beaten track. Robertson really was in incredible shape for a man of his age and physique.
“So what’s Briggs’ problem?”
Jim shrugged. “Some people just hate everyone and everything from God on down, man. Her file says she was a problem kid right from kindergarten, and the psychologist who first saw her in Juvie said she scared him…. Did that sign say Starbucks? I can’t sleep anyway, let’s grab a latte and I’ll take over for a while.”
“Right.” The indicator clicked softly as Ben pulled off the Interstate. “So where do we think she’s going, anyway?”
Jim indicated the slumbering Fiorillo. “Zoe thinks pacific north-west. Olympia, Portland… maybe Berkeley.”
“That’s a hell of a drive.”
“Yeah, but it’s the APA’s home turf and they’re still recruiting out there.” Jim put his work aside as Ben pulled up in front of the coffee chain. “…She’ll have to stop somewhere though. Nobody can drive that far in one go, can they?”
“Care to take a guess how many rat-bait motels there are between here and there?” Ben asked. He nudged Fiorillo awake, gently. “Zoe. Coffee? Restroom?”
“N’thanks… M’good…” she mumbled, and fell asleep again. Jim envied her.
A thought struck him as he got out of the car. “Actually… Robertson said she only had enough cash for groceries.”
“On any halfway modern car, that’ll get her to the west coast, but… no money for a motel,” Ben calculated.
“Yeah.” Jim paused, then turned back to the car. “Hey, get me a latte and a BLT, yeah? I’m gonna check something.”
Jim climbed into the driver’s seat, grabbed his tablet, and did a quick lookup. He knew who he was looking for, even if he didn’t specifically know who they were.
It didn’t take long. By the time Ben returned to the car and handed him his drink, he knew exactly where they were going next.
Date Point: 16y3m1w1d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Today was a good day. Leemu had got up early, feeling refreshed and eager after a good and restful night’s sleep. He’d taken a dust bath, done some stretch-poses, had a nice breakfast of an Earth fish called Salmon, plus a couple of poached eggs.
Every day it seemed his color vision got that little bit stronger. The salmon was a really distracting pink shade, and the eggs were the most gorgeous orange inside…
He’d gone grocery shopping while Gorku and Preed were still asleep. Gorku loved to sleep and Preed was elderly and took his time to get moving in the morning. There’d been a female, a Sister, doing her best to herd a trio of cubs around the supermarket. She’d looked at him like he was interesting.
Leemu couldn’t remember feeling so good in a long time. He took that energy with him into his studio, eager to capture it in oil and canvas.
He’d learned to balance out the red. At first, he’d slathered it everywhere, delirious with pleasure at having something entirely new and unseen by Gaoian eyes to work with. But human artists of course had been using red for hundreds of years, and they knew how to use it properly. They had actual theories about color and its correct use… and Leemu had to agree, they were right.
Still. He decided that warm orange, pink and red were going to feature heavily in the portrait he was about to make. He wasn’t specifically painting the sister from the supermarket, so much as his impression of her… how she’d made him feel.
He considered his options for a moment, then shrugged and set brush to canvas and let it guide him.
He’d nearly finished by the time Gorku scratched on the door and joined him.
“Oh, hey buddy! Already went shoppin’?”
“Yup.” Leemu tilted his head and ran his tongue across his teeth as he used the liner brush and some thinned paint to give his portrait some whiskers.
“She’s pretty. Anyone we know?”
“She waggled her ears at me in the supermarket.”
Gorku chittered delightedly, and Leemu sensed he barely restrained the urge to deliver some kind of vigorously physical congratulations. He knew not to mess up the studio.
“Balls yea, little guy!! Did you talk to her?!”
“She had cubs with her. Besides… I’ll just take little wins right now, you know?” Leemu finished the last whisker, then turned around. “…what happened to your nose?”
Gorku shrugged. He’d picked up a small cut from somewhere. “Gricka. Or, uh… cat. I guess. I went to say hello an’ I guess he didn’t like me.”
“It’s still bleeding.”
“Shit, is it?” Gorku dabbed his nose. “I ‘spose that’s why I can’t smell nothin’ right now…How could you tell?”
“Blood is red. Very red, actually. It doesn’t blend with your fur at all.”
“It is, huh?” Gorku licked his nose, then shook himself. “Man. Seein’ these things is gonna be weird.”
Leemu paused in cleaning his brushes. “Say that again?” he asked.
“Already made the appointment! Now that Nofl’s done pullin’ my brain apart…” Gorku pant-grinned magnificently.
Leemu shuddered at that. He’d seen the procedure just once, and it was…how Gorku could cheerily watch his own brain get delicately peeled apart inside his own skull was…
Brains were pink. And not in a nice way. It was the first time he’d seen a hue on that spectrum that disgusted him.
“You’re getting the gene therapy?”
“Gorku, you don’t have to do this for me…”
“Balls yes I do, don’t pretend otherwise! ‘Sides, I’m kinda jealous. I wanna see red too!”
“What does the Great Father think?”
“None of his business!” He said with some bravado. “I’m a free ‘Back, an’ it’s my body!”
“No no, I mean…”
“What?! I trust him, I trust you, I don’t mind bein’ an experiment really, an’ it’ll help everyone!”
Leemu sighed and finished washing his brushes. The portrait had a rough and unfinished quality to it, but now that he stood back and looked he felt like it worked. He still couldn’t believe anybody might be interested in buying his paintings, but Preed had been absolutely certain. Maybe this would be the one where he finally found out if their Human friend was right. He carefully dismounted it from the easel and put it in the corner to dry.
“Help everybody…” he muttered. “That’s… Fyu’s nuts, that’s a big thought, Gorku.”
“Nofl said it won’t just help Gaoians, neither. He said the Corti were backin’ themselves into a corner and this might help pull ‘em out. …’Zit weird I’m kinda glad? Few years back, I couldn’ta cared about the Corti ‘fer a thousand mating contracts, but now…”
“Maybe you just like Nofl?”
“Well, yeah, I do… But I figger, if I like one Corti then that means the whole species ain’t bad. There’s gonna be others I’d like too, right? They’re just folks.”
“Well, I suppose that’s true. The Great Father seems to like Nofl too. And you can tell him yourself, he’s probably going to say hello this afternoon.”
“…how do you know that?”
“Ninja Taco had their mascot handing out half-price coupons for the Shinobi Trio. He literally visits us every single time they do that.”
“…He builds his schedule around a taco stand?”
“Probably not, but it’s nearby and he seems to like flirting with the female running the stand…”
“He likes flirting with every female, though. And he’s always successful…” Gorku had an almost wistfully jealous tone to his voice.
“Not with her! She turns him down. Every. Single. Time.”
“Huh.” Gorku scratched the side of his nose. “…Y’know, that kinda makes me feel better, knowin’ even he strikes out sometimes.”
“Mm.” Leemu duck-nodded, distractedly. He was still thinking about the prospect of more Gao taking the gene therapy… and more, what about if he had a cub? That had been the other reason he’d been shy with the Sister that morning.
There was a big future ahead. A deathworlder future, if it didn’t stop with him. And he couldn’t deny the results, or the benefits. His senses felt sharper than he remembered from before the Droud, he was unquestionably stronger and faster and more precise… He’d learned how to paint so quickly, and found big improvements with each new piece he created.
What happened if he passed that on, or if others like Gorku took it up as well? If there was one thing Leemu had learned in life, it was that nothing good ever came without a catch, or a cost. Sooner or later, the universe extracted its fair payment.
Daar had authorized this, when Leemu couldn’t and nobody else could. And in the time Leemu had known him, he’d seen right through the Great Father’s big dumb veneer. Daar knew all about sacrifice and the bigger picture. After all, he’d personally pushed the button that killed millions to save billions.
He knew exactly what fucking around with the genes meant, of that Leemu was certain.
If Daar had foreseen that Leemu’s genetic therapy would be a danger to the Gaoian people, then Leemu was pretty sure he would have opted for merciful euthanasia rather than this. Instead, he’d let it go ahead and hadn’t even forbidden Leemu from seeking mates if he could get them. Gorku had at least his tacit approval to pursue the therapy as well, so…
…So the question was not so much how much Leemu worried about the future. The question was how much he trusted the Great Father.
“…Do you think she’d like it?” he asked.
“The Sister I met at the supermarket. If I found out who she is, do you think she’d be flattered that I painted her? Or would that seem creepy?”
Gorku duck-shrugged and sniffed the painting. “You used a lotta red and stuff, didn’tcha?”
“I always do.”
“Ain’t like she’ll get the full impact, then.”
“True…” Leemu sighed.
Gorku chittered, and gave him a brotherly smack on the shoulders. “C’mon!” he boomed. “If they’re doin’ half price tacos, I want in! An’ maybe you can be ballsy an’ flirt with the Sister there. Maybe she prefers sleek little Silverfurs like you!”
“Compete with the Great Father?” Leemu thought about it. On the one paw, that seemed somehow like betraying a friendship…if he could make such a preposterous claim. But on the other it really tickled his mischief to imagine he might attract a female who’d given Daar the cold shoulder. “…Why not?”
“Wear that shirt you did,” Gorku suggested. Leemu shrugged and fetched it from the table in the corner. The brief experiment with fabric paints and a plain white Human t-shirt hadn’t really worked out to his satisfaction, but Gorku said he liked it… and he never lied. He was a Stoneback associate, after all. He might be ferociously loyal, but ‘Backs didn’t tell little downy lies to their friends out of loyalty.
And he was right, it would make for an icebreaker. Even if it did look a little silly, he thought. Nobody really made T-shirts in Gaoian sizes, and a Human size S was just right for him in the shoulders and chest, but Human proportions were so different: longer legs, shorter torso. The end result was that the t-shirt sat on him more like a “crop top.”
It didn’t really matter, he decided. He’d learned a lot about what really mattered in life, and trying some outside-the-box fashion was the kind of thing that either made an impression and was remembered fondly, or didn’t and was promptly forgotten.
He shrugged into it.
Actually, size S was a little snug, he decided. But Gorku made an approving noise.
“Nice! Shows off ‘yer muscles. I think the Humans call that ‘extra smedium!’”
…Of course he went there.
“I’d rather she be interested in my mind…” Leemu grumbled.
“Pff. Don’t go overthinkin’ this stuff. Personality matters a lot but ‘ya gotta get noticed in the first place. And balls, ‘ya got it, so why not flaunt it?!”
“This is starting to seem like a bad idea now,” Leemu chittered. “Are you sure you’re my best wingman?”
“Bah! The worst she’ll do is say no, and you’ll still be right there to order tacos! What could possibly go wrong?!” Gorku declared. “‘Sides. Like I said, ain’t no shame in striking out where even Daar has. Balls, I bet he’d even be proud!”
Well, that settled it. Leemu shrugged, and followed his friend out of the room. But he glanced back at the painting he’d just made one last time, and felt a real glow in his chest, one he’d rarely felt even before the Droud.
However it went… Today was a good day.
Date Point: 16y3m1w1d AV
Planet Rauwryhr, The Rauwryhr Republic, Perseus Arm
Ambassador Sir Patrick Knight
The Whryvyr Conference Center was about the most grand location for a symposium that Knight could have envisioned… but then again, the interspecies defence symposium was a bigger event than he’d ever been involved with organizing.
Interstellar diplomacy hinged on the conceit that a species of billions could truly have one representative, but that created problems.
For instance: AEC represented the 5-EYES nations and NATO, but had become synonymous with the human race as a whole among aliens despite representing quite a small minority of humanity. China, India and Russia had minor off-world presences (most notably the Chinese colony on Lucent) but as for all of the African nations, the south-east Asian nations, the Middle East and the entirety of South America…
And that was just Homo Sapiens, a species of a comparatively insignificant nine billion souls.
Most of the Dominion species were in a similar situation, and much more populous. The Raurwryhr Republic was in fact a rather grandiose title for a nation that represented at best half of the total Rauwryhr population. The Vzk’tk Domain was an empire that had declined somewhat since its heyday, with most Vzk’tk and Rrrtktktp’ch living in independent city-states that functioned more like megacorporate fiefdoms than actual governments.
There was no organized Chehnash government above quite a small regional level; the Ruibal were in much the same condition as humanity, with their representative body being a loose coalition of a minority of nations; Locayl territories could be quite fierce about their independence from one another; the Mjrnhrm could barely agree on what day of the week it was, never mind appoint an official representative; and the Kwmbwrw were represented by just one of their thousands of Great Houses.
Only the Corti, Robalin and Gao were truly unified. Well…for certain values of “unified,” where the Gao were concerned.
Then there were the absent species to consider: Besides the Kwmbwrw (who were still boycotting the event despite Daar’s absence), there were the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun (who were enslaved), the Ten’Gewek (whom the Dominion was yet to officially recognize as sapient)… and of course the OmoAru, who were only technically not extinct and in no condition to talk with anybody about anything.
And finally, the Gao. Daar was absent, for his own currently impenetrable reasons. So too was the closest thing he had to a defence minister in Grandfather Garl, who had sent apologies and blamed failing health. The Gao were certainly present, in the form of assorted Fathers from the more martial Clans, but in true Gaoian fashion their contribution was… improvisational.
The whole thing was, in short, a bloody mess. No wonder the Rauwryhr had elected to hold it in their most capacious conference center. Trying to pack it all into even quite a grand hotel would have been impossible.
And now Knight had been pulled sharply out of Martin Tremblay’s presentation on the march of Hunter tactics to learn that the Guvnurag were no longer quite as enslaved as he’d thought.
“The whole planet?”
Admiral Caruthers nodded. He was on wormhole comms from the bridge of HMS Myrmidon, a very long way indeed from Rauwryhr. Direct zero-point wormhole communication was still plagued by the need to balance power draw and bandwidth, so in the case of the portable unit Knight had access to his image was low-resolution and low-framerate. But it was still effectively face-to-face.
“Yes. It’s their second colony world, I’m… not even going to try and pronounce the name. Twenty billion souls, at the point we lost contact.”
Knight raised his eyebrows. “Self-sustaining?”
“Completely. The Guvnurag were always very careful about that. They set up all three of their planets to be net exporters. Still, they’re reporting some malnutrition and a minor medical crisis, but compared to some of the other humanitarian missions we’ve had lately…”
“I take it we’re sending aid?”
“The CS ‘Actually Three Smaller Ships In A Trenchcoat’ is loading up at Ceres as we speak. By the time we arrive, she’ll be ready to jump and deliver cargo.”
Knight nodded, and picked up the cup of tea one of his personal assistants had delivered. He had good assistants: He’d barely noticed its arrival, and certainly hadn’t asked for it, but it was very welcome.
“I’m honestly amazed we even have any aid to give, after the Gaoian relief, the Rvzrk incursion and our own home-grown crises.”
“There’s never quite enough, but there’s always a little more,” Caruthers replied. “Don’t ask me where it comes from.”
“Alright. I suppose I should share this happy news,” Knight decided. “Getting the other species to weigh in and help could be a good first challenge for them to overcome together.”
“Good luck,” Caruthers replied, drily. “I’ll keep you posted.”
Thus ended the conversation. Knight drank his tea, composing a brief summary of what he’d just learned in his head, and then returned to the auditorium where Tremblay was just wrapping up the section of his presentation that dealt in training and indoctrination. Knight trotted down the stairs and then onto the stage, not stealing it from him yet but making it clear he had something to announce before the Q&A.
It was nice, he reflected, to have the opportunity to make an announcement that consisted of unvarnished good news. Though what the assembled delegates chose to do with the news was still an unknown.
Then again… they were here to listen, and learn. Which meant it was time for him to lead.
He could do that.
Date Point: 16y4m1d AV
Logan, Utah, USA, Earth
Alex remembered Bill mostly as a wiry, tough, skinny body packed full of anger and bearing a primordial chip on her shoulder. She listened to angry music, smoked like she hated her own lungs, drove like her main goal was to wreck the car… even the way she dressed was a gigantic middle finger aimed squarely at the whole concept of fashion.
And she sure as hell didn’t give a fuck about niceties like turning the sound system down as she skidded to a halt on the gravel outside Alex’s RV. He heard the sound of her giving the handbrake a vicious yank even over the music that rattled his windows.
The cacophony shut off with the motor. Alex just about made it to the door and opened it before she could knock.
“Subtle,” he commented as she stalked up the stack of cinder blocks he used for steps. She glared at him from the recesses of her hoodie, and then pushed past him.
“Whatever. At this point they fuckin’ catch me or they don’t.”
Alex shut the door and lowered the blind. “What the hell happened?”
“Florida was a fuckin’… thing.” She threw herself onto his couch, kicked off her boots, and lit a cigarette.
“What were you even doing down there?”
She shrugged. “I was flying around in a fuckin’ flying saucer.”
“…Fine, whatever. So I don’t need to know. I get it.”
“Right. The Man’s watching you, matchstick boy. I don’t tell you shit. You got that?”
“Sure, sure. I’m just a place to crash.”
“More than that. I need you to grab me a few things. Starting with some fuckin’ food, I’m half dead here.”
Alex nodded and dug out some ramen and half a cold pizza from the fridge, plus a beer. “Like what?”
“Can you drive?”
“You’re gonna take my car, drive out to some place called, uh, Fielding. You know it?”
“Yeah, it’s not far.”
“Right. Some friends of mine are leaving me some shit. Cash and stuff.” she stood up, plopped down in his desk chair. “…Fuck, Hamlin, this is some vanilla-ass porn.”
“Get over it.” He heard her clicking and typing. “…Here. Remember this spot. It’s just south of town, before you cross the river…”
Alex leaned over and looked. She’d called up the satellite map, and tapped a spot on a bend in the road. “Trash can next to a stop sign. Think you can remember it?”
“Good. There’ll be a bag inside. Bring it back here.”
“…What do I do if I get pulled over?” Alex asked, handing her the bowl of noodles. She stubbed out her cigarette on a plate and shrugged at him.
Alex snorted as she dug in. “Oh, that’s helpful. Seriously, what do I do if–”
She shrugged again. “Enner a fuggin’ plea bargain, I gueff,” she mumbled around a mouthful of cheap ramen, then swallowed. “Maybe you’ll only get, like, minimum security. So… don’t get pulled over.”
She grinned ferally at the look he gave her. “Oh, yeah. You’re goin’ to prison if they catch us, man. Just for me comin’ here and sittin’ on your couch. We really pissed Uncle Sam off.”
“Seriously, what the hell did you do?!” Alex insisted. This time she waved her fork at him for patience and chased the noodles down with a swig of beer before replying.
“The less you know, the less you can tell ‘em,” she said. “You go do my grocery shopping, maybe I’ll let you in on some of it.”
“What’re you going to do?”
“I’m gonna sleep.” She stood up and parked her butt on his bed, still holding the noodles. “I’ve been driving for like a day and a half.”
“How the hell—?”
She gave him a look of deep fatigue that said she was not going to answer any more of his stupid questions, and slurped noisily on the last of her noodles. Alex sighed, grabbed the car keys she’d left on his desk, slouched out to the car, sat down and turned it on.
Pure hateful bone-pummeling noise assaulted him as the sound system came on full blast again. He clawed desperately at the volume dial, and straightened out of his reflexive cringe.
Bill was… definitely a little too intense for him.
He sighed, put the car in drive and pulled out. To his surprise, it was fully charged and ran smoothly. No warnings on the dash, and all the lights were good too. In some areas, Bill actually gave a fuck. Or maybe it was just that she didn’t want to get caught over a busted tail-light.
Whatever the reason, he passed a police cruiser on the way out of town and they ignored him as he nervously projected the most nonchalant air he could. It was pretty much the only traffic he saw the whole half-hour out to Fielding, except for a Suburban going the other way.
He found the bend with the stop sign, and the trash can underneath it. Sure enough, there was a duffle bag inside. It was stuffed so full the seams were almost creaking, and heavy. He stuffed it in the trunk.
More surprise when he got back: she’d chosen to sleep on the couch, and left him his bed. He put the bag down next to her, and hit the sack himself.
Despite the marathon drive, she woke up first. He jumped awake when she plopped down on the mattress next to him and started rummaging through the duffel bag. It was still mostly dark outside.
“Good work,” she said, unrolling some nondescript plain clothing to reveal a rifle, pistol, ammo, and several thick wads of cash. She handed him one. “Here. Payment.”
Alex took it. There had to be a few thousand dollars in his hand, a lot more than he’d ever held before. As he counted it, she stood up and vanished into the kitchen where she made herself a glass of water.
Out of the corner of his eye, Alex saw her glance at him. Then she tore the top off a plastic ampule of some kind and tipped it into the glass. Ropey filaments of a surprisingly bright blue milky liquid diffused through the water for a moment before she pinched her nose and gulped the concoction down.
To judge from the look on her face, it tasted vile.
Alex pretended not to notice. Instead he counted the cash a second time.
“…What happens now?” he asked, when she returned with a second glass of water.
She sat down and started to roll the contents of the bag up into a tight bundle again. “I leave. You go back to your videogames and your boring-ass porn and…” she shrugged. “Maybe you hear from me again, maybe you don’t.”
“So you’re just… gonna leave me here?”
She turned and gave him a slow, cold look. “…I told you, didn’t I? I said, if you went and torched your Mom’s hick hillbilly cabin in the woods, you’d get caught. You didn’t listen, you wasted your shot, and this piece of shit RV you live in is the consequence. Fuckin’ deal with it.”
She stood up, stuffed the clothes and stuff back in the bag without using them, and left. The last he heard of her was the way she cranked the music back up until it masked the sound of tyres skidding on dirt.
Alex drooped back down onto his bed and stared at the stack of used bills in his hands. Then, in a fit of sudden rage, he stood up and flung them violently at the wall. They fell to the floor with a thump, and he went back to his games and tried to forget about her.
But he couldn’t. And as the day wore on, the words she’d left bouncing around his skull got louder and more vicious until he could think of nothing else.
Fuck that. He’d wasted his shot? Fuck that.
He stood up, glanced outside. The sun was going down. He’d wasted most of the day. He resolved it’d be the last day he wasted, grabbed the cash Bill had left behind, and counted it up while the beginnings of a plan started to unfold in his mind. He didn’t have a clear picture of what he was going to do—yet—but he knew one thing: He wasn’t going to do it from a trailer park in Utah.
He packed a bag of his own, and left.
Date Point: 16y3m1w1d AV
Camp Tebbutt Biodrone Internment Facility, Yukon–Koyukuk Census Area, Alaska, USA, Earth
The camp had an infirmary, of course. Many of the residents had long-standing health needs, and in any case the camp was frequently cut off by the weather for long stretches of time.
Still, it wasn’t the most private facility available. While the residents mostly respected each others’ dignity and privacy, sometimes sheer natural human curiosity took over. Especially when someone came back from the dead.
Zane had run off in the middle of an Alaskan blizzard. That was, as far as anyone in the camp knew, as dead as dead got. They should have found his frozen carcass just yards from the fence after the spring thaw, but instead, somehow, here he was. Very much alive.
And currently in an induced coma, as far as Hugh could tell.
They’d confiscated his cybernetic arm, too.
He looked in a bad way. Zane had never stopped complaining about the cold the last time Hugh had seen him, but now he was sweating like a foundry worker and tossing his head gently on his pillow, despite the sedation. All the dreadlocks down the left side of his head were gone, shaved down to the skin.
Maybe he’d had brain surgery? Modern medicine could close a surgical wound in minutes, and leave no scar…
Whatever was going on, Hugh didn’t get to see more than that before he was shooed out of the infirmary by their indignant doctor. But he’d seen enough.
Not for the first time, the topic of Zane Reid dominated their conversation around the cooking fire that night.
Date Point: 16y3m1w2d AV
Logan, Utah, USA, Earth
Special Agent James Mazur
It was a nice day in Utah. Clean air, clear and an open view that stretched for miles with mountains in the background…
It beat the hell out of planes, offices and Bureau cars, that was for damn sure. Planes might be faster and more comfortable nowadays, but Jim was getting pretty damn sick of bouncing all over the continental US cleaning up Zane Reid’s loose ends.
And as loose ends went, Wilhelmina Briggs was arguably worse than Reid. She was a homegrown monster, whereas Reid was as much a product of Hierarchy indoctrination and technology as he was of his own demons.
And his eagerness to bring her in was very much at war with his nerves about what would happen when they caught up with her. Bringing her in alive was going to be a challenge.
As for Hamlin…
“No sign of him?”
Fiorillo shook her head. She’d been going around the neighboring trailers, talking with the residents while Jim and Ben poked around inside Hamlin’s squalid trailer. Her search, at least, he been vaguely productive.
“The old lady over there said she saw him leave yesterday evening, just before sunset. He was wearing a jacket and carrying a rucksack.”
“And his guest?”
“Loud music, old car. She said she thought the driver was a man, though. From the way they dressed.”
“That fits. Briggs is known to prefer male clothing. And we found a dozen finished cigarettes inside. Hamlin wasn’t known to smoke. Anything else?”
“I got a bit of good news: the old girl has cameras around her trailer. She let me pull the recordings, and it got a good look at the car… which has a Florida plate.” She showed him a still shot with a clear look at the license plate in full.”
“Nice. Pass that on to highway patrol in all neighboring states,” Jim said… “Yes, Ben?”
The third member of their team trotted down the cinder block steps with a smug look on his face. “Got her,” he said. “Fingerprints and DNA both match: Briggs was here last night.”
“Which means she’s feeling the heat,” Jim surmised. “No way she’d have come to somebody like Hamlin if she didn’t have to.”
“So where does she go next?”
Jim made an unhappy ‘hmm’ noise. The truth was, he had no idea. All they could do was chase leads and hints. Heat or not, Briggs and the APA were still a step ahead.
On the other hand…
“…Never mind where she goes,” he said. “Let’s pick up Hamlin. He doesn’t have the experience she does. He should be easier to track, and then… we’ll see what we get out of him.”
Date Point: 16y3m2w AV
HMS Myrmidon, Ugunduvuronagthuregnuburthuruv-gor system, the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun Remnant
Admiral William Caruthers
Myrmidon wasn’t the largest ship in the Royal Navy—that distinction still went to HMS Queen Elizabeth—but she was the largest ship in the Spaceborne Fleet now that Caledonia was a few feet shorter after her refit and repair.
Compared to the Hephaestus Consortium container ship Actually Three Smaller Ships In A Trenchcoat, however, Myrmidon was a minnow swimming in formation with a salmon. Trenchcoat was a wall of shipping containers, most of them perfectly ordinary steel ones from Earth. It felt strange to run a camera along the titanic freighter’s length and see the word “Maersk” dotted here and there.
Most of the cargo would come to no real harm in a vacuum, though. Most of it was food: tinned vegetables, huge bags of pasta and rice, sacks of potatoes. The end result of being shipped unprotected through the void of space was that the potatoes freeze-dried, but they were an emergency food shipment. Guvnurag naturally needed a lot of starch and carbohydrates in their diet, and frankly it didn’t matter if they arrived in the form of instant mash.
What mattered was that they arrived.
If there was one thing that Humanity had really brought to the interstellar market, it was food. Earthling crops were insanely rich and nutrient-dense compared to what non-deathworlders were used to. They grew incredibly rapidly, produced enormous yields, were intensely flavorful… and of course, human culinary creativity was quite the export as well.
The colonies on Cimbrean were very rich indeed thanks to their food exports, and Monsanto had even started selling a soy-based alternative to the much-loathed emergency ration balls that offered just as much nutrition at a fraction of the size and considerably improved flavour.
Now, that market niche was proving to be even more welcome in times of crisis than the human race’s other talents. Which was why, when Caruthers formally requested permission to enter the Ugunduvuronagthuregnuburthuruv-gor system, the confirmation and welcome he received in reply was almost pathetically grateful.
Things, it seemed, were bad down there.
Just how bad became apparent over the ensuing week.
Offloading a container ship in orbit to groundside was simplicity itself once a series of receiving jump arrays were installed dirtside. Actually Three Smaller Ships In A Trenchcoat had a swarm of cargo handling drones equipped with jump drives. They clambered over the hull, detaching containers and then vanishing in a flash of utter black as soon as they and their cargo had drifted safely clear of the hull. Seconds later the drone would return minus the container, dock with the ship, recharge, then repeat.
Down on the ground, marines and aid workers made sure the food and medical supplies got to where they were needed. Up in space…
Up in space, for the first time ever, a human doctor operated on a Guvnurag patient. Ambassador Furfeg utterly filled a Weaver, and there was no hope at all of transferring him to sickbay. In the end there was nothing for it but to ruthlessly sanitize the dropship’s interior: they scrubbed it down until the ratings’ fingers were sore, scoured the Weaver with biofilter fields on maximum power, and extracted Furfeg’s neural cybernetics right there in the small craft bay.
The ambassador was in a sorry state. Badly malnourished, almost completely lacking the inches of subcutaneous fat that were essential to his species’ health, emotionally drained and mentally traumatized, it was almost a full day before he felt strong enough to speak with Caruthers.
It wasn’t a terribly productive conversation.
“You remember nothing?”
Furfeg’s huge, shaggy head lolled and he managed a mournful burst of color along the chromatophores of his facial tentacles. His natural bioluminescence was a pale and sorry thing.
“Only a sense of… pressure,” he said. “We heard the news of the homeworld, there was an emergency meeting.” He shifted in something like a shrug. “We could not think of anything productive. If our home planet, the seat and capitol of the Confederacy could be attacked so easily…”
He sighed, and a tremble of mixed emotions like ‘60s Psychedelia briefly enlivened his skin. “…I remember suddenly developing a splitting headache in the middle of that meeting… and then I woke up. In the wrong office, on the wrong continent, in the wrong year.”
Caruthers nodded. That gelled with every biodrone account he’d ever read, at least.
“Do you have any inkling what you were being forced to do?”
“That is the strange thing. It seems we were not ‘doing’ anything. We were simply… existing. The malnourishment and mistreatment of our bodies seems to be a function of economic mismanagement and an inept top-down approach to resource distribution rather than any conscious malice or neglect on the part of our enemy.”
“The famine, the medical supply shortage, the power brown-outs and failing utilties? All of it?”
Furfeg nodded solemnly. “As though the agent mind in charge of managing us did not really understand those things. The infrastructure is all present and intact, it simply needs to be used more efficiently. As far as I can tell, if we can recover our strength we will soon be entirely self-sufficient once again. The Hierarchy, it seems, wanted us alive.”
“They’re just not very good at it.”
Caruthers nodded. “Alright. Well, thank you. I’ll leave you to recover and see to your people’s needs. Fleet Intelligence will no doubt have further questions for you…”
“I will assist them as well as I possibly can,” Furfeg promised. “And… Admiral. Please extend my deepest and most heartfelt gratitude to your leaders. You have once again proven that my personal faith in your people is well-placed. When I resume my place at the Dominion Security Council, I will gladly join your faction on the chamber floor.”
That, by Caruther’s estimation, would make the Reformers the largest faction in the Council. Still short of a majority, but larger than the Kwmbwrw-led faction whose name had been tentatively translated into English as ‘Foundationists.’
Of course that made Sir Patrick Knight more politically powerful than the Kwmbwrw grandmatriarch Henenwgwyr, and there was a potential powder keg: The Kwmbwrw were proud to a fault.
Maybe they had good reason to be. For most of their spacefaring history they’d been the front line against the Hunters, or at least the most consistently raided. But if a species could be said to have a defining trait and a defining flaw, then the Kwmbwrw’s were stubbornness and pride.
They weren’t going to like being outnumbered on the council one bit.
One step at a time, Caruthers reminded himself. For now, there was a whole planet down there with a 100% implanted population. The Gaoians had blown up that relay and earned them a reprieve, but as soon as the Hierarchy built a replacement—a process that might take weeks or might take decades, nobody knew which—the biodrones would be slaves again.
His job for now was to feed them, help them get their economy back up and running, in the longer-term…
He didn’t want to even think about the logistical challenge implied by performing brain surgery on literally an entire planet’s worth of people. Thank goodness the Guvnurag population naturally reached a lower stable cap than most other species. But even so…
Even so, their work was only just beginning.
Date Point: 16y4m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Tristan and Ramsey had a lot they shared—they liked much the same music, TV shows and videogames, and they were so remarkably up-to-date on fashion that Xiù consulted them before buying anything…
But they had their differences, too. Ramsey was definitely turning into more of a jock than his brother, for instance.
It wasn’t that Tristan didn’t like physical pursuits well enough, but he was definitely the quieter, more introverted of the two. And unlike his brother, he needed no persuading to pick up a book now and then.
So, while Julian and Xiù took the marginally older twin to martial arts practice after school, Allison had stayed behind and was introducing her littlest sibling to the basics of aerospace engineering.
Honestly, it was nice to hang out one-to-one for a change.
“So…” she finished scribbling down one of the most important things she’d ever memorized. “This is the Bartlett Field Equation. You use this to figure out the energy needed to form a warp field based on the field’s curvature…” she circled the relevant bit, “the total mass it contains and how fast you want your apparent linear velocity to be.”
“What’s that symbol there?”
“That’s Lambda, the cosmological constant.”
Tristan sighed and put his pencil down. “…This is a bit more advanced than I’ve done in class, Allison.”
Allison laughed. “I bet. But you said you wanted to know what being the flight engineer on Misfit was like, and I used to play around with this equation all the time.” She smiled fondly at the memory. “…Funny thing is, I used to hate math in school. I thought I’d never be any good at it. And to be honest, it still wasn’t my favorite part of the job, but… when I put my mind to it, I got pretty good at it.”
“You said we were gonna start with the basics.” Tristan pointed out.
Allison shrugged, grinned, and retrieved the little case of electronic parts she’d fetched from the workshop earlier. “I know. It’s just the basics of what I do is, like, several steps up. You need to start right at the bottom, which is why I put this together for you.”
“What is it?” He asked, taking it.
“Basic electronics. How about I show you how to build something simple, like, hmm… How about a fire alarm?”
“Really simple. Let me show you…”
Date Point: 16y4m AV
Tactical Fitness, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Never in a million years would Julian have guessed that Christian Firth of all people would open his own martial arts academy. Or, in fact, that he’d be such a good and patient teacher.
Or that people would flock to his classes despite that he stood over seven feet tall, had shoulders about half that wide, and was possessed of a superhumanly dense physique whose subtlest movements rippled with untamed power. Firth was one of the very few people alive that could make Julian seem tiny by comparison.
Which, now that he thought about it, went a long way toward explaining why Julian had ended up helping teach, whenever he had the chance.
Firth’s classes were studies in contradictions. The man was pretty much literally the size and weight of a champion bull and much stronger (and more aggressive) to boot, yet most of his students were gangly children and mousey types who’d never once thrown a fist in anger.
They flocked to him, still.
Stranger yet, he didn’t pretend to any higher spiritual or ethical purpose with his teachings. He had a no-nonsense martial ethic forged pretty much entirely of murder, one he’d earned from years of personal experience. Everyone knew it, and there really wasn’t any disguising it.
And yet, he had to turn clients away.
Today was mixed martial arts for Firth’s special projects. Ramsey was one. So was Julian. The price he paid for that esteem was being effortlessly tossed around to demonstrate the principles.
Firth wasn’t gentle. At all. But Julian was a big boy these days and he didn’t really mind. Heck, it was kinda fun really, especially when he got to turn the tables and hip-toss a man that huge across the mat. Repeatedly, so the students could see from every angle.
For science, of course.
Adam owned several buildings these days, having carefully managed his finances until he was a bit of a Folcthan real estate baron. Early on he’d built a second apartment building identical to the first on the far end of the street, then slowly bought up all the property between them that wasn’t owned by the rest of the Lads. Firth had invested early and snagged the top apartment for his own, and decided to exercise a purchase option when the original ground-floor business owner had gone bankrupt.
With that, Firth opened Tactical Fitness. A pretty blunt name, to be honest. What he taught was how to fight and he taught all comers, with special classes set aside for women’s self-defense, and another for kids. He didn’t have time to teach every day of course, in fact he only did three classes a week, but all martial arts were welcome in his dojo, and he was merely one teacher among a colorful and cheery roster who rented out the space when he wasn’t there.
Xiù had found room in her schedule to help out too. She was tough and fit and strong as ever, but there were some things she just couldn’t and shouldn’t do while pregnant, so for now she contented herself with wrangling the really tiny human kids and Gaoian cubs whose parents found Firth and his instructors a little too formidable.
Firth didn’t personally put much stock in Taiji and Gung Fu, but Xiù had made her case calmly and simply that, even if the mysticism and spiritual side were stripped out, that still left behind a solid core of exercises that taught precision, poise and physical awareness. The kind of thing, in short, that developing young nervous systems needed to form a solid foundation for the more vigorous stuff.
Whether Firth found that persuasive or not wasn’t clear, but he was the kind of guy who, even innocently, tended to lose eighty IQ points and nod a lot when a beautiful woman was trying to persuade him of something.
Julian might have thrown him just a little bit harder than was necessary, a few times.
Tonight, though, they were watching Ramsey enjoy his first class. He was a surprisingly scrappy kid considering his upbringing. And like all boys his age his bones seemed to be made of rubber. He was having a whale of a time, bouncing off the mat and making friends.
…And beaming with pride every time Julian put Firth on his ass, even in a demonstration.
“A’right! Line up! Now we’re gonna show ‘ya a couple’a practical things. I’m just gonna be a regular dude mindin’ his business, an’ Julian here’s gonna be some loser with a knife who wants my money. Watch closely!”
Julian chuckled, “Hey!”
“Can it, pretty boy. Go git ‘yer knife!”
The “knife” was a foam thing made out of a cut-down pool noodle. Julian got in position, and the class watched intently as Firth sauntered up the room, whistling tunelessly. On cue, Julian advanced on him and Firth…
…Turned and ran away as fast as his legs could take him. He even crashed through the double doors at the far end of the room and vanished from sight. Laughter shot around the room.
“Don’t be a hero,” Julian grinned at the distant, heavy sounds of the big guy slowing to a halt halfway up the stairs. “Do you kids know what’s better than getting stabbed?”
Firth came jogging back. “Not getting stabbed! Trust me on that, I know.”
He let the smiles and chuckles fade before seriousing up himself. “But sometimes, ‘ya can’t just run away,” he added. “You gotta be able ‘ta–oof!”
Julian decided that Firth needed to be on the floor. And he needed to be on the other end of the gym. Strictly for demonstration’s sake, of course.
Firth barely felt it, naturally. He just slid to a halt laughing. “Ha! Exactly that!” he roared. “Now I’m pretty good at this but even I gotta take a moment to git up. And that gives Julian time ‘ta run away! See?”
He kipped himself up explosively onto his feet, which never failed to awe the kids. “If ‘ya know what ‘yer doin’ then size don’t always matter as much. I’ve seen little hunnerd-pound gals send three-hunnerd pound drunken fools over the moon with that, and there ain’t much better way to gentle an idjit up and get away. Why do we wanna get away?”
The kids choroused as one, “A smart fighter doesn’t fight at all!”
“Ha! Good! But our time’s up ‘fer this week…”
Groans all around.
“Yeah yeah. Don’t worry, we’ll do more throws in next week’s lesson, okay? Y’all kicked…uh, butt today, so let’s get cooled down and stretched out…” Firth clapped his huge mitts together loudly. “Find a partner and git ‘er dun! Go!”
Naturally, Ramsey wouldn’t stop chattering excitedly on the way home.
Date Point: 16y4m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
Talking with Tristan as their electronics project came together had turned up an interesting fact about their mother’s recent behaviour.
The divorce had come as a surprise. Divorce in LDS circles was huge, a real event. And scandalous! Maybe Allison was just being cynical, but she suspected that Jacob had sent the preliminary papers to try and scare Amanda into bringing herself and the kids back to Earth. It seemed like the sort of power play he favored.
God only knew how he’d reacted when he’d found the signed papers in his mailbox. And now it turned out, Amanda had done something else that was very un-LDS, on the same day.
“She drank tea?”
“Yeah. Iced tea.”
“Huh.” Allison thought about that one. She’d never really been big on the family faith anyway, and had dropped it pretty much the second she’d run away to Boston on her eighteenth birthday. Hell, she’d gone totally reactionary and blown most of her first paycheck on coffee, cigarettes and cute underwear. She’d quite smoking pretty quickly, but the coffee and cute underwear had stuck.
Amanda on the other hand had always seemed to take the proscriptions of her church very seriously. “I mean, I know she lost her temple recommend and now there’s the divorce too, but I thought that stuff was still important to her…”
Tristan shrugged. “I don’t understand Mom,” he said, quietly.
Of course, he and Ramsey had both been raised as good Mormons too. And Allison had promised not to interfere, there. The boys were both members of Folctha’s tiny branch, and the only members of its Young Men organization. She briefly wondered what kind of private, quiet crisis of faith they were going through—or even if they were—then put an arm round him and gave him a sisterly hug.
“That makes two of us, li’l bro,” she said.
He smiled a little sadly, then stuck his tongue out in concentration as he soldered the last component of their fire alarm into place, then conscientiously turned off the soldering iron and returned it to its stand. Allison had driven home how hot the thing was by burning some scorched dots in a block of wood, and he was respecting the hell out of it as a result.
“…Is it ready?” he asked.
“Let’s find out!” Allison grabbed a lighter and waved it gently back and forth under the PNP transistor that was the core of the circuit. Tristan held his breath and watched intently, waiting… waiting…
The relay actuated with a satisfying click, and Tristan made an excited gesture with both fists as the buzzer sounded insistently and the red LED started flashing.
Allison gave him a high-five. “Pretty cool, huh?”
Their celebration was interrupted a knock at the door. The authoritative, heavy kind of somebody who knew somebody was home and was going to talk with them come Hell or high water.
Allison glanced at her brother, then shrugged, stood, and went to answer it. The door cam revealed a black-suited man waiting outside, flanked by a Folctha police officer in her distinctive high-vis yellow jacket.
She opened the door. “…Can I help you?”
“Allison Buehler?” the man in the suit checked.
“Special inspector Foster, colonial security.” He said, showing her ID with the CCS logo and motto on it. “May I come in?”
Well, he didn’t have a warrant or he wouldn’t have asked. Obviously he didn’t have a warrant, Allison couldn’t think of any reason he might. She’d certainly not done anything illegal, and there was no way Julian or Xiù had either.
But after being stung by Folctha’s legal system once already, she wasn’t inclined to invite him inside if she didn’t have to. “We can have this conversation outside, I think,” she said, and then turned to call back into the living room. “Tristan? Go hang out in your room for me, okay?”
Tristan nodded and retreated upstairs, casting wary looks at the cops as he went. Allison put on her garden shoes and stepped outside, shutting the door behind her.
“Alright, what’s this about?” she asked once they were alone.
“You’re the mother of one Alex Hamlin?” Foster checked.
“…Oh, God. What’s he done now?”
“Have you had any contact with him recently?”
Allison shook her head. “I tried writing to him, but I never heard back. His dad told me he just deletes my emails and burns my letters…”
“You know Zane Reid?”
“Zane? We knew him, but we, uh… parted ways with him a long time ago. Honestly, seeing his face on the news was a huge surprise.”
“Did you ever introduce Zane Reid to your son?”
“No. Never had the chance even if I’d wanted to.”
“When you say you ‘parted ways’ with Reid, what exactly do you mean?”
“This was, uh…” Allison thought. “…Six years ago. From my perspective. Eleven, I guess, ‘cuz we were in stasis for five of those years. When my partner Julian and I were on the starship Sanctuary, rescuing stranded abductees. We found Reid, and took him along… our next stop was the planet Aru, and he assaulted us. He hit me in the head and knocked me out, badly wounded two of our ET friends, and tried to kidnap Xiù. We overpowered him, kicked him off the ship and left him behind. I don’t know how he got off the planet and back to Earth.”
“He lost his arm in that incident?”
“Yeah. One of the ETs, Kirk, had a fusion blade. Zane took him hostage and Kirk used the blade to break free.”
The man nodded. “Are you familiar with Wilhelmina Briggs-Davies?”
“Never heard of her.”
“Your son never mentioned her? She’s known to go by ‘Bill.’”
“Like I said, my son doesn’t talk to me.” Allison folded her arms, and tapped into the reserves of calm she’d learned to build up when under pressure in the Box back at Omaha during her Misfit training. The cop’s questioning felt a lot like the kind of relentless unpleasantness the MBG assessors had used to test them.
Foster nodded, as though ticking off something on a mental list.
“…Mister Hamlin is missing, Miss Buehler,” he explained. “And as you know, he’s under surveillance due to his involvement with the terrorist group who call themselves the Alien Protection Army. WIlhelmina Briggs-Davies is a known APA member and an associate of Zane Reid. She’s on the FBI’s Most Wanted list in connection with the MBG bombing in Omaha and possible Hierarchy collaboration. They’re believed to be working together.”
Allison didn’t have a name for the emotion that dropped through her like lead weights landing on her shoulders. She just… sagged, starting with the top of her head and working down.
“If you know anything at all…” Foster prompted, not unkindly. “Where he might go, who he might talk to, any friends he might have…?”
“…I’m sorry. I wish I did. But Alex hates me, and I’ve never heard of this Briggs character. I can’t help you.”
Foster nodded, and again she got the impression of him closing a notebook and putting it away, even though his hands were empty. Instead, he fished a business card out of his pocket and handed it to her. She took it numbly.
“If he does contact you—”
“Inspector, if he’s working with the bitch who bombed the AAAF and killed my best friend’s dad, you bet your ass I’ll help you,” Allison told him fiercely. “If he contacts me, you’ll know.”
“…Thank you. Have a good evening, Miss Buehler.”
Allison considered that a deeply unlikely prospect at this point, but she nodded and shook his hand. “…Good luck.”
“Thank you,” Foster repeated, and… was gone. He and the officer climbed into a Folctha Police marked SUV and vanished with a whine of electric motor.
Allison retreated back through the door, and… let go.
She slid down the wall into as tiny a miserable ball as her pregnant belly would allow, her fingers knotted themselves up in her hair, and spent a minute or so feeling alone, and a failure, and responsible for everything.
Tristan pulled her out of it. She didn’t hear him come back downstairs, but he sat down next to her and did his awkward best, despite never really learning how, to be comforting. Maybe he just knew what to do by what he’d have wanted, in her position: A hug.
It helped. After a minute, Allison was ready to take a deep, cleansing breath and let go, a little.
“Its not my fault,” she reminded herself, aloud. “It’s not.”
“What isn’t?” Tristan asked. Allison sighed, and sat up straighter again. She leaned back against the wall, slid her feet out in front of her and rested a hand on her new baby.
“…I couldn’t be there for my first kid,” she said. “And he’s… he didn’t turn out so great.”
Tristan didn’t understand, she could tell by the way he looked at her. So she sighed and gave him a squeeze. “…That was the cops. Alex is… It seems like he’s hanging out with an actual card-carrying terrorist. And I just… I mean, that’s my son. I know it’s not my fault, but I still feel like…”
“You need a cup of cocoa,” Tristan decided. Allison laughed and tidied her hair out of her face.
“…Sure. Cocoa’s good.” Honestly she needed something a lot stronger than that, but she’d take it.
So, that was how Julian and Xiù found her when they got home ten minutes later. Sipping hot chocolate with red eyes while talking Tristan through a circuit that would detect incoming cell calls. They knew instantly that something was wrong, of course.
She left Tristan to follow the circuit diagram while Ramsey watched with interest, and the three of them retired to the living room where she explained everything.
Julian summed it up perfectly.
“Yeah. I’m… trying not to blame myself, you know? I didn’t raise him, I’m not responsible for how he turned out.”
Julian’s answer to that was a tight hug, and a nuzzle to the top of her head. Xiù of course had curled up next to her right away and wasn’t letting go.
Allison sighed at the drying brown crust at the bottom of her mug and set it aside. Truthfully, the cocoa had helped, probably more than a hard drink would have. Especially with the marshmallows. But still.
“You know me. I hate feeling useless.”
“We all do,” Xiù agreed. “But you’re not.”
“…Yeah. I know.” She decided to move on to a different subject. “So. Back to Akyawentuo next week?”
Xiù nodded. “Yup. Tilly says the ‘Bawistuh—’” she grinned at the Ten’Gewek mispronunciation, “—is basically ready. And that Brown One keeps probing the forest near Torf’s village, looking for a way in. It definitely wants another shot at the People.”
“Please tell me you’re not gonna hunt that thing with spears and bows if Vemik’s ballista doesn’t work,” Allison begged Julian.
He shook his head. “No, we already agreed. If it doesn’t work, we back off, repair it, and try again. Yan can keep the Given-Men in line for a few attempts. But Tilly says it’s working, and I trust her.”
“You’re free to come with, right?” Xiù asked, suddenly. “I mean, it’s not like you can squeeze inside EV-13 any longer…” she tapped Al’s baby bump, which was a lot more pronounced than her own. They were about eight weeks apart, and the difference showed.
Allison thought about it. “I guess I could!” she realized. “I’ve been doing office work and stuff for a while now anyway… If I can clear it with Clara, I’d love to be there.”
“By drone,” Xiù clarified.
“Well, yeah. But still.”
“Just so long as you don’t pop early and have the first human baby born on Akyawentuo…” Julian muttered.
“You worry about not getting eaten by an alien monster, I’ll worry about not giving birth in a tent,” Allison instructed him. “Deal?”
He chuckled, sat down between them, and held them both. Exactly what Allison had needed to finish what the Cocoa started.
“…Deal,” he agreed.
Date Point: 16y4m AV
V1661 CYG 23.3° 83-EIW2Y4-BINARY K3V-1, Deep Space
The Entity was aware of certain facts about its new “body.”
There were obvious facts that the ship reported directly into the Entity’s consciousness, such as mass, thrust, the ratio between those two, the peak output of its hydrogen fusion reactor, the total storage of its capacitors, the peak draw of its systems, the range, tracking speed, granular finesse and direct kinetic energy of its single weapon, how much ammunition it had…
But there were other, less obvious facts to take into consideration as well.
For instance, courtesy of the Mrwrki Station library, the Entity was intimately familiar with Ted Bartlett and Claude Nadeau’s declassified papers on warp fields and spatial distortion. It was therefore aware that the rarified atoms of the interstellar medium, upon being caught in a warp field, were pulled into, through and around the edge of the field where they would become ionized, losing electrons into the field and being ejected out as a “wake” of positively charged plasma.
This phenomenon had two practical consequences for the Entity. The first was that over time its ship-body gained an increasingly dangerous negative charge, and the second was that it left behind it a snail-trail of plasma that a ship with the right sensors could track.
The Interspecies Dominion devoted a lot of its tax income to maintaining spacelanes to overcome the former problem. Great fleets of industrial ships would clear corridors through the endless dark, sweeping them clean of the omnipresent interstellar dust and gas. Ships travelling along the spacelanes accumulated charge hundreds of times slower than flying through open space, meaning they didn’t have to stop every few dozen lightyears to discharge into a planet’s magnetic field
The Entity had considered making use of the spacelanes in its escape, but rejected that idea. The spacelanes might have obfuscated its wake and let it travel further before needing to stop, but the Hunters and the Dominion alike watched them closely. Using them carried an unacceptable risk of being intercepted.
Flying through deep space carried the certainty of pursuit, but the Entity had found that it preferred certainty to possibility. Certain pursuit was a controlled variable, something it could plan for.
Hence V1661 CYG 23.3° 83-EIW2Y4-BINARY. A smallish K-type and a largish M-type star, dancing around a shared center of gravity like an olympic hammer-thrower. They were doomed to part ways in a few million years, but for now they were home to five gas giants, each with an accompanying swarm of moons. The Entity picked one of the cold blue ice giants in the K-star’s orbit and smoothly inserted into the titanic cerulean world’s uppermost wisps of atmosphere. With a simple re-tuning of its shields, it got rid of the accumulated charge in a sequence of fat lightning bolts.
Unbidden, the Ava-memories offered the comparison of taking off a badly-fitting bra after a stressful day. There was that same sense of encroaching, barely-noticed and yet still overbearing discomfort being released.
No time to relish the sensation, sadly. As soon as the Entity determined that its structure was no longer overflowing with stray electrons, it boosted out to one of the ice giant’s smaller moons and took a good look.
The moon barely deserved the word, really. It wasn’t even big enough to pull itself into a sphere under its own gravity. But it had suffered a relatively recent collision—within the last few hundred thousand years—that had smashed off the loose dusty stuff on its outer surface and exposed a rich metallic core. The Entity barely had to glance at it to find copper, uranium, titanium and manganese.
Not perfect—the Entity really needed scandium and aluminium—but a good starting point. It launched its mining drones and then set out to investigate the other moons and larger asteroids for what it needed.
Time was against it, if it was going to be ready when the Hunters caught up.
Date Point: 16y4m1w AV
Clan Highmountain headquarters, Sen Wa observatory, the Great Isthmus, Planet Gao
To Nofl’s mind, there was a certain cosmic irony to the notion that the deadly fungi of Earth would universally find the Corti homeworld of Origin, a planet of a much lower classification, utterly inhospitable. Sometimes, sheer alienness could win out over even the most aggressively invasive species, and the dominant climate on Origin was much too hot and arid for Terran fungi.
Gao was similarly arid, but in a different way. Gao was cold, and Corti were not designed for cold. Corti were designed for steady sunlight and the proximity of a relatively cool star.
Gao’s sun was energetic, but distant. The average global temperature was really quite low, and an enormous amount of water was locked in the polar ice caps. The planet’s largest continents were buried at both poles, but the Gao were confined to the two small ones and the slender isthmus that connected them near the equator.
The isthmus itself was a mountain range. Highways had run along the north and south shores, allowing trade between the two major landmasses since before the Gao had even invented the wheel, and in the modern era they were wide concrete arteries flanked by rail tracks.
It was only thanks to them that Clan Highmountain had been able to establish their headquarters in the mountains at all. There was no arable land, precious few fauna. From the very beginning, when Great Father Fyu had laid the foundation stone, Sen Wa had relied on trade. They had sold knowledge for food, and in the post-Fyu world of the Great Reform, the Clans had found that to be an acceptable bargain.
What had once been a monastery for contemplating the skies and the stars had become a major observatory, then the planet’s most illustrious nexus of the sciences and the arts of invention. Gao’s renaissance had begun at Sen Wa, and its Enlightenment had blossomed amidst the old stone walls. Surrounded by the frozen mountains, amidst the meandering glaciers and under the cold, timeless gaze of the stars, they had perfected calculus and the scientific method, they had developed first mechanical-motion and then relative-motion theory.
There had been more than a few dud ideas to come out of Sen Wa. Woefully misguided economic theories had plunged the Clans into war a few times, as had an equally naive social theory that ignored—or rather, tried to correct—basic Gaoian psychology.
Nowadays, Sen Wa was important… but not as important as it had once been. Still, after the War it had once again become central to the Gaoian sciences, and thus an appropriate destination for Nofl to discuss meddling with the genome of an entire species.
He was, unfortunately, not remotely comfortable with the temperature. And despite their best efforts, the Gao were failing to properly accommodate him. They had built-in fur coats, after all. They couldn’t really feel how the air slid over a Corti’s bare skin like knives, not cutting but still sharp.
Even inside the heated rooms of the complex itself, the air temperature was dismayingly cool.
He must have looked ridiculous in his bright green ‘goose down’ coat of Human make. But at least it kept him from shivering.
“It is dismaying simple, dear. The entire genome is unlocked by a single hormone, which is coded on a single deactivated gene located on the base-female chromosome. Given that design, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover it could be activated by a simple dietary change.”
“I presume the necessary supplement would be artificial? I can’t imagine they’d be stupid enough to make it something that could accidentally evolve in our food chain.”
He was seated at a table alongside several senior Highmountain figures, including the Clan’s Grandfather, Baru, and most of their most noted Fathers. Champion Kuriya was absent with apologies—apparently he was attending a symposium on Rauwryhr.
“Artificial, or something no longer available in nature. We’re all aware of the deep history around this, of course…”
That had proven a sensitive issue. It had taken a while for the Humans to declassify everything they’d learned…however they’d learned it…but in true friendship they’d eventually shared it all with the Conclave, who promptly decided to make the knowledge public. Mostly. They were staging the release slowly, but by now most of the Gao were fully aware of their engineered nature.
The Corti Directorate, naturally, found it all fascinating. And so Nofl had found himself promoted, again.
His rise in stature in recent years had been… meteoric? That didn’t seem right. Meteors fell. Whatever. The point was, it had been so rapid he actually needed to check his messages every morning just to make sure what his official title and position in the Directorate even was.
He was, for the purposes of this visit, a Secondary Sub-Coordinator adjunct to the College Of Xenobiology. It was the highest rank he’d ever officially held, and the promotion had added nearly a quarter of a meter in new embellishments to the length of his personal banner, which was already fantastically long for a product of the Steel Caste.
He’d spent rather a lot of his money on buying one of the good embroidery machine models. All he had to do was enter what precise new accolade he’d earned, and it took care of the rest. Much more dignified than getting somebody like Warhorse to do it for him.
“The thing is, darling… your own Clan and Clan Openpaw between you have the scientific and medical you need to do this all by yourselves! So as much as I love the invitation and the tour, I don’t really know why I’m here…”
“How have things progressed with Leemu and Gorku?”
“Leemu is doing very well indeed!” Nofl chirped. “Watching his body adapt and change has shed so much light on what’s going on, really let me dig into those fascinating fiddly little details…”
“And his friend?”
“Gorku…” Nofl paused. “…Posed an additional challenge. Actually, so did Leemu but we didn’t really have a choice but to proceed in his case. With Gorku though, I didn’t know how the transformation would interact with the neurotherapy to correct his speech impediment. I was reluctant to proceed.”
“But you proceeded?”
Nofl tilted his head in a gesture of amused resignation. “He heard my objections, and then insisted on doing it anyway. I don’t believe his trichromatic vision is active yet. As for his bone density and muscle composition, those have only seen very modest improvements, which was expected given his physical stature. His immune system, however, has undergone a drastic, near-total reconstruction. That implies, among other things, that the activated genome was designed to enforce certain parameters even after secondary development.”
There was a general shaking of heads around the table.
“I daresay it’s a disturbing thing, knowing that one’s species was designed as the janissaries of an older power,” Nofl sympathized.
Amazing, really, how that word has gone from a proper noun in Human languages to a generic term in galactic conversation without much notice.
“Disturbing.” Father Eefo, the Clan’s most senior geneticist, chittered grimly. “Yes, that’s one word for it. The Humans think we were designed as a potential replacement for the Hunters.”
“It has certainly occupied the Great Father’s thoughts. Which,” Eefo noted, “I am certain he will discuss at length when he arrives.”
“Nah, not today,” said the Great Father, who trundled into the room and effectively managed to ambush them. There was a squeaking of chairs as they all stood up sharply.
“Ah, uh, thank you. Please, sit down.”
Nofl liked Daar’s hangups about protocol. They baffled the crap out of Directorate and Clan alike, which made them all the more endearing as far as he was concerned, which was why he flipped the arguably most powerful individual in the galaxy a jaunty gesture of greeting.
“Daar-ling!” he beamed. “Looking svelte as always!”
“Oh gods!” Daar chittered, “You’ve graduated to puns! An’ I dunno ‘bout ‘svelte’ exactly…but I’ll take ‘muscly an’ lean an’ sexy’ though!”
“Let’s compromise on ‘statuesque’ shall we?” Nofl congratulated himself on the slightly uneasy ear-swivelling going around the room and on the Great Father’s obvious delight in equal measure.
“Killjoy! Anyhoo…’ya were ‘bout to launch into a fascinatin’ discussion ‘bout us being an engineered slave species an’ all…”
“Mmm… More about how you have two young males gleefully embracing it.”
“Embracing what?” Eefo asked with a curmudgeonly flick of his ears. “Slavery? Heritage? Opportunity?”
“Well, that’s the question isn’t it?” A new voice asked, along with a new presence who sailed easily into the room.
Nofl had never actually met Naydra before, but he was immediately struck with a sense of charisma. It wasn’t a familiar experience, for a Corti.
He wasn’t wired to feel attraction. It was an impulse his ancestors had deliberately bred out of themselves hundreds of years previously, and even if he had been equipped to feel it, she was the wrong species. But there was something universally appreciable about a female who could command the instant attention and respect of a room full of males simply by walking in and speaking a single mild sentence.
There was power there. The power to rule the powerful, or at least to steer them. The Corti had done away with consorts and wives in an ancient and heavily ‘rectified’ stretch of their history, but Nofl could easily see in Naydra just how much influence they had truly wielded. If Daar was the most powerful individual in the galaxy, then how much more powerful was she who owned his heart?
All the males in the room stood for her, including the Great Father, who immediately doted on her and offered a chair. Nofl rose too, mostly out of politeness and a desire to not scandalize the Gaoians. She gave him the Gaoian equivalent of a graceful smile, and a small gesture which he interpreted as gratitude.
“How can it be slavery?” she asked as she sat down. “This isn’t like cybernetics or nanotechnology. This is genetics, and unless I’m very wrong about how genes work, they can’t give specific instructions, can they?”
Nofl and Eefo both indicated that she was right; Nofl with a shake of his head, Eefo with a duck-nod.
“Genes code for the creation and interaction of macromolecules such as proteins,” Eefo said. “Epigenetic effects can promote certain instinctual behaviors, but they can’t program specific thoughts.”
“Those instincts, however, can be readily shaped to serve the ends of a master,” Nofl pointed out. “Just look at the Humans and their canine companions. I doubt Bozo feels much ‘enslaved,’ insofar as he could understand the concept…but that does not change the result.”
“A person could use the same argument an’ say love is jus’ a programmed sensation too,” Daar pointed out.
Nofl smiled. “The Corti Directorate definitely would say that, dear.”
“Don’t change nothin’ ‘fer the people feelin’ it. Or dogs.”
Grandfather Baru cleared his throat. “The point is that activating our own dormant genes won’t suddenly enslave any of us to the Hierarchy’s will. Not for any practical definition of the word ‘slave,’ anyway.”
“Definitely not,” Eefo agreed. Nofl nodded and waved a hand to say he had nothing to argue with on that score.
“In that case, it’s either a heritage reclaimed, or an opportunity seized,” Naydra concluded.
The Great Father settled his bulk down at the head of the table. No chair or throne for him, he preferred to sit directly on the floor, which nonetheless left him at eye level with everyone else. “I’m inclined ‘ta press forward aggressively on this,” he rumbled authoritatively. “I need ‘ta hear ‘yer objections, if ‘ya got ‘em.”
“Our objection, My Father, is that this is entirely experimental and we have a sample size of exactly two. That isn’t enough to extrapolate from, not properly, both the males involved are…medical cases…” Eefo’s ears swivelled uncomfortably. “And for all we know, they’ve just been lucky so far. The next one might die from rampant tumor formation, or develop some vital protein deficiency or any one of a thousand other complications.”
“I kinda doubt it. This weren’t no accidental thing, what were done to us. It were somethin’ we were made ‘ta be, an’ they were very, very careful ‘bout it.”
“The Hierarchy have been very, very careful about a lot of things,” Nofl pointed out. “And we still have an annoying habit of finding creative ways to break them.”
“Past results don’t guarantee no future outcome,” Daar replied. “An’ mutations aren’t an active spirit o’ malice. They just happen. We’ve got the medical resources ‘ta deal with this. Mebbe not at full scale…but there’s another thing.”
Daar got up and paced the room now, gathering his thoughts.
“I dunno if y’all noticed, but there are two other Deathworlder species the Gao suddenly find themselves bein’ friends with an’ competin’ with. The rest o’ the galaxy, they’ve got ridiculous numbers. We do not. An’ we’re gonna have many billions less ‘fore I’m officially old. So lemme ask ‘ya this: should we be facin’ that at anythin’ less than our full potential?”
“Or, for that matter,” Naydra added, “should we squander the opportunity to learn what our full potential even is?”
Nofl sat back in his chair and smiled to himself at the telling nature of the silence that swept around the table. The Highmountains were basically sold. They were cautious and thoughtful to a one but they were also scientists, and scientists were defined by a lust for discovery and exploration no matter what species they were.
“We would need healthy test subjects,” Eefo pointed out.
“True,” Baru agreed. “And I am not sure about how you would go…” He stumbled to a halt as he registered the expression on Daar’s face, and horror dawned across his own. “…No, My Father!”
Daar chittered amusedly. “Ha! Y’know, I’m pretty sure ‘ya don’t get ‘ta tell me what I can or can’t do, Baru…”
He chittered at the way the Grandfather’s ears flattened and the elderly Highmountain’s whole posture became immediately small and apologetic. “Oh, relax. I can smell the difference ‘tween mutiny and shock. ‘Cuz ‘yer right, it’s a risk. But I think it’s one I gotta take.”
“We have to take,” Naydra corrected him. Nofl almost burst out laughing, but buried it with the skills he’d learned over a lifetime of blending in with Directorate society. No male of any species had ever mastered that particular tone of voice.
“…My Father, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the, uh…risk you are proposing to undertake,” Eefo said.
“Not a small one!” Nofl agreed, chirpily. “Low odds, but high stakes!”
“What can I say? I’m a risk-takin’ kinda ‘Back. How many Clan Champions regularly wade into battle?”
Daar gave the room a shrewd look, and grumbled in a self-satisfied sort of way. “Exactly. An’ it’s not the risk ‘yer thinkin’ it’ll be. It’s only really risky ‘ta myself.” Daar chittered, “‘Ya might be surprised to learn y’all can live without me.”
Nofl met Eefo’s eye. “He is most of the way there already…” he said.
“Do not mistake the Great Father’s exceptional nature as proof. He may simply be well-bred.”
“Mebbe!” Daar agreed. “But that’s the thing, I am exceptional regardless o’ how it happened, and I would be doin’ the Crown an’ everything it stands for a disservice if I didn’t acknowledge that. The purpose of my reign is two-fold, and both of ‘em rest on that exceptionalness. The first is ‘ta crack skulls when needed. I think I’ve done mosta that already, I hope. But the second is ‘ta lead. This is a point where leadership is gonna matter ‘cuz like ‘ya said, it’s risky.”
“…But it is a risk you feel you need to take.”
“Then…why ask us, My Father? As you said, none of us can command you to do anything.”
“No, but I also swore an oath before the Unseen to respect ‘yer advice. I take that oath seriously.”
“And… you, Mother-Consort?” Eefo asked.
Naydra glanced at the Great Father, then sat forward. “Don’t lose sight of what genes mean,” she said. “Under the science and the academic fascination, genes are the future. And the future is a Female’s business, Father Eefo. It is our burden, and our highest calling. This experiment will inevitably sweep up the Clan of Females too, as we start bearing true Deathworlder cubs and raising them. Some of those new cubs will be females themselves, and I would rather be skinned alive like Tiritya herself than allow them to be born unless we are ready for them.”
“My objection is that would be nearly impossible to arrange, Mother. Controlling for a cub born to the world who had such gifts would be…”
The table instinctively looked to the Great Father, who sighed. “It ain’t easy bein’ different. Trust me I know. I dealt with it by bein’ the bestest at competitive sport, at least ‘fore Genshi sponsored me into Clan life, rest his soul. Any cub like that would need ‘ta find his own way jus’ like any other exceptional cub does. Like all of us have, in our own ways. Life ain’t painless.”
“That still does not address the issue, My Father. We can hardly give such a cub a fair start in life if we’re not ourselves prepared for it.”
“And how else do you propose we become ready for it?” Naydra asked.
“…We need a small corps of volunteers. If you both insist on this, then I think there will be those willing to follow. But I insist we should keep this to a small group, so that we can properly control for anything serious that may come up.”
“I think that’s wise,” Daar agreed amiably. “I’d be willin’ ‘ta go along with that. Naydi?”
The Mother-Consort duck-nodded amiably. “So would I.”
“And what about the Mother-Supreme?” Grandfather Baru asked.
“I will give her advice great deference,” the Great Father announced, then something seemed to occur to him. “…Actually, why isn’t she here for this?” he asked Naydra.
A flash of discomfort plucked at Naydra’s ears, just for a moment. “…She felt it would be inappropriate, My Father. For reasons I think she wouldn’t want me to share in this room.”
All eyes turned to Nofl. He could take the hint.
“Well, it seems my usefulness is at an end!” He chirped amiably, and hopped out of his seat, which had the effect of lowering his eye level to just above tabletop height. “I’ll just see my way back to the genetic labs, hmm?”
“I’d ‘preciate that,” said the Great Father. “We’ll come visit in a bit, ‘kay?”
“Don’t keep me waiting!”
Well, that certainly put Nofl in an uncomfortable position. He padded out of the room and pondered his next actions while he was escorted down into the labs buried deep in the mountain, where the air was mercifully a little warmer.
It seemed the Clan of Females was about to experience a leadership upheaval. Not even the most artless silver banner could have failed to miss the subtext in the room. Why was a different matter. Mother-Supreme Yulna was closely watched by the Directorate, for obvious reasons, and Nofl had heard nothing.
Could it be age? Yulna was getting rather rich in years by Gaoian standards. But her predecessor had remained Mother-Supreme right up until her death, which had technically been due to her venerable age rather than the actual Hunters.
Health? Illness? Mental condition? There were too many unknown variables. He sighed, and put the question aside.
Species-wide genetic exploration, a crisis in leadership, and moral quandaries to boot! Nofl’s next report to the Directorate would be interesting. …Which made his invitation all the more intriguing. The Great Father wanted him to see that deliberation. There were many questions that prompted, but all of them were essentially the same.
He looked forward to finding out.
Date Point: 16y4m1w AV
Emergency Hierarchy Session #UNLOGGED
NOTICE: CLASSIFIED SESSION. ACCESS RESTRICTED TO AGENT RANKS ≤54
SPECIAL ACCESS RESTRICTIONS IN EFFECT
RESTRICTION CODE: SUSPECT/OBTUSE/IRRIGATE
SESSION LOGS WILL BE SANITIZED
Subject: Sanitation progress
++0004++: Roll call.
SYSTEM: 40⁄43 ELIGIBLE ATTENDEES CONFIRMED PRESENT
++0004++: Who is missing?
++0048++: Agents 0021 and 0018 are still being recompiled. Agent 0037 apologizes: he is attending to post-dataquake repairs in subrelayspace Arristik-1. Access to sixteen billion units of Substrate is endangered.
++0004++: Thank you. The latest progress report: All but four of the rogue agents have been recovered for decompilation/interrogation. Antiagent Malignant-1 “Cynosure” and Antiagent Malignant-2 “Metastasis” appear to have fought and destroyed each other. We are not treating this as confirmed, however. Cynosure in particular is highly deceptive.
++0008++: With respect, we’d have to be as stupid as meat to think that’s what really happened.
++0004++: …Agreed. Cynosure is to be presumed intact and at large until further notice. Antiagent Malignant-2 “Tangent” and Antiagent Malignant-2 “Paradox” are unaccounted-for, presumed intact and at large.
++0005++: We did well. But not well enough. They must have anticipate that we would cease to tolerate them.
++0012++: Their existence raises serious questions over instances of 0001. It would not have authorized cooperation with them if it had access to their deception. This implies that Cabal members knew—indeed, know—of a way to obfuscate themselves from, or manipulate, 0001.
++0009++: Truth. And in a sense, we got lucky that the matterspace lifeforms destroyed Relay Irujzen-1. If the Cabal was cooperating with them and gained access to the relay’s physical structure…
++0005++: <Disturbed> They would have access to deep dataspace layers. Maybe even to the 0001 compilation algorithm.
++0033++: Aren’t the relays hardened against that?
++0009++: Nothing is impermeable. We’re confident that matterforms will never be able to understand the concepts and operation of dataspace sufficiently to manipulate it even if they did gain access to the relay system, but a rogue dataform cooperating with them…
++0005++: Especially a formerly-senior Agent with single-digit grade codes…
++0003++: <Decision> This is an existential priority. All operations not directly related to maintaining substrate and necessary Hegemony functions are hereby suspended. Assuring the total annihilation of the Cabal and ensuring the inviolability of 0001 is now our only priority. Everything else can wait.
SYSTEM:: ALL ATTENDING AGENTS INDICATE ORDERS UNDERSTOOD—NO QUERIES OR DISSENT.
++0004++: We have consensus. Proceed.
SYSTEM: SESSION LOGS ENCRYPTED, ACCESS RESTRICTED TO RANKS ≤54
RESTRICTION CODE: SUSPECT/OBTUSE/IRRIGATE
Date Point: 16y4m1w AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm
The second Brown One hunt was a hot day. So hot that nobody made fun of Vemik and his apprentices when they had to stop and rest. The Bawistuh was heavy, and the heat stuck to the skin so that everybody was secretly glad for the chance to sit down and cool off.
The Humans seemed annoyingly comfortable. Jooyun and Heff were down to their shorts and had left everything else behind except for their big, floppy hats, but they seemed almost… happy? Heff was almost as furry as a bibtaw, so Yan had no idea how he wasn’t suffering worst of all in the heat.
And then there was the drone. Apparently this time it was Shyow’s own, not one she’d borrowed from the others. She’d bought it herself and practiced with it. To Yan’s eyes, it seemed even more agile in the air than before.
It swooped down and hovered in front of Jooyun’s face, and suddenly Yan knew what his secret was. Its wings were fanning his face!
“Not fair, Shyow!” he called. The drone turned and rose as it turned to face him, did a cheeky little dip in the air, circled around Jooyun’s head and then settled on a nearby branch.
“I’m allowed to play favorites, big man!” it teased him in her voice.
“Feh.” Yan waved a hand. On a cooler day he might have hung Jooyun from a tree to get back at her, but it really was too hot.
Why were the hunting the Brown One today again?
He sighed to himself. They were hunting the Brown One today because it wasn’t going to get cooler any time soon. It was the hot season now, and the beast needed to be dealt with: A hand of days ago it had attacked Torf’s village. Nobody died, but only because of a little bit of home-made sky-magic one of their boys had left in the woods nearby. He’d strung twine between the trees and hung it with bones and hollow sticks, so that when the Brown One shouldered them aside the clattering noise roused everyone from their beds.
Not even Torf could grumble about that kind of thinking.
He was, though, grumbling about the third human.
If Jooyun was big by human standards, then the newcomer was a giant, with skin as rich and dark as Foresfather wood. Even though he was beaded in sweat from neck to feet, he was the only man present who hadn’t uttered a word of complaint so far.
Yan had introduced him to the others as grandly as he could: His name was “Baseball” and he was a ‘medic.’ A Human warrior trained in the very best healing sky-magic, whose whole life was wading into battle and saving the wounded.
The Given-Men had been suitably impressed. They’d also been impressed that Jooyun’s ‘Guv-er-meant’ had insisted on Baseball being there. Jooyun was important to them, and if he must hunt the Brown One alongside the People, then he was going to have somebody there to look after him.
“And the rest of you, too!” ‘Base had added.
That was the part Torf didn’t like. Of all the Given-Men, Torf liked sky-magic the least. He refused to learn even a word of Engwish, he’d forbidden the boys of his village from talking to Professor Hurt and the others… he even viewed steel with suspicion. Having all this sky-medicine along was ‘coddling’ in his words, and the Bawistuh promised to make too easy what should have been a true test from the gods.
Yan hated him, but he tried not to let it show too much. Torf slumped down next to him and glared at the drone.
“More Human weakness,” he grumbled, too low for the sky-people to hear.
“What weakness? Jooyun out-wrestled all your men not a few days ago, Torf. Baseball here could snap you like a twig! I don’t see how sky-thinking has weakened him at all. And War Horse is even stronger! He can out-wrestle me sometimes, and do I need to remind you what happened at the Lodge, Torf?”
That win had been a special bit of fun. Nobody could say anything too out of line when they couldn’t beat Yan, not even ganging up.
Sadly, the reminder didn’t cool Torf one bit.
“This… dwone,” he griped. “Come with the hunt, see the hunt, but not be on the hunt? Safe.” He slurped a mouthful of air with his tongue, angrily.
Yan sighed. Torf had never quite mastered his Fire, and it showed. Made him head-weak—everything angered him, even things as simple as a child playing or a woman singing as she cooked. Probably he’d lose himself in the Fire before long.
“They’re women,” Yan reminded him. “Women with child! And only Jooyun is a man of the People. The rest are here as friends. You would not demand members of my tribe hunt your meat, Torf. Why demand it of them? Of their pregnant women?”
Torf grunted and did something wise: he shut up.
They rested a little longer, before suddenly the drone shot up in the air and blurred high up through the trees, vanishing into the canopy. Jooyun stood up, and listened intently to his radio.
“…The Brown One’s coming this way,” he said after a few beats.
“Probably tastes us on the air,” Torf said. “This one is old. Clever. Sharp senses.”
Yan grunted. At least he wasn’t completely stupid.
“Sky-Thinker! How soon can you be ready?”
“Not long, Yan!” Vemik sprang to his feet. His apprentices groaned and stood up more slowly, but took up their parts of the Bawistuh before Vemik had even turned to tell them. “We should get to where it has a clear shot.”
The mood got tense, and quiet. This was the sharp end of a hunt, when lives were about to end. Yan glanced up at the sun between the leaves, and looked away with purple spots dancing in his eyes. The gods were looking down on them, now. If they smiled at what they saw, this would be painless for the men. Vemik promised much of his new weapon. With luck, he’d be right.
But if not… a wounded beast could be even more dangerous than a whole one.
They stayed low and quiet as they skulked to the edge of the forest. Thanks to Jooyun, Shyow and the drone, they knew how far away the beast was and where it would be coming from, so they set up to prepare for it.
Vemik and his apprentices put the Bawistuh together on a solid shelf of stone that jutted up between the roots of two Ketta. They slotted the great spear it would throw into place, then grabbed the handles and waited. Vemik had said how they’d need to fire it soon after drawing it, or else the machine would damage itself from the strain of holding at full draw. That made sense to Yan, who struggled to hold his own bow at full draw too.
He didn’t have his with him, anyway. Though his bow was strong enough to skewer a Werne, Brown Ones were so much more. He was on the ground with his heaviest, strongest spear, the one with Vemik’s best steel spear-tip. Nobody was stronger with the spear than he was. Nobody could throw one harder, or farther, or as many times.
It wouldn’t be enough, if the bawistah failed. They’d need twice as many Given-Men. Given-Men they didn’t have.
They had a few of their best bow-hunters in the trees. Men who could hit a root-bird from far away, and could certainly hit a Brown One in its head. Yan didn’t think it would do much except anger the thing, but maybe a lucky hit to the eye, or…
No. Never rely on luck. The bows were there to distract the beast and stop it from charging the Bawistuh before it was ready. Nothing more.
Jooyun was right next to the bawistah with a very nice ‘compound bow.’ Now that was sky-magic Yan could wrap his head around. Heff and Baseball had sky-weapons. They weren’t here for the hunt, they were here to keep Jooyun alive, and Yan had no doubt at all that the heavy thing in Baseball’s arms would do awful things to anything made of flesh, not matter how fearsome.
But they were under strict orders not to use them unless it was that or death.
Yan sidled closer to Sky-Thinker. “Any last tricks you didn’t tell me about?” he asked.
Vemik just glanced at him, and shook his head. His tail was twitching nervously.
“Too bad…” Yan muttered, and tasted the air. The Brown One’s musk was heavy on the wind.
Shyow’s drone came zipping back and hovered over Jooyun’s shoulder.
“It’s just over the ridge,” she reported. “…Don’t get yourself killed, okay?”
“If you do, I’ll kill you,” Awisun’s voice added, shakily. She sounded terrified.
“I’ll be careful,” Jooyun promised. He plucked one of his arrows out of the ground in front of him and notched it. “I love you both.”
The Brown One came over the hill.
Date Point: 16y4m1w AV
V1661 CYG 23.3° 83-EIW2Y4-BINARY K3V-1, Deep Space
Alpha of the Bleeding Brood
Repairing the ship had taken four days. PIcking up the quarry’s plasma wake had taken half that again. And a ship tracking another’s plasma had to move carefully and slowly so as not to lose the scent.
To most of the Bleeding Brood, such a long hunt would have been tooth-grinding agony had they not been in stasis. The Alpha was a veteran, though, and had learned patience, and focus. It also found that plugging in to the sensor array and interpreting their output as olfactory sensations had a viscerally satisfying effect. It felt like it was sniffing the prey down, rather than watching a warbling emissions spike on a sterile monitor.
The Builders didn’t care. They never did. They tended to the ship, always fine-tuning and polishing it, adding little upgrades and refinements as they went. Their hunger had to do with chasing the impossible perfection.
How could anything enjoy a hunt without a reward? The whole point was to sink one’s teeth into the hard-won meat at the end! And yet, the Builders were just as obsessive in their pursuit of something they would never reach as the most blood-hungry Hunter.
To the Alpha, they were alien things. But they made its ship run smoothly and brought the meat ever-closer to the maw. So it tolerated them.
The scent trail led to a binary system, far from the space lanes and prey-planets. It was of no interest to the Hunters—no life-bearing worlds, just four gas worlds and their barren, volcanic, icy moons. There weren’t even any space stations, just another unappetizing wasteland in a sea of unappetizing wastelands.
…Except for the prey’s stench.
It was everywhere, flitting from rock to rock to iceball to rock. There was a sharp fizz to the scent near one of the ice planets where the quarry had paused to rid itself of excess charge. The Alpha did likewise, blending its own spoor with the prey’s, then followed the meager traces of warp ions as they bounced around the system.
This time, it kept the ventral shields reinforced with supplemental power drawn from the other shield facings. The thief would not hit them in the same spot again.
But this time… there was no attack. This time, the meandering trail visited one last asteroid that had been stripped of a bare taste of its most accessible surface minerals… and then the plasma trail shot out into empty space again.
The prey was on the run.
Date Point: 16y4m1w AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm
There was a moment’s pause as the Brown One tasted the air and snarled at the men waiting for it. It was smart, alright. Smart enough to know that something was different here. Smart enough to stop and evaluate, just for a second
But it was still, ultimately, an animal, and it still tasted a scent on the wind that belonged to food. And it was used to barreling headlong into herds of Werne. Brown Ones hunted that way, they didn’t bother with picking off the sick and the weak, they went straight in for whatever they could catch. This one was scarred from the knees down where generations of Werne had sliced at its shins as it charged into their midst.
It howled, and charged.
To Julian’s right, Vemik and his apprentices started winding back their siege bow. To his left, Yan raised his voice with a cry of “Steady!!”
Up in the trees, the first bows thumped.
Arrows were expensive. Straightening them properly was fiddly enough, but then came the need to make glue, pluck root-birds, knap heads, and use glue and twine to fletch and tip the shafts. Each one was quite a lot of work, and so the bowmen in the trees didn’t have many. They used them carefully.
The beast flinched and half-turned as a dozen shafts buried themselves in its face and neck. Thick hide or not, those had to sting. Julian raised his own bow and drew it back, felt the cams help him hold at full draw. Even still, it was a fierce bow and he’d not have been able to use it a few years ago. He lined the sight up, and released.
He got it smack in the jaw, and it jolted in pain. Something feral that wasn’t quite a grin stretched his lips and gritted his teeth as he grabbed the next arrow and notched it. Distantly, he marvelled at how steady his own hands were.
The archers had their intended effect. They weren’t there to kill the thing, just to enrage and confuse it. The Brown One’s earth-thumping charge became a kind of agonized dance, like a cat being stung by bees. It spun and snapped, and every time it moved to attack its tormenters, more arrows from the other side stole its attention.
Still. It was getting close enough to the spearmen that it might ignore the arrows and attack them if Vemik didn’t—
There was a heavy, metallic thump from Julian’s right.
The Bawistuh was designed to throw a spear so big and heavy that even Yan would have struggled with it. It had the finest steel head that Vemik had been able to make, and he’d tested the design time and again. It flew straight and true, with tree-cracking force behind it.
It crunched into the Brown One’s flank, just behind the point of the shoulder.
Rather than roar in pain or anger, the beast gave a kind of stunned cough. It staggered, uttered something like a contrabass whimper, and its legs gave out under it. It turned, and tried to bite at the shaft now protruding from its ribs.
Yan was elated. “Again, Sky-Thinker! Hit it again!!”
“Can’t!” Vemik called back. ”It broke!”
Julian risked a look. Sure enough, the Bawistuh was wrecked. The metal bow arms had survived, but the frame had split down the middle like firewood.
…And the Brown One was climbing back to its feet.
There was a roar from Julian’s left, and suddenly a dark-crested, muscular figure was bounding forward with his spear held high. Torf. The obstreperous old Given-Man had clearly given up on sky-magic, and flung himself at the wounded beast while ululating a savage war cry.
There was nothing for it. Yan charged in with his own spear, and so did the rest of the Given-Men. Julian emptied his quiver as fast as he could before there were people in the way.
Torf met the beast first. He launched himself into the air in a mighty leap and put all his mass and strength behind a skewering blow to the throat. The Brown One went down again, rolled and flailed. It shook Torf loose, then turned and tore him apart with a single snap of its jaws as it staggered to its feet.
Maybe it still had some fight in it despite everything, because it still turned to face the Given-Men’s charge. Julian would have liked to take another shot, but it was a moving target surrounded by leaping, hooting, hollering Ten’Gewek and he didn’t want to hit anyone.
It was limping badly, bearing its weight on one leg while the other one, having a ballista spear half buried in the shoulder, swatted feebly and painfully at the attacking men. It backed off, roaring and snapping as they split and went to either side of it. Yan went right, on its wounded side, and Jooyun heard him howl ferally as he drove his spear into the Brown One’s guts.
Unlike Torf, he immediately let go of his spear and dove backwards. Even so, the creature’s teeth snapped perilously close to him with a fearsome SCHNOP! Another Given-Man wasn’t so lucky—Loor was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and got stomped on as the Brown One staggered.
Thank fuck, though, its resolve finally broke. It turned and fled with its tail between its legs exactly like a kicked dog.
The Given-Men turned their charge into a running javelin-throw with their spear-men right behind them. A Given-Man’s spear was more like steel rebar than a javelin, made of a dense, heavy wood that felt to Julian’s hands about as heavy as a barbell. Even as strong as he was these days he couldn’t throw one very far. A Given-Man, on the other hand, could throw that spear hard enough to knock a bull werne clean off its hooves.
Each of them had a strong spear-man with them today, who kept them armed and ready to throw again. The Brown One staggered and whined as spear after enormous spear found its mark. Blood was running in rivers down its back, its neck and his hindquarters now, but none of the thrown spears had finished it. Julian had never seen anything take punishment like that and keep going, but the Brown One scrambled up the slope, clawed its way over the ridge, and vanished from sight.
Even after all that, they hadn’t killed it.
Baseball was down to Loor’s side immediately, having taken a flying leap from their perch and sprinted like a human blur across the blood-spattered field to reach his patient. Somehow, the crushed Given-Man was still alive. He wasn’t in a good way though, because ‘Base jabbed a few somethings into his outer thigh and drilled something else into Loor’s shoulder before cramming him bodily into a stasis bag.
He looked up at the Singer, who was very high above the fray in the tallest Ketta. She shot a glance in the direction their quarry had gone, then descended the tree and bounded across the grass.
“Is he…?” she asked.
“He’s safe in there. Nothing can happen in a stasis bag, but I gotta get him to the Array and into theater.”
She nodded. “I come with you.”
“Sure. After Julian is safe.”
The drone returned to Julian’s side. He hadn’t even noticed it leave, but Xiù got his attention with a sharp buzz of its field wings.
“It’s bleeding out,” she told him. Her voice sounded strained and queasy. “It’ll be a bit before the Given-Men reach it, but… I think you got it.”
Julian nodded, and looked to ‘Base. “Go. I’m not gonna be in much danger now. Me and Hoeff can handle it.”
Tracking the Brown One was trivial, given that it had left a blood trail like a fucking slip-n-slide. Rather than run after it and stab it, they jogged and tried to keep it in sight. The beast was still dangerous and enraged, but it was obviously bleeding to death. One man was dead and another badly mauled, but the hunt was over now and there was no sense in pointless heroics. All they had to do was let it collapse, and finish the job when they caught up.
Xiù kept the drone circling high above in case any other Brown Ones decided to pay them a visit, but saw none.
After maybe a mile, the Brown One slumped to the dirt. It groaned loudly enough for Julian to hear it even from some distance away, then staggered back to its feet and trudged onward. Then it fell a second time after just a hundred yards or so, and then there was just a sorry mountain of fur lying in the middle of the plains. There were so many spears and arrows sticking out of the thing that it looked remarkably like a roadkill porcupine.
Still, somehow, it was breathing. It was moments from death, but still holding on.
The long pursuit over open ground took it out of the Given-Men. They were carrying the last of their spears, and Ten’Gewek just weren’t built for upright running: their anatomy forced them to give chase with a series of bounding long jumps that were nowhere near as economical as a human’s jog. So while Julian and Hoeff were pretty comfortable and barely exerted themselves in the pursuit, the sweat-soaked aliens leant on their spears and breathed heavily when they finally caught up with their quarry.
They approached the Brown one carefully. Nobody wanted to be the victim of a sudden last burst of strength on its part.
“Jooyun…” It took a moment for Yan to regain some breath. “We…stay with it…not die alone.”
Julian nodded seriously, and stood with the Given-Men.
Carefully, they rounded the thing’s nose, staying back just far enough to respect whatever strength it had left. The Brown One’s bloodshot eyes fixed on them and a blood-coated tongue licked the air as it made a pathetic noise that wanted to be a growl, but was more like an excruciating wheeze. Julian could hear its lungs, like a huge slow pair of forge bellows. Could hear the bubbling inside them.
Part of him felt profoundly sorry for the pain they’d caused it.
“Gods,” Yan agreed solemnly, and looked up at the sun. “Be here. See this.”
He hefted his spear, stepped forward, then with a feral hoot he leapt onto the Brown One’s flank and drove the spear between its ribs with all his strength. The shaft sank deep into its chest, and skewered its heart.
The Brown One gave one last whimper, stretched its muzzle toward them… and died. Julian shut his eyes as its final breath washed over him.
They stood in silence, and prayed for it.
Date Point: 16y4m2w AV
FBI field office, San Francisco, California, USA, Earth
Special Agent James Mazur
“What caught him in the end?”
“I think he was scoping out Federal buildings. Unfortunately for him, he walked past the MEPS in San Jose without his shades on. Facial recognition flagged him immediately.”
Fiorillo looked a little smug about that one. Jim could see why, when she showed him the incriminating evidence. He was trained to see through simple disguises, including beards and hats and sunglasses, but the cameras had identified Alex Hamlin from five postage-stamp sized stills taken when he’d briefly strayed into view of a camera.
He was sitting dejectedly in an interrogation room, looking like the whole world hated him. Three months of not shaving had given him a decently full, though unkempt, gingerish beard, and he’d lost some of the softness that came from sitting on his ass playing videogames all day. In his threadbare sweater and a black cotton beanie, he looked like a hobo.
“Okay. Besides hanging out with Briggs, has he done anything I can really scare him with?”
“We’re pulling security camera footage from other Federal buildings in the area. If I’m right then between his history and the company he’s kept lately you should have enough.”
Zoe shook her head. “Served in full, I’m afraid. If you don’t count the stolen cellphones we found in his desk, he’s been a good boy for the last few years.” She hesitated, then qualified that. “Well. Mostly. He’s not set anything on fire, at least.”
“So he’s a loser who’s desperate to not be a loser any longer…” Jim mused. That was good. He could work with that. “Well. Guess I’ll say hello.”
He let himself into the interrogation room, returned Hamlin’s sulky look with a light smile, and sat down.
“Hello, Alex. I’m Special Agent Mazur.”
He got surly silence in reply. No matter.
“You’ve been kind of an idiot, haven’t you?” he asked, conversationally. “You had a good thing going back in Logan. If you’d kept working on it, maybe you’d have built up your second-hand computer business, made a name for yourself. But here you are, a long way from home, and you’ve been hanging around with the wrong people again. And scoping out Federal buildings? With your record?”
He shook his head mournfully. “Bad idea.”
Hamlin continued to say nothing, but Jim noted the way his beard moved as he clenched his teeth.
“Hanging out with Bill Briggs, though? That’s where you really screwed up,” Jim added. “Do you know what she’s wanted for? You just burned a house down. She orchestrated a bombing, Alex. People died. Playing with her puts you in the big leagues, where a nobody like you really doesn’t belong… And as far as she’s concerned, you are a nobody, or else she wouldn’t have left you behind.”
That stung. Hamlin winced almost as if someone had poked him with a thumbtack.
“I don’t need a lot from you, Alex,” Jim told him. “You know what? I’m happy to let you go back to tinkering with computers. I’m happy to give you nothing worse than a slap on the wrist for the stolen property we found in your trailer. I’m happy to let you have another shot at building a life for yourself. You are far beneath my notice, and we both want it to stay that way.”
He leaned forward. “All I need from you,” he said, “is what exactly happened the night Wilhelmina Briggs-Davies visited you. You give me that, and you’ll get the gentle treatment.”
Hamlin fidgeted, and finally spoke. “…So, what. You’re the good cop?”
“I’m the only cop, Alex. We’re not gonna play games with you because you aren’t worth the investment. I’m just the guy who makes the fate you choose come to pass. You either choose to cooperate and we get this over with, or you choose to be obstinate and someone will get around to dragging this out forever. But you choose now.”
The moment crackled as it dragged out.
Hamlin blinked first.
“She… she called me from a rest stop in, uh… Missouri? I think she said Missouri,” he said. “She wanted food and a place to sleep.”
That much was true. Fiorillo had pulled the call logs off the stolen phone in Hamlin’s desk. “Did she tell you where she’d been or what she was doing?”
“When did she arrive?” Jim asked.
“About sunset, I guess. Just before it got dark.”
Also true. Good. Now, on to the real questions.
“You got in her car and drove it somewhere,” Jim recalled. “You were gone for an hour. Where did you go?”
The pained look of the thoroughly defeated crossed Hamlin’s face, and he sagged beaten in his chair.
“…I drove out to Fielding. It’s half an hour out of town. She said some friends had left her some stuff in a trash can out that way.”
“And had they?”
“Yeah. A duffel bag.”
“What was in it?”
“Clothes, a shitload of cash… two guns.”
“Guns? What kind of guns?”
Hamlin shook his head. “I don’t know. A pistol, and a rifle with a scope on it. And some ammo.”
“Make? Model?” Jim pressed.
Hamlin shook his head again. “No idea. I don’t know guns. They were just… black. Military-looking, you know?”
“Yeah. Medicine of some kind. Weirdly blue.”
Jim had a lot of training in keeping his face blank. It came in handy at that moment. “Weirdly blue?” he echoed.
“Yeah, like… sky blue. Thick, milky stuff. She dumped it in a glass of water and drank it.”
“Did you see the ampule it came in?”
“Not really. She hid it from me, you know? And with somebody like Bill, I mean… I wasn’t about to ask dumb questions. She’s dangerous, man.”
Jim nodded. “Okay. So you got this dead drop for her then drove back to your place?”
“What happened next?”
“She was asleep. I went to bed. She woke up early in the morning, gave me some of the cash, took the bag and left.”
“In the same car?”
“And you left that evening.”
Hamlin by now was a picture of misery. He planted his elbows on the table in front of him, as much as his restraints would allow, and tried to bury his head in his hands.
“I just… I was so fucking mad, you know? She just came along and used me and then fucked off and left me stuck where I was and… I just wanted to… I dunno. Do something. Anything!”
“She didn’t give you instructions? You weren’t here in Cali to meet somebody or do something for her?”
He shook his head dejectedly. Jim gave him a silent moment, then stood up.
“Alright,” he said. “I’m going to verify what you’ve told me. If I find any inconsistencies…”
Hamlin just nodded the nod of a broken man. Satisfied, Jim let himself out.
Ben Poole and Zoe Fiorillo were already poring over the stupid kid’s revelations when he reached the observation room.
“—mean, a dead drop like that on short notice? And don’t forget the car swap.”
Jim nodded and sat down. There was a latte waiting for him on the table. State highway patrol had found Briggs’ car found abandoned a few miles outside of Logan, with the keys still on the passenger seat. Tire marks in the soft earth by the road had suggested she’d transferred to a different vehicle.
Combining that with the news that somebody had delivered some hard-to-get supplies to a separate dead drop in the same rough vicinity at much the same time created an ugly picture.
“The APA are making us look like fucking donkeys,” he commented. “How the fuck many people do they have?”
“They had more than a day to get people into position,” Ben pointed out.
“Even so. That’s a lot of material support on short notice. And it was slickly done, too. If she hadn’t got sloppy and opened the bag where he could see it, we wouldn’t know what was inside. And if she has Cruezzir…”
“Taken orally, too,” Fiorillo agreed, looking grim. “Fortunately, that stuff’s tightly controlled. There’s only a few dozen clinics licensed to use it, so if we can figure out which one is missing some inventory…”
“Good call,” Ben agreed.
Zoe sighed and sipped her cappuccino. “Even so, we’re still three steps behind. Knowing where they got the Cruezzir won’t help us catch up.”
“Which is a problem,” Ben replied. “With her psych profile… If she goes full Delaney, then I don’t think she’ll be happy to have those weapons and not use them. Not now that she’s feeling the heat.”
“You think she’s going to hit something,” Jim surmised.
“She’s had plenty of time…”
“That doesn’t automatically mean she’s had the opportunity,” Zoe pointed out. “Especially if that was her first dose. She’ll need to lie low and eat, like, a ton of food for at least a month to get the full effect. And if she has an assassination in mind? An attack on somebody specific? Then yeah, it could be a while before she’s ready.”
“Plausible, but we don’t have enough information to say for sure. Much less identify a target,” Ben nodded. “Alternatively, she could just have those weapons as a just-in-case, or so she can go down shooting when we catch up with her.”
Jim grumbled and rubbed his chin. “Okay. Well, I guess all we can do at this point is to notify everyone on the APA’s hit list.” He glanced at the forlorn figure of Alex Hamlin in the monitor. “As for the small fry… Put the fear of God in him and then throw him back.”
“And after that?” Zoe asked.
“We keep the pressure on. Briggs will make a mistake eventually.”
“Hopefully before she kills someone,” Ben said.
Jim had to agree.
“…Hopefully,” he said.
Date Point: 16y4m2w AV
Folctha General Hospital, Extraterrestrial WIng, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Dying wasn’t what he thought it’d be like. Loor woke up in a strange place, on a nice comfortable bed…a steel bed?
The blanket was strange, too. Thin, very soft, definitely not a pelt of any kind. He was in a hut, maybe? Bleary-eyed, he looked around, then felt something tugging at his arm. A thin clear vine of some kind, which went to a bag of…something…up on a metal hook.
Something told him he probably shouldn’t fiddle with it. Or sit up, either. Actually, not sitting up felt like a very good idea. Still, he turned his head.
Yan’s niece, the Singer, was sitting on a mat of some kind in the corner, humming to herself as she did… something. A Singer-spell. Loor had never learned the ways of Singers. But she looked up and smiled when his head turned.
He was pretty sure she hadn’t died in the battle. And now he thought about it…
“I…” his mouth was as dry as a stone. He licked its inside and tried to wet it until he could speak. “….I didn’t die?”
She nodded, and used her tail to push herself to her feet. The smile she gave him said she was glad to see him, but also a little… intimidated. “The Human ‘doctors’ say you came very close. They almost couldn’t save you. Many broken bones, broken heart, flattened lung. ‘Baseball’ saved your life.”
As if summoned by her words, a tall and skinny human wearing a thin blue ‘shirt’ joined them. He paused and let a strange yellow light sweep up and down him a couple of times before he came in properly.
“Well met, Loor Given-Man,” he said in the People’s own words… except his mouth didn’t match the sounds. There must be a speaking-stone hidden somewhere nearby. “I’m Mister Gupta. It’s good to see you awake.”
“He is a traw-mar con-sult-ant,” the Singer explained. “A healer of people who get badly hurt like you did.”
“…Well met,” Loor nodded vaguely. He hadn’t felt this weak since his Trial of Manhood, hands and hands of summers ago. And it was dawning on him that the Singer was wearing very strange clothes. They looked Human-made, and brightly coloured. They didn’t fit well, either.
“How are you feeling?” Gupta asked.
“…Like a Brown One stomped on me,” Loor trilled wearily.
The Singer trilled too, and Gupta laughed.
“That’s good!” he said, and inspected something next to where Loor lay. Loor couldn’t quite turn his head far enough to see what. “I always say, when my patients are joking they’re half-way home already.”
He nodded at whatever he was looking at, and made a satisfied noise before turning to Loor. “To be honest, you surprised me. I don’t think a human would have lived.”
Loor grunted. “I wouldn’t have lived if a Human didn’t save me.” A thought struck him. “Torf?”
The Singer shook her head. “Bitten in half.”
Loor laid back and rested for a moment, struck both by grief and an uncomfortable thought that came with it. “…I will miss him. But… is good that he met the gods this way. Giving, instead of Taking. He was always…”
“Fiery.” The Singer nodded. “I know. But a good man under it all.”
Loor nodded. “Yes. Anyone else hurt?”
“I think Jooyun’s women promised they would kill him if he ever hunts another Brown One.”
Loor trilled weakly. “Anyone so stupid deserves it.” He made to sit up, but again…
“We have you ‘sedated,’ Loor,” Mister Gupta explained, putting a hand out to gently stop him. “That means we gave you a medicine so your body wants to be calm and sleepy. It will help heal you faster. We brought some food. It’s, uh…not what you’re used to, but it should be good. Eat slowly, until the medicine wears off.”
“Will I be here long?”
“No, not long. A few years ago, you might have been here for, uh… you would say ‘a hand of moons,’ and you would never have been the same again. But our magic gets stronger all the time. Now? A wee—” Gupta paused. “…Uh, two hands of days or so. And you will go home strong and clean and healthy.”
Loor looked to Singer again. She was looking at this Gupta Doctor with barely disguised awe.
He looked embarrassed for some reason. “You’re our first Ten’Gewek patient,” he said. “The Singer here is an honorary nurse for the time being—that’s a healer who takes care of you while your body heals. She knows more about how to look after you than we do, so…”
“They teach me much!” the Singer exclaimed happily.
“It’s a good deal for us, too,” Gupta said. “You’re a very strong nurse.”
He grinned at the pleased hoot they gave in response to his compliment, then gave Loor a kind of nod. “I’ll leave you to rest,” he said. “You’ll see me tomorrow, and I’ll check you to see if you need any more.”
“I thank you,” Loor told him, formally. “Truly. I do not know how I can repay you.”
“That’s all taken care of,” Gupta promised. “So don’t worry about it. Just rest.”
Rest sounded like a good idea, actually. Though Loor wasn’t sure he’d be able to; somehow he felt too curious about things to just fall asleep. Still, he let his head fall back and tried to think as Gupta left.
“…We got it,” the Singer said, approaching his side.
“The Brown One. Yan said to have the claws from one of its paws.”
Loor trilled, then coughed. “The one that squashed me?”
She trilled too. “Of course! Also some of the good leather.”
Brown One leather. Loor tried to imagine that. A Brown One’s hide was thick enough to stop arrows and crack a Werne’s blades. To have proper tanned leather made from such a thing… What a prize! And a necklace of Brown One claws would impress even the coldest women!
“Much bounty on a Brown One…” he mused.
“Yes,” the Singer nodded. “Vemik claimed its sinews. He thinks he can make an even better bawistuh with them.”
“You must be proud of him.”
“Yes,” she smiled. “My Sky-Thinker worked his magic again.”
“We’re lucky to have him,” Loor agreed. His eyes felt heavy. “I think… I think I’ll sleep more, now.”
“I’ll be here,” she promised. “And if I’m not, the nice woman from the ‘art shop’ brought you things.”
“Good…” Loor agreed. “That’s…”
He smiled, and slept.
Date Point: 16y5m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Folctha’s self-driving electric cabs were a blessing, as far as Julian was concerned. They were silent, private… a little bubble of calm where he could shut his eyes and perform a mental reset.
The fact was, he was glad to be going to work. But he also felt guilty about being glad of that. Al and Xiù were…
Well, they were pregnant. That meant a hormonal rollercoaster for both of them, and right now Al was in the last couple of weeks before her due date. Her brain chemistry was doing backflips, and she was suffering through a vicious cycle where she would burst into tears over absolutely anything, get angry at herself for it, then get depressed and start apologizing to everyone. Xiù didn’t have it that bad yet, thank God, but she still had it.
They both hated it. And while Julian would have liked to pretend that he could let it all slide off without bothering him, the fact was that it bothered the hell out of him.
He’d seen them handle the most intense pressure in the galaxy. In his head, they were warriors, easily some of the strongest people he knew. But they were also his partners, and he was meant to be there for them.
In this one instance, however, he couldn’t be. They knew what they were going through, and they drew strength from one another… He didn’t. Couldn’t even. All he could do was stand there blinking in bewilderment.
This morning, it had been toast. Toast! He’d made eggs and bacon with a slice of toast on the side for breakfast like usual, handed Allison hers, and she’d stared at it sadly, muttered something about wanting it plain for a change, so Julian had shrugged, buttered a plain slice, handed her that, and…
Some minutes later she’d explained that no, there was no problem, she was actually very grateful and he was very much loved, which was why she’d been crying but… ‘ugh.’
Xiù had nodded sagely.
So all things considered, it was nice to escape into a world that wasn’t quite so vigorously emotional. His weekly meeting with Ambassador Rockefeller was about perfect.
The Ambassador was a father himself, three times over. He gave Julian a knowing smile when they sat down.
“I know that look,” he said. “Your partners are nearly due, aren’t they?
“Next week, in Al’s case,” Julian agreed. “Everything’s, uh… intense, right now.”
Rockefeller chuckled. “Ohhh yes.” He handed over a small, modest parcel wrapped in silver gift paper. “Here. A little congratulations from my family to yours.”
Julian accepted with a smile. “Thank you. You didn’t have to.”
Rockefeller dismissed that with a shake of his head and a flash of his hand. “Oh, I did. It just wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t. I imagine you’ve had quite a few.”
“You could say that,” Julian agreed. “Hand-me-down baby clothes and furniture from our friends, a big box of baby care supplies from the Mother-Supreme, a Misfit mobile from the Byron Group, some blankets from the Ten’Gewek…”
Rockefeller nodded. “Yes, about the Ten’Gewek. How does it work with you being a member of Yan’s tribe? Does that mean your kids are too?”
“Yeah, they will be!” Julian nodded. “The Singer’s even gonna jump over and perform their Naming rite when they arrive.”
Rockefeller chuckled and sat back comfortably in his chair. “And of course, Miss Chang is legally a Gaoian,” he added. “Meaning that your son, when he’s born, will in some sense be a child of three species. That’s… quite the diplomatic event.” He nodded and raised his hand as Julian started to object. “Yes, I know he’s nothing but human in a technical sense, but from a diplomatic perspective… have you chosen a name for him, yet?”
“Oh. Uh… We’re probably gonna go with Harrison, after my Grampa. Harrison Gan Etsicitty.”
“Chinese. It means ‘daring,’ or ‘adventurous.’ Also, coincidentally, the Gaori word for… uh… chutzpah, or moxy.’”
“And what happens when he’s fifteen years old and the Ten’Gewek want him to take a trial of manhood, as one of their tribe?” Rockefeller asked. “What happens when he passes and takes his Magic-Name? Or what if he decides he wants to join a Clan? This is the sort of thing we need to think about a good long while before it happens.”
Julian scratched behind his ear awkwardly. “…I mean… Yeah. I can see how all that would get complicated.”
“And don’t forget the human element in this,” Rockefeller reminded him. “You’re celebrities, Julian. Your kids are gonna be celebrities too. And there are elements on Earth who are going to feel very uneasy about a human child being raised with alien influences.”
“Bigoted elements,” Julian said.
“Maybe. Well, yes. But I don’t believe in leaving bigotry to fester unanswered. I believe in winning hearts and minds, and on that score we have an opportunity I think.”
Here it came. Julian tried not to sigh. “We’re going on TV again, aren’t we?”
“You are. I can’t fairly ask your partners to, not right now. But ESNN ran a small interest piece on the Ten’Gewek patient in our hospital last month. The image of a Singer wearing scrubs and picking up some modern nursing techniques went viral.”
Julian nodded. Loor and the Singer had gone home less than a week after they arrived, but the consequences for the Ten’Gewek were going to echo for a long time. Folctha General wasn’t a teaching hospital and of course they couldn’t actually put an untrained iron-age alien into a sensitive patient care role, but that hadn’t stopped the Singer.
She and Vemik were perfect for one another. They shared the same unlimited happy curiosity wrapped around a pragmatic core. And of course the Singers had excellent memories. A large part of their Singing, in fact, was mnemonic tricks to record their oral histories and their magic.
She’d gone home with a few dozen chants detailing her (very perceptive) grasp of how human nurses and doctors tended the sick and wounded. Chants she’d no doubt teach to her Dancers, and to other Singers. In a few months, the lessons she’d picked up would have spread to all the tribes.
“You want me to take Ten’Gewek on TV?” he asked.
“At least invite them,” Rockefeller said. “We thought a morning talk show. Something benign, to… well, humanize them. For lack of a better word. But more importantly, to show that they don’t resent us. The old Prime Directive thing keeps rearing its head in politics, lately.”
“Do we need to counter that?” Julian asked. “I mean, it’s not wrong, is it?”
“Not as such. But it’s useful propaganda for extremists like the so-called Alien Protection Army… and from the latest news, the APA may have an even more extreme inner circle who are committed not just to human isolation, but human extinction.”
“That’s…alarming. Why would anyone want that?”
“Oikophobia, perhaps? It’s hard to say, really. What I can say is there’s a powerful thread of utopianism in the more activist circles, and that conversely tends to lead to self-loathing and nihilism. There’s some fascinating reading I have on the subject if you’re so inclined.” Rockefeller shook his head. “There will always be lost souls who grow enamored of an ideal, look at the world, see that it doesn’t and won’t ever live up to that ideal, and so get angry enough to burn it all down. The concern with the APA is that they’re possibly finding enough such people to start getting organized.”
“Organized enough they damn near killed me in rural goddamned Canada,” Julian growled.
“Organized enough that they managed to detonate a truck bomb in a US city, too. So, we agree that the APA are deadly serious, and that we need to push back. The more exposure we can give to the positive relationship between ourselves and the Ten’Gewek, the less ammunition they have.”
Julian nodded. “Alright. All I ask is to put it off until after my daughter arrives. I don’t want to be stuck on Earth when Allison goes into labor.”
“Entirely fair,” Rockefeller agreed. “These things take time to organize anyway.”
He glanced up at his wall clock (an old-fashioned nautical-looking thing) in response to a chime from his phone, and sighed. “…I hate to cut this short, but the Secretary of Agriculture just jumped over from Washington. Do yourself a favor, Julian: Never get involved with the Cabinet. They’re an even bigger headache than Franklinian livestock barons.”
Something about his tone was different this time. “…Sir?”
“Just some friendly advice. You’re too decent of a human being to wrap yourself up in politics at that level.”
“I’ll… take that advice. Thank you.” Julian stood up. “Until next time, then.”
“Best wishes to Allison. I hope it goes smoothly.”
Thus ended a day of work, sort of. There’d be emails and stuff and liaising with Dan Hurt and Hoeff which he’d have to do before the jump comms synchronized with Akyawentuo for the day, but the Akyawentuo Array was waaaay down the priority list compared to the steady flow of passengers, mail, imports, exports and especially data with Earth. Usually they got around to it sometime in the deadest part of the night, so Julian had all day to worry about his paperwork.
Which meant he didn’t have to stress out too much about it. With that thought, Julian grinned, and jogged over to the gym.
After all. He had a responsibility to himself as well.
Date Point: 16y5m4d AV
Harlem, Manhattan, New York City, USA, Earth
Wilhelmina “Bill” Briggs-Davies
There was a different person in the mirror, now. Bill found that of all the ways to entertain herself she had available, the one that kept her enthralled was just standing naked in front of the mirror and staring at her reflection.
The specimen looking back at her kinda-sorta wore her face, and wore all her tattoos and piercings. But Bill herself had never been five-foot-ten. She hadn’t had an eight-pack, nor arms like a fucking bodybuilder.
She was still getting used to what she could do. She could jump onto the roof of her safe house from a standing start. Punch through a brick wall. Pull-ups? As easy as walking! Last week she’d done them for literally hours, and the only thing that stopped her had been hunger. And it wasn’t just strength, either. She was fast, had endless endurance…
There were downsides. She couldn’t swim anymore. She discovered that when she’d broken into the nearby community swimming pool in the middle of the night by casually vaulting the fence. It was only by keeping a calm head and walking along the bottom towards the shallow end that she hadn’t drowned. She’d since smashed a scale underfoot too, and there was never a moment when she didn’t feel like just stuffing her face full of food.
It felt good, though. The way people got out of her way out on the street, when she ventured out for supplies. She looked terrifying and she knew that she was far more fearsome than she looked.
The way people scattered and tried not to piss her off made her smile like a lioness. The world had been shitting on her right from the moment she’d been saddled with a stupid-ass name, and now…
People only respected power, and violence. Oh, sure, they said stupid bullshit about the other stuff they claimed to respect, but the truth was something else. The truth was, the world was just a tapestry of power. Those with it ruled those without, and they made damn sure they kept it all to themselves.
Bill had been a ‘without.’ Now she was a ‘with.’ And she was itching for the chance to prove just how broken that system was. She was a weapon now. She wanted to be a weapon. And weapons weren’t meant to just hang over the fireplace.
Her reflections on her reflection were interrupted by a knock on the door. Tap-tap-tap, pause, tap. She grinned, grabbed her phone, checked the cameras. There was a man outside, dressed forgettably in jeans, a jacket and a New York baseball cap. Nobody else in view of her cameras, and she’d hidden some of them very carefully.
She stomped over, enjoying the way the floor creaked under her strength, yanked the door open and welcomed him in. “‘Bout fucking time.”
“Put some clothes on,” he retorted, evenly. She snorted and went to grab her pants.
“Is it time?” she insisted, once she’d found them. She’d left them in the bathtub. Not like she could use the damn thing now anyway. She didn’t fit.
“I have an opportunity for you. You’re going to like this, I think.”
He handed her a paper envelope. It had one of those new “paperthin” cheap tablets in it, which was in turn filled with material on a massively built, very familiar and annoyingly handsome man.
“…Etsicitty?!” She felt a rictus-grin stretch her cheeks. Fuck, this was, like, the jackpot!
Her handler smiled. “Of course! He is one of the Enemy’s chief propaganda tools and the direct agent of corruption of the Ten’Gewek under his thrall. He, along with a couple of his monkey-toms are going to be in Manhattan on one of those insufferable morning news-talk shows.”
“What about his bitches? Chang and Buehler?”
“Sadly, they’re still under guard on Cimbrean, which is inaccessible to us. It is an entire planet with only a few defined ways in or out, after all. Our cell in Folctha have never once had an opportunity against the Great Father, nor anyone else. They’re too well-watched. And the less said about their available security response resources, the better.”
“Alright…” Bill checked the dates. She’d still have to wait a while. “…Okay, I’m gonna need some more bags and needles and stuff. I’m nearly out.” she indicated her bed, and the IV stand next to it.
The contact shook his head. “Good news on that front: your bloodworks are in. You’re stabilizing now, things should be much less dramatic. No more IV sessions and sedation.”
“But things just got good!”
“And they’re as good as they’re gonna get. The rapid adaptation protocol has limits. You need rest and recovery time now, if you’re to have any hope of surviving the process.”
“I’m adapted just fine.”
“Not enough, Bill. The rapid protocol has pushed your body far beyond its natural limits very, very quickly, and that is going to have serious consequences. We can’t have you break your own bones or drop dead of organ failure in the middle of the hunt, now can we?”
“I remember the speil,” Bill growled.
“Good, because your target’s protection does not have that problem, and has much deeper mercenary experience than you. He’s had ongoing elite training under arguably the best instructors to be found anywhere, and his everyday job revolves around situational awareness and survival. He’s perceptive and he knows how to fight dirty. If you don’t take him out immediately, you’re done. The mission is done. And it’ll be your fault.”
“Arguably worse. He’s been trained by the same people, he’s survived for years in awful places. And, not to put too fine a point on it…he is much faster and stronger than you, even now. We didn’t put you through this on a lark, Bill. We had reason. Keep your distance. One slip-up and he will break you without much effort. And that will be the end of your story.”
Bill had a hard time believing any of that, being honest. But still, she studied the surveillance and decided to keep it out for later. It included some very sneaky footage in supposedly private spaces: telephotos on his house capturing some flashes of the overgrown boyscout gettin’ frisky with his harem; some others in what looked like a private gym shower, soaped up and pawing at himself absent-mindedly like all the big dumb muscle-dudes tended to do. He was, Bill was forced to admit, impressive.
And pretty fuckin’ hot, for a vanilla square. “The fuck is this, blackmail material?”
“That was the hope, but so far he’s not given us much to work with.”
That was a shame. Fuck that boy was a slab of prime goddamned beef, yet they had nothing fuckin’ interesting on him at all?! Lame. Why he settled for his boring bitches and didn’t pimp that disgustingly perfect body of his made no sense to her at all. She read through the dossier and was entirely disappointed. No secret affairs, no shower funtime at the gym. Fuck, the worst he’d done was a get a blowjob outdoors on the lawn from his banana bitch Xiù where no-one (that they knew of) could see them. So fuckin’ “adventurous” of him, goddamned big-dick vanilla white-boy fuckin’ boy scout.
Still, media blitz and wasted pornstar opportunities aside, looks could be deceiving, photos and videos could lie. Lie hard in the right hands, even by accident. He looked like he was tough and strong, but there was no way he was good enough to stand up to her now…
“He on the Cruezzir too?”
“…We don’t believe so.”
Bill pulled the shower video up again and enjoyed watching Julian’s muscles jump and twitch as he shampooed his hair and washed his balls.
The handler shrugged. “Perhaps. It does seem unlikely, given what has so far been revealed of his capabilities…anyway. That’s our intel, and it’s pretty good. Whatever else those fascist friends of his might be doing to him, as far as we can tell he’s just a freak of nature.”
“Sounds like he needs his fuckin’ face smashed in.” Some people were just fuckin’ born with all the privilege and gifts, and then they thought that gave ‘em a right to go stamp their own way of things on everyone else. Colonialist motherfuckers. And some, like the fuckin’ boy scout, were too goddamned dumb to even know they were doing it!
“That is a risk you take for yourself. And it is a risk. If you can…just shoot him. Mission first.”
Bill snorted, “Where’s the fun in that?”
“Your mission is to eliminate him, not live out some power fantasy. However, if you insist, and leaving his alarming physicality aside, you do have one major advantage: accelerated healing. To the best of our knowledge he does not, so if you do manage to hurt him he should stay hurt. Do not let that go to your head. Remember what he did to the last cell that targeted him. He killed one by accident and gave the other permanent brain damage.”
“He had protection then,” Bill pointed out.
“He still does, remember? It’s the same man from the last incident, one Daniel Hoeff. He’s a retired Navy SEAL and JETS operator, and he knows exactly what he’s doing.”
Bill glanced over Hoeff’s case file. He was a short little fucker, but still. Dude was stocky and tough-looking, with dense, knotted muscles stretched across a broad-shouldered frame. Sorta cute actually, like a jacked-up pitbull. Would have been good for a hate fuck back in the day.
“Spec-ops, huh? Seems kinda small for a rambo. He got little man syndrome?”
“I don’t know many people who would say he’s small nowadays. Once again, Bill, do not let your ego get the best of you. A spider could still kill you with a bite, and Hoeff is much deadlier. He’s an expert with both long-range weapons and close quarters combat. Quite frankly he’s got a much bigger body count than you do.”
“What does it matter, if I take down Etsicitty first? Bagging that Hoeff guy an’ the monkeys is a bonus, I guess. And it’s not like I’m gettin’ outta this alive, is it?” She grinned at her contact, who responded with a slight shrug of one shoulder.
“That depends on a great many things.”
“Nah, I’m goin’ down in a blaze of glory. That’s what you said first time we spoke, right?”
“Hmm.” The contact paced slowly around the apartment with his hands behind his back. “The FBI interrogated Alex Hamlin, you know.”
“You should have killed him. He told them about the dead drop.”
Bill just shrugged. “Maybe I shoulda. But I wanted to get outta there quietly, y’know? Without the neighbors calling in shots fired. He didn’t know enough to change anything.”
“He knew about the Cruezzir.”
Bill scowled. She’d been certain Hamlin hadn’t noticed her taking the medicine. Dumbfuck kid was sneakier than she’d thought. “Think it’ll change anything?”
“We don’t know. That’s the problem, Bill. We’re fighting people who are convinced they’re right and we’re evil, and they aren’t stupid. They’re very good at what they do, which is why fuckups like that can ruin everything.”
“Well… whatever. You got another Cruezzir-fuelled killing machine hidden away somewhere?”
“No. And I say that honestly. The drug is very tightly controlled, and the version we were able to obtain cannot be duplicated. It would therefore be…unfortunate…if you were to expire.”
“What, you think you’re gonna rescue me from prison?” Bill scoffed. “This goes one way, pal. I kill Etsicitty and his monkeys and whoever else is nearby, NYPD comes down on my ass like an avenging god, and I see how many I can take down with me. If they take me alive, I’m going away forever. So, they ain’t gonna take me alive.”
He just gave her a faint smile, and said nothing. There wasn’t much that had ever intimidated Bill, especially now…but her handler was definitely one of those things.
“Familiarize yourself with the plan,” he said, and turned to go. “I’ll make sure everything is in place. You just be ready.”
Bill grinned. Her heart was beating in her ears, making her feel so alive it was like she was on fire. She couldn’t wait to get started.
“I already am,” she said.
Date Point: 16y5m1w AV
Folctha General Hospital, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
The funny thing was that, despite being pale and sweaty and red-eyed, and generally at about the least glamorous he’d ever seen her, Julian couldn’t remember ever thinking Allison looked more beautiful. Or maybe it was just the fact that she had his sleeping daughter on her chest.
She was also as high as a couple of moons, having taken basically every drug under the sun.
“I’ve got nothing to prove,” she’d said. “And it hurt like hell last time.”
In the end, it had been an uneventful birth. Difficult for Julian and Xiù, but Al had rode the medication and her own tenacity and if her grip had been tight enough to make Julian’s hand creak… well, he really couldn’t blame her.
Now, in the quiet aftermath, she was halfway asleep herself as she gently ran a finger down Anna’s—and what a perfect name that was—back.
Anna Ayma Belle Etsicitty. Xiù had been in floods when Julian had suggested the middle name, and that had pretty well sealed it. It was a beautiful name for the most beautiful thing Julian had ever seen.
There was a soft swishing sound, and Xiù finally decided that she’d managed to properly detangle Allison’s hair. She set the brush aside, then bent forward and gave Al a kiss on top of the head for good measure.
“Wow…” she breathed.
“I know,” Julian agreed.
Xiù leaned over and rested her head on his shoulder. “…She’s beautiful.”
“You’re a proud mom already, huh?”
She nodded, dreamily, then leaned forward a little to check Allison’s face. “…Yeah, she’s asleep.”
“I can’t blame her.” Julian took Xiù’s hand and squeezed it. “Nervous about your turn?”
“A little. That looked… intense. And Yulna still wants me to go to the Grand Commune for it.” She shook her head ruefully. “I know they’re the most well-equipped natal unit on the planet, but… Gaoian births are a lot easier. Have you seen newborn cubs?” She gesticulated, suggesting something maybe half Anna’s size.
“On the other hand, Gaoian females have much narrower hips.”
“Trust me, it’s not the same ordeal for them.” Xiù sighed and stroked Allison’s hair again. Al turned her head slightly, opened her eyes, gave them both a slight, dreamy smile and then dozed off again.
“I bet,” he admitted.
Xiù’s hand flew to her tummy. “…And you gave me a big baby boy too. Oof.”
“So, all things considered, you’d rather have human assistance.”
“Well, wouldn’t you? I mean, I love the Gao but they have claws. And as for the Ten’Gewek…” Xiù giggled.
“Hey, the Singers are experienced midwifes!” Julian objected loyally.
“And the Mothers at the commune handle dozens of births a day. But no thank you. As much as I like them both, I want somebody of my own species handling this one,” Xiù said firmly. “…And frankly, if Al took that many drugs, I think I’m going to as well. She’s right, I don’t have to prove anything.”
Julian kissed her on the forehead. “You never did, babe.”
“Tell that to my mom.” Xiù smiled fondly. Julian chuckled: he got along okay with Xiù’s parents, who had never really approved of the whole poly thing, and were honestly a little unconsciously racist, in a benign way. There was no malice in them at all, and he’d always felt welcome when he met them, but…
They’d seemed shocked to learn he could, in fact, speak Mandarin. Haltingly, but he was getting better. And Meili Chang, Xiù’s mom, always found excuses for him to reach high places and move heavy objects. Or to mess with his hair, which she’d cluck over like some vaguely dissatisfied hen.
Good lord could she cook, though.
“She thinks you should go without?”
Xiù waved a hand. “She had this thing about it being a transcendental experience and how you should really experience becoming a mother…” she said. “I’ve had transcendental experiences, thanks. They’re not pleasant.”
“That’s kinda the point, isn’t it?”
She laughed. “I guess… It’ll be so good to see them tomorrow though.” It went unspoken that she’d been worried they wouldn’t come. They’d never been unpleasant to Allison, not at all. They were much too universally warm and hospitable for that. But…
Well. They were coming, so they obviously cared and accepted her more than they let on. That was a happy thought.
The sour note for Julian was in knowing that he’d have to call up Rockefeller in the morning and confirm that he was on for that trip to Earth and the TV interview. The dates had all been set in anticipation of Anna’s birth
Still, the mere thought of being parted from the tiny life now slumbering just a few feet away was agonizing.
Of course, he was going to have to do that soon anyway. There was nowhere for partners to sleep on the ward, so he and Xiù were going to have to return home at some point. And then in the morning Amanda was going to want to meet her granddaughter, and Tristan and Ramsey would want to meet their niece, and…
It occurred to him that Anna was very lucky indeed. Two badass moms, two doting older kids, a wealthy loving home, friends in very high places across multiple species…
And a protective caveman for a dad. And a few one-man-army uncles.
As starts in life went, things didn’t get much better. He was going to have to work hard to keep his kids grounded, he thought, but that was a problem for much later. Right now…
His thoughts were interrupted by a visitor who would have been deeply unlikely in anybody else’s hospital room.
The Singer had been politely and gently but firmly thwarted by the hospital and clinics when she’d inquired about learning more of human medicine. They weren’t a training facility, and for a lot of complicated legal reasons they really couldn’t have an untrained, unaccountable nonhuman poking her n— …Uh, inquiring into private healthcare matters. But in this case, well… Anna was a daughter of her tribe. There were Rites.
She let out the cutest, softest hoot Julian had ever heard as she laid eyes on the slumbering mother and baby. A human would have gone “aaaawww!!” …Though a human wouldn’t have flicked their tongue halfway across the room to get a really good sample of the baby’s scent.
“Healthy,” she declared approvingly, and coiled her tail behind her to sit on it. “I watched video of human birth. Looks hard. Your babies have big heads!”
[“Yours are the same size almost, Singer! It’s just you got big ‘ol hips!”]
[“Don’t remind me, please…”] Xiù muttered.
Julian chuckled low. [“We shouldn’t tease her,”] he told the Singer. [“This will be her first baby and, uh…”]
“Will be fine, the Singer said, confidently. Julian wasn’t sure how they’d fallen into the courtesy of speaking each other’s languages, but it made sense really. Everyone got practice. “Not easy, but you’re strong. And I saw human doctors work magic on Loor. The Gods made women for having babies. They didn’t make men for getting squashed by Brown Ones!”
[How is Loor?”] she asked.
“Like he was never hurt! And many women after him, now!”
Julian chuckled and nodded sagely. “Not bad, Loor.”
“I think he would maybe choose an easier way to win women if he could,” the Singer trilled, then stood up, and woke Allison with a gentle touch to the face. It would have seemed like a slightly odd gesture to anyone who didn’t know her species’ ways, but it worked.
Al blinked blearily at her, then woke up properly. “Mmmuh? Oh. Hey.” She squirmed up a little in her bed. Anna gave the faintest of protest sounds, shifted a little, and was still. So far, she was quite calm about the whole life thing. “You came.”
“She is niece to me,” the Singer explained. “Of course I come. I will sing her name to the Gods for you.”
Al sat up a bit more and gave the Singer a hug with her spare arm. Julian smiled at that: Al had been a little skeptical about the Ten’Gewek rites, but she’d never objected. Mostly she treated it all with bemusement.
It was important to Julian, though. He could never explain just what taking the tribe’s Rite of Manhood had changed in him, but… it mattered to him. Anna would grow up and chart her own course, and maybe she’d take a Ten’Gewek magic-name when she was old enough… Or maybe she wouldn’t. But that was for the future. Here and now…
The Singer had a little ritual paint with her, a vivid terracotta red paste. It was basically just iron-rich mud and berry juice, and Julian knew it was harmless. They painted it on their own babies for this too, and a Ten’Gewek newborn was just as delicate and soft as a human newborn.
“May I hold her?”
Allison took a deep breath, and handed Anna over. She looked tiny and fragile, resting in the Singer’s huge, thick-fingered slab of a hand, but the Singer handled her with experience and a soft, reassuring coo as she scooped a liberal smear of paint onto her thumb. She crossed to the window and opened it with her tail so that the sunlight shone in.
“Name her,” she instructed, looking Allison in the eye.
“Her name is Anna.”
The Singer nodded, and Anna shifted slightly but didn’t otherwise react when the Singer applied a bright red thumbprint to both of her cheeks and the middle of her forehead.
The Singer nodded, turned, and raised the baby toward the sun before raising her voice in a chant. [“Gods: Be here. See this. This is Anna, u Jooyun n Awisun. Know her name…”]
It wasn’t a long rite. After all, what mother and baby wanted to be separated for long? Allison, Julian and Xiù sat quietly together and watched the Singer perform it, until finally she turned away from the sun, cooed over Anna one last time and returned her to her mother’s arms.
“Strange gods here,” she declared. “Strange sky, strange sun. But warm. No clouds, no shadow. She’s blessed.”
Julian suspected he’d never forget the look on Allison’s face. Maybe it was the drugs, but there and then in that moment, despite her usual skepticism, it clearly mattered to her. She gave Anna a cuddle, then gave the Singer a smile.
“I leave you to rest,” the Singer promised. She flicked her tail at Julian in a we-need-to-talk gesture that meant exactly the same thing as if she’d beckoned him to follow.
Reluctantly, Julian gave Al a kiss and stroked his daughter’s cheek before following her. He shut the door behind him. “Thanks for doing that,” he said.
“You are Tribe. So she is Tribe,” the Singer replied. “I should thank you. It means a lot you take our ways… um…”
“Seriously?” Julian suggested.
“Yes. You are alien. I know you worship the gods… or, uh, God… in other ways.”
“Being a little bit of two species seems to be a thing with our family.” Julian shrugged. “What’s up, anyway?”
“Trip to Earth soon. I have… a bad feeling. Last time, you were attacked, Yan and Vemik were attacked. And you want me and Vemik to come on Teevee and bring our child…” She glanced toward the room. “Now you know what it is like, to be parent. Think of bringing Anna into danger. If you had bad feeling… would you go?”
Julian took a deep breath. “…I understand,” he agreed. “I really do, especially now. All I can say is, we’re going to have Secret Service protection. That’s men whose whole job is keeping others safe. And they are very, very good at it.”
“Heff said there was an… alert?”
“Yeah. We’ll have a few little extras, too. Some sky-magic, you’ll see… or well, I guess you won’t. Hopefully.”
The Singer trilled, glanced at the door again, then nodded. “…Okay. If you trust these secret men…”
“There’s nobody under any sky anywhere who I’d trust more,” Julian assured her. “Protection is what they do.”
“…Then I will see you on Earth.”
She knuckled off toward the exit, and Julian let himself back into Allison’s room. She was settling down and looked like she might fall asleep again soon.
That was okay. She’d earned a rest. And if Anna woke up and needed a new diaper or whatever… Well, what else were dads for?
He cuddled up to Xiù and basked in the moment for as long as it lasted.
Date Point: 16y5m3w AV
DENEB 320.7° 37-EJ7H2E-SEPTINARY FII-D, Deep Space
Alpha of the Bleeding Brood
This system was unusual, and the Alpha couldn’t figure out why their quarry had chosen it.
Every previous system on its route had been metal-rich and dense in accessible bodies to rapidly mine. With each passing system, the Builders had observed that the Entity responsible for stealing their replicant ship was getting more and more efficient in its mining, claiming an ever-increasing mass of useful minerals in the short time before it moved on.
This time though…
The system was nothing but stars. No fewer than seven of them, in fact: a big and blisteringly active yellow-white giant, orbited by three red dwarfs, the most massive of which had three brown protostar “moons” and the other two of which danced around a common center of gravity.
The radiation levels in the inner system were truly fearsome, and the gravity well was deep enough that the Alpha slowed their approach much further out-system than it usually would have.
There was no sign of any rocky bodies anywhere. Radiation and solar wind had long since ablated away what little hadn’t either been swallowed up by the whirling stars or spat out into the interstellar dark.
The Builders turned away from their scanners and gave the Alpha their usual disinterested stare. Of course, this wasn’t a hunt to them. This was a survey. They probably didn’t appreciate that they were now being hunted.
They’d modified the ship too, during the pursuit. Now, there was armor plating around the warp drive, and a redundant drive housed next to a secondary reactor in what had been cargo space behind the bridge. Short-range magnetometric and gravimetric sensors had been manufactured and installed to provide passive close-range awareness, and the hull was now covered in reactive armor and explosive blisters.
The Alpha had fought hard for every such upgrade. The Builders seemed more interested in learning about the thief and its mining activities than in preparing them for the next clash. Only the Alpha’s argument that the ship needed to remain intact in order to return its valuable data had been persuasive.
<Explanation> +We are being hunted.+
The reply was predictable: <Skepticism> +Explain and prove your hypothesis.+
Where to begin? Over the latter half of its lifetime, the Alpha had hunted an ever-more-intelligent Prey, and was one of the few left alive that had tasted Human flesh. (So long ago! So sublime!)
How could it condense the certainty of well-honed and seasoned instinct into something terse that would get these near-sighted neuters to move with purpose?
<Insight> +A marked change in strategy indicates a change in the Prey’s state of mind. So far, the Prey has run ahead of us, taking easily-acquired resources before fleeing. Now we are in an utterly barren star system, and I see no exit warp trail. It feels confident enough to face us now, and it is an experienced predator itself. We should activate the Brood.+
The Builders looked at each other, and took an agonizing length of time to confer among themselves on their own secure channels.
<Concession> +You may do so. Activate your Brood.+
The Alpha carefully stifled the urge to broadcast the medley of irritation and relief it felt, and instead uploaded its understanding of the situation into the stasis systems before releasing the Brood’s flight crew. They blinked off the momentary disorientation of stasis, understood the situation instantly, and hastened to their stations with gratifying precision and speed.
Thus staffed, every facet of the ship’s performance could be appropriately fine-tuned.
The differences were subtle. Minor redistributions of power to the different weapons based on predictions of what kinds of attack were most likely. Similar adjustments to the shield geometry, a rebalancing of the main thrusters versus the auxiliary thrusters….
Anticipation was the talent that set Hunters apart from their machines. The computers could react infinitely faster, but they could only react, never proact.
In these situations, proactivity was the line between life and death. This was a battle of anticipation, and the Alpha knew that it would be over in a single move.
It therefore moved to thwart its opponent’s predictions. Last time they had approached cautiously, cloaked and stealthy. It had proven ineffective.
This time, it went for the aggressive approach. Sub-light warp maneuvers and aggressive sensor sweeps of the surrounding space would surely light them up, but the Prey could not sneak up on them. With full surplus power to the shields, they could not be crippled by the first strike.
Sure enough, the sensor returns came back loud and strong. And sure enough, the Prey had indeed been coming up on them from behind, as before.
With a savage, gleeful broadcast of triumph, the Alpha activated the master stroke of its attack: the aft-firing plasma cannons.
Twin dense jets of blazing copper gas and molten droplets blasted the sensor contact into dust.
+MEAT TO THE MAW!!!+
The celebration, however, was short-lived. EM sensors took a long time time to cover an entire star system, and finally a new return came back from further away. A much, much larger return.
It arrived only a few milliseconds ahead of—
Nobody in the galaxy used directed energy weapons, with the exception of nuclear-pumped X-ray lasers. Coherent energy beams were an inefficient way to deliver energy on target, the heat debt incurred in generating them was prohibitive, and they generally just didn’t deliver enough energy to truly threaten a starship.
This laser, however, boiled the broodship’s shields and hull away like ice under a blowtorch, and the Alpha had only the barest scrap of time to understand what the Prey had built, low in the photosphere of the system’s largest and hottest star.
Directed energy weapons were inefficient, and no ship could produce enough energy to power them…
…But the focused heat of a white giant star would do it.
Date Point: 16y5m3w AV
DENEB 320.7° 37-EJ7H2E-SEPTINARY FII-D, Deep Space
The broodship popped like a bubble, which it effectively was: a thin sheen of molten metal that no longer had the strength and rigidity to contain tonnes and tonnes of warm, densely compressed gas. The forcefield lens array had worked perfectly, and the decoy had held the Hunters still for just long enough.
There was no kill quite like overkill, after all.
Date Point:16y5m3w AV
High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Planet Gao
Mother-Consort Naydra, Life-Mate of the Great Father
It was good to be home, and the fortress definitely was. Naydra had put quite a lot of herself into renovating their quarters, and had eventually managed to find a balancing point between Daar’s taste for modesty and utilitarianism versus her own preference for things to be a little more cosy and sumptuous.
The compromise was in the color pallette. She’d gone with browns and creams and warm greys. Fur tones. So long as the place was tidy and well organized, then it seemed more minimalist than it really was. So, Naydra got her furniture and her rugs and shelves and touches of luxury, and Daar got to look around and see a clean and apparently simple aesthetic.
In fact, the only really vibrant spot of color was Daar’s current flower arrangement. He tended to prefer simple stems and pots, but the flowers themselves were often a riot of rich blues and yellows.
And soon, probably, reds.
At Naydra’s request, Nofl hadn’t started the therapy in his lab. Instead he’d concocted a series of injections for them to take, with clear instructions about the sequence and timing involved. She wanted to make a date of it. This was a big step forward into an uncertain future for both of them.
She had the kitchens prepare a nice big meal beforehand. Something rich on micronutrients and protein. It was all in stasis containers, as fresh and hot as the moment it came out of the ovens, waiting for him to finish the day’s business.
Daar didn’t keep her waiting long. She heard him coming up the stairs (which were ancient, and creaked under anyone’s weight, especially his) and turned off the stasis fields just in time for him to enter the room to a wall of steaming olfactory bliss.
He shut his eyes and followed his nose for a moment.
“Mmm… Naydi! I swears ‘yer the most romantical woman I’ve ever did know! What did I ever do to deserve you?!”
“How many times do I have to answer that question?” she retorted, and offered him a poached Naxas testicle. He snacked on it happily and chittered. “Anyway, this isn’t just a romantic gesture. Nofl told me to front-load you especially on some nutrition before we take our medicine.”
Daar gave the room a sniff. “Balls, smells like Warhorse had a hand in ‘yer cookin’…not that I’m complaining!” he chittered.
She flicked her ears to herself and took a plate over to the couch. The truth was, she was nervous as hell about what they were about to do. How could she not be? They were talking about mucking around with their own DNA. She’d come to trust Nofl and both the Highmountains and Clan Openpaw were clear that they’d evaluated the risks and found them to be minimal…
But still. There was a sense that they were about to come close to… what was that word? Profanity.
As always, she could never hide a thing from the Great Father. He sniffed at her, keened slightly, and snuggled against her nape. “Nervous, huh?”
“…Honestly, not really. Not ‘fer me, anyhoo. I’m…more worried ‘fer you. This is a very brave thing ‘yer doin’, Naydi.”
“Somebody has to.” She curled up on the couch and sampled a pickled nava grub.
“I know…Naydra. I need to know something.” His tone had gone very formal, which was how she knew he was mentally donning the Crown, and assuming the role of the Great Father.
“…Yes, My Father?”
“How long does Mother-Supreme Yulna have left?”
Naydra sighed and shut her eyes.
“…It’s ovarian cancer. Quite advanced, and metastasized. She didn’t… she stopped going to see her doctor after the war.”
Daar keened in sorrow. “…Right. I should…pay a visit. Unofficially. And, uh…say goodbye.”
“She would appreciate that.”
“Yeah…And you, Naydra. Are you prepared for the consequences?”
Naydra chewed on another grub. She knew what he meant, of course: When a Mother-Supreme stepped down or passed away, there would be an election among the Females to appoint her successor. Yulna had been named by Giymuy, and that tended to carry a lot of weight in the ensuing election… so far she hadn’t named anyone. But she’d dropped hints.
“You mean that I might end up taking over from her, as well as… this?” she asked. “No, I’m not. Absolutely not. This is more than enough work for me, I don’t want to take over on the island! We’d hardly see each other! I’m not even going to run!”
She sighed. “…Not that it matters. If I’m nominated and they vote for me, I’d be shirking my duty if I didn’t do it. But…”
“Naydi, they won’t stop at Mother-Supreme. There’s been rumblin’ ‘bout this ever since I took you as a Life-Mate. They’d want me to create you a Great Mother. An’ with what ‘yer doin’ with me, tonight, ‘fer the future of our species…I’d be wrong not to.”
“Great Mother.” Naydra repeated flatly, weighing that title in her mind. Even Tiritya had only been given it posthumously.
“It’s a big title.”
“Well, I mean. You always say I should work on nuance.”
Naydra chittered despite herself, and reached over to pick up the box Nofl had given them. There was a pair of injectors in there, and the first doses of their gene therapy. She considered it with a feeling in her stomach as though it was equal parts the key to something truly transcendental, and also something as ugly as a pistol, all wrapped in one.
“…Duty has a way of complicating things, doesn’t it?” she asked, rhetorically.
Daar snuggled her tightly. “Yup. You’ve got an iron core to ‘yer soul, Naydi. And an ambition to match. That’s no small part o’ why I love ‘ya.”
He was damn perceptive, sometimes. She gave him a grateful look, then loaded her dose into the injector.
They shared a moment of eye contact, and then she pressed it to her throat and fired. Decisively and quickly, before she could start to really fear it. It stung, briefly.
Even knowing her so well, Daar seemed momentarily taken aback. She chittered, and put the empty vial away.
“…For the Gao,” she said.
Daar took his own injector, loaded it, and nestled it hard against the heavy cords of muscle layered over the large artery in his neck. He fired, she saw him wince faintly, and then he put the injector away and steadied himself with a huge, full-chested breath.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “…For the future.”
Date Point: 16y6m AV
Bryant Park, Manhattan, New York, USA, Earth
Humans. Humans everywhere. Walking so tightly packed that they almost touched, driving cars so close together he had no idea how they didn’t crash. Just as they drove from the jump array to a place called a ‘park,’ Vemik had seen more humans than there were Ten’Gewek in all the world.
They were moving busily through their lives and working their weird magic, and he didn’t understand even one finger of what he was seeing. How they made steel and stone reach higher than Ketta, or the lights, the assault of tastes on the air, the people walking around with hair in bright colours that couldn’t be natural, or with marks on their skin and clothes that moved, or…
There were some angry humans with signs. The car rolled past them, pretty quick, but not quick enough to stop Vemik from reading the signs.
“ET GO HOME!”
“QUARANTINE EARTH AGAIN”
“DECOLONIZE THE TEN’GEWEK”
The last two days had been fun, though! Despite the way his last visit to Earth had gone, Vemik had always wanted to come back, and this time he got to bring the Singer with him… and to his delight she’d brought their son, Vemun.
The boy was being kind of quiet, and clinging to the Singer closely with one arm while hugging his tail for comfort with the other, but Vemik couldn’t really blame him. This place, this ‘New York’ was loud, and busy.
One odd thing was that, among all this steel and stone and glass and people, the humans had set aside a huge space for trees! The noise of the city never went away of course, and the sky was always lit by the glow of their ‘electric’ lights…
But it was nice to see. Even here, in a place where ‘civilization’ was at its most intense, the Humans spent a lot of their valuable space to show proper respect to nature. None of the trees were as big as a Ketta, but the oldest and biggest of them were grand, strong things anyway.
The Singer had approved heartily. They’d both tried their hand at a fun-looking game called ‘baseball,’ which was apparently part of the joke of Baseball’s name. The small skinny children playing it were much better at it, but they had fun nonetheless. Not even Jooyun was as good as them! There was another game called ‘frisbee’ which was about throwing a thin bendy disc and trying to catch it. That was a lot more fun, and Vemik got to show off a little for the kids, and the Singer met a ‘choir’ who wove their voices into something that shimmered in the air…
But sadly, the fun times couldn’t last. There was much to see in New York, including meeting some important people, going to a ‘museum’ which Vemik wanted to explore top to bottom…
The ‘hotel’ was a bit strange and the bed so soft it felt like he would sink right through. It complained loudly when either he or Jooyun sat on it though, so Vemik decided to be nice and pull the top part off and just put it right on the floor. Much better.
Apparently, it was not okay to climb up the side of the hotel, even if it was nicely easy to grip and their room was wonderfully high up. Something about “King Kong,” apparently. There was definitely a joke there at his expense he’d need to squish out of Jooyun later.
Not enough time to see and do everything he wanted. And everyone was friendly!
Except these people with their big writing on very big paper. They made Heff go still and watchful, too.
“Are those the same people who attacked us in ‘Canada’?”
“Prob’ly not. But they think a lot of the same things,” Jooyun decided. He didn’t sound like he liked them at all. “These ones are just regular activists.”
“Means what?” the Singer asked.
“Means they think very strongly that something is wrong and it needs to be fixed. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but people can get blinded when they feel something so strong.”
“Worth watchin’, though,” Heff grunted. “These ones might be all talk an’ no action, but you never know.”
Their car stopped in front of a new kind of building that Vemik hadn’t seen before. It was white, with thick carved stone tree-trunks along the front and stone humans in strange loose clothes high on the walls. It looked very climbable, but somehow he just knew that this building was absolutely not for climbing at all.
“You’ll like this place,” Jooyun declared.
“What is it?”
“The New York Public Library. A place where we keep knowledge and people can read it.”
“Professor tell me about libraries!”
“Uh-huh. Uh, just so you know, you normally keep quiet in these places. And no offense, but you have a loud, deep voice. It carries.”
“I’ll be quiet,” Vemik promised.
As it happened, the moment he set foot inside he knew he’d have no trouble keeping his word. The place felt… sacred. It was a subtle feeling, but there was a hush, and a solemn feeling on the air that the people from the ‘teevee show’ with their cameras and tiny drones couldn’t spoil no matter how closely they watched.
The sacred feeling only really hit though when they had climbed high in the building and entered a space like nothing Vemik had ever seen. The Singer made an awed sound and stopped: Vemik simply gaped.
There were books everywhere. Stacked neatly in rows down the long walls, or dotted here and there on the ornate tables as Humans pored over them under the light from a hand of hands of intricate metal frames. Everywhere around him were beautiful carved wood and stone: the tables, the ceiling, the walls… everything. The craftmanship of them was just…
Vemik knew wood-carving, and stone-working. Or he thought he had. What he was seeing hurt him a little, though: Deep in his chest and belly, he knew that his people would never build something like this. Not because they couldn’t, but because… this was a very Human place. They’d built it not just to store knowledge, but to worship it. It could only be here because there was a great hive of a city outside its walls, because the Humans had settled here hundreds of years ago and never moved on.
That was not the Ten’Gewek way. And as proud as he was of his people and how these incredible people from another world valued them… The Gods had made the People for other things than this. They would never build something to match it.
For a brief moment, that thought made him very, very sad.
But behind that, he realized he now knew more than ever just how much the People needed this friendship. They could not build a place like this, and if he was right they never would… but the Humans already had, and they were happy to share it.
With that thought to lift his mood, he moved towards some of the tall book-stacks almost without thinking, but Jooyun’s hand rested on his shoulder to stop him.
“Careful, fella. You can look at these all you want, but we’re here for a tour and to take some footage. Let’s get that done first, okay? You’ll still get to read some things, though. The librarian’s been planning this for a while.”
“Yeah. Which means…”
“Someone…who takes takes care of a library?”
“Very good!” somebody said. Vemik turned: He’d seen Humans in fancy clothes before, and thought they looked strange but the newcomer seemed oddly right for them. He was short, small, didn’t have much hair, and his glasses were just as big as his smile. Vemik had heard the word ‘dapper’ before, but now he finally knew what it meant. All those layers looked heavy and warm, not good for the forest. And he had no idea what the blossom of bright red cloth on the man’s throat was for…
But, well, he was on Earth, and he hadn’t actually met many Humans. Maybe this was normal, and Jooyun was the weird one. Who knew?
“Mister Etsicitty,” he said warmly, and shook Jooyun’s hand at length. “Sven Schuster, it’s a pleasure to meet you at last. And these are our guests?”
He reserved an extra special smile for Vemun, who was chewing on his tail and giving him the wide-eyed wary look that children of any species kept for meeting a stranger, then shook first the Singer’s hand and then Vemik’s.
“We’ve never had extraterrestrial guests before,” he said.
“We have never been in a place like this before,” the Singer replied. She hiked Vemun a little higher on her hip and held him in place with her tail. “Not just the books and all the knowing there is here but the…”
She paused, then waved a hand at absolutely everything around them as she turned to Jooyun. “Is there a word for all this?” she asked.
“Hmm. Odd word. Don’t know if it’s big enough.”
Shoo-ster (Vemik decided immediately that he’d have trouble fitting ‘Sven’ around his teeth) chuckled. “I agree. It’s a fussy word for grand things, isn’t it?”
“Grand, yes.” The Singer tasted that word, and gave it a soft hoot of approval. “I like ‘Grand.’”
“So many books!” Vemik sighed appreciatively. “More than I could ever read, maybe! But this library is so big and this is just one room! This isn’t all, is it?”
Shoo-ster beamed happily. “Oh, no! We have millions of items in our collection, Sky-Thinker. Not just books but maps, records, newspapers, old documents… They’re kept in stacks in the levels below. This is just a reading room.”
“Really?! Can we see??”
Jooyun chuckled. “Sorry, fella. That’s not for the public, and anyways you and I would be way too big to fit. But don’t worry, the Professor is going to set up a library exchange with Folctha, so you will have access to all the books from places like this.”
“Really?!” Several nearby readers looked up and shot amused glances at them, and Vemik cringed. His excitement had beaten the air of the place after all. “Really?” He whispered.
“Yup. For now though, we’re just here to meet and greet. You can each check out one book to read tonight, okay?”
Vemik decided on an enormous picture book about the plants and animals on this part of Earth. Singer checked one out too, and Jooyun’s was something about ‘code-talkers,’ whatever they were.
Heff got a book about weightlifting.
It made for a quiet night back at the hotel. Once Jooyun explained that they’d have to give the book back, Vemik threw himself into it, and then read the Singer’s for good measure after she was done with it. Hers was a book on healing, full of pictures about how to clean and dress a wound, splint a broken bone and sling an arm. All things that Singers did anyway, but as always the Humans had just… been doing it for longer. They knew a few extra tricks.
The ‘teevee’ show the next day was very, very weird. They were ‘shooting’ in the smaller park in front of the library, after returning their books and dodging the protestors, who were just the beginning of the rush that followed. Everything about the show was hurry-up, be here, stand there, wait before talking, do all the talking in barely a finger of time…
The Humans were wearing ‘makeup’ because apparently, ‘teevee’ cameras could make even a very pretty person look ugly under those lights, which were just much, much too bright. They were careful not to shine them into anyone’s eyes, and it was outside during the day, so it wasn’t too bad really, but still… the heat coming off them reminded Vemik of being back in his forge.
It was all a little confusing. Apparently millions of Humans were watching them ‘live,’ and the weird timing was because like so much the Humans did, everything was on a ‘schedule.’
They were showing some very simple things about village life. Apparently, this would help some of the more nervous Humans like them more. Heff stood off to the side: he was there to protect them, not to be on teevee. but Jooyun and Singer were right there with Vemik, knapping a simple flint blade and preparing a fire. Jooyun had been slightly unhappy with everything until they were doing the ‘dem-on-stray-shun’ for the cameras. He was out of his suit and the hated ‘tie,’ and was now much more comfortable like he was back on Akyawentuo, knife in hand and talking animatedly about why they did every little thing, exactly like they were teaching a child.
Which they were, in fact. Vemun was paying rapt attention to the three of them and trying to knock a flake off his own core. He especially paid attention to Jooyun’s hands. Strange. In some ways, Vemik thought Jooyun might be more like the People than a Human.
There was one of those weird breaks, suddenly, where the host promised the people watching they’d be right back.
“And…we’re off-air. That was brilliant!” She enthused, “Did you three decide to teach Vemun like that?”
“Why waste a good opportunity?” Jooyun replied. “…Hey, it’s a really hot day. Could we get some water, please?”
No sooner had he asked than a bustling somebody pressed a bottle into his hand and then vanished on some other errand.
“–Oh! Uh, thanks!” he called after whoever it was. “…That was fast, dang.”
“Show-biz, Mister Etsicitty! We’ve got, uh, ninety seconds. The next segment will be seven minutes long, not the little teaser segments we’ve been doing. You’ve got your speil ready?”
“Yeah! Then we do some fun up in the trees after that, right?”
“Yes. We put your notes up on cue cards for you–Mark there will hold them up for you. You don’t need to read off them, it’s just to help you remember what you’re talking about, just like we discussed.”
“…Okay. Prompt, not read.”
“Exactly! Don’t worry Julian, you’re a natural at this. Thirty seconds warning, see that? Make-up will be here–” a flock of Humans descended on the two of them and did…something… “And you might want to wash your hands, they’re muddy. There’s a spot on your shirt too, can we fix that?”
“Fifteen seconds,” somebody else called. A figure with a bright orange stick of some kind rubbed the spot off Jooyun’s shirt and then ducked down and aside as quick as he’d appeared.
“Okay, last check–”
Somebody gently guided Vemik, Vemun and the Singer away to one side. Apparently the next bit was for Jooyun only. That suited Vemik just fine: learning to knap a flint properly was hard enough without lots of interruptions, so he was glad to give his child a bit more time to knock on his core and ask questions.
As they stepped aside, however, something… itched at him. Something was wrong, and not in the weird alien strangeness-of-Humans way. As Jooyun and the host started talking to the camera again, Vemik’s instincts were telling him something was up. And considering that he could still hear the chanting from the sign-people over the street noises and traffic…
He looked around. Godshit, there were so many people. None of them looked like they were about to attack, but he just couldn’t set aside the crawling feeling, or the way his crest naturally rose and fluffed out a bit.
The Singer noticed. “…Something wrong?”
As he turned to reply, it finally dawned on Vemik what was bothering him. Something—or rather someone—was missing.
“…Where’s Heff?” he asked.
Date Point: 16y6m AV
Window overlooking Bryant Park, Manhattan, New York City, USA, Earth
Wilhelmina “Bill” Briggs-Davies
Bill’s nest was a good spot alright. She’d been smuggled in at dead-o’-clock in the darkest scrotal recess of the night, and fuck had that been slick. She hadn’t seen her escort’s face, but the fucker knew how to make locks sing and dance, that was for sure. Not just mechanical ones, either.
After that… the waiting game, made a bajillion times worse by the fact that she couldn’t just put her head down and sleep. Who coulda? If all went to plan…
…Fuck. If all went to plan, she was gonna be dead before most people had even had their breakfast. That was… big. In the dark and the quiet, as she waited for the city to get a little more lively, that one thought had really just landed on her, heavily.
She wasn’t scared. Shit, she was actually kinda looking forward to it. Most of the poor fuckin’ sheep out there just kinda drifted unconsciously until the end caught them by surprise, but Bill had known the date and manner of her demise for weeks. She’d had plenty of time to straighten things out. ‘Cuz she sure as shit wasn’t gonna die quietly.
Her one last ‘fuck you’ at everything was gonna be goddamn historic.
So she didn’t sleep. She woulda liked to have a phone with her or something, to pass the time, but no. She had nothing in her pockets, nothing on her to tie her to anyone. Just a rifle, a pistol, her stompiest boots, some makeshift armor sewed into her clothing…
…And way too much time to kill. Too fucking bad her Handler had “sanitized” her safe house and taken away all the evidence. She woulda liked to have that surveillance of her target in the shower, to help her pass the time…
Her encrypted radio finally started making noises just before dawn.
“Party vans are on the road. How’re you doing, birthday girl?”
She keyed her mic. “I’m bored outta my mind, here.”
“Understood. Nobody’s late, the guest of honor has RSVP’d. Don’t spoil the surprise.”
Rather than say she understood, she just clicked it and slumped down next to the window to keep waiting.
Dawn came eventually, along with the usual NYC slice of life, commuters and pedestrians and yellow cabs. The all-dick-and-no-balls squad with their stupid fucking signs and chants showed up half an hour before the vans from CBS, and half an hour after that there came Etsicitty and the monkeys, who vanished into the Schwarzman Building. Good little boy scouts had to return their library books…
There was nothing to do but keep her head down and wait, but she decided to give an update.
“The guest of honor just arrived.”
“Good. Keep me posted.”
The show started on schedule. It was actually kinda hypnotic, watching the ballet going on down there. Turned out there were a lotta people involved in sending out live breakfast TV, and every one of them knew exactly where they had to be, what they had to do.
Fuck, if they turned that energy to something useful they maybe coulda even achieved something. Too late now. Bill stayed low and in the corner of the window so as not to show a humanoid silhouette, and watched until…
Yup. There were Etsicitty and the monkeys, doing their boy scout survival bullshit on the ground. Where they actually making flint knives?
She grabbed the rifle, and keyed her radio.
“The guest’s ready. How we doing?”
“Party vans are in position. They’re going to an advert break in two minutes. Party time is right after they go live again.”
“Awesome.” Fucking fantastic. Millions of people were gonna see Julian’s brains get blown out in high definition, live to the whole world.
The commercial break started, and Bill grinned as she took aim.
It was gonna be a pretty clean shot, in the end. She’d been worried about the trees at the park’s edge, but Etsicitty was standing in clear open ground and she had a perfect line of sight. The only thing spoiling it was the makeup bitches swarming all over his face.
“…Fuck. Kind of a waste to splatter a pretty fuckboy like him…” she muttered, as she tried to get a better angle.
“Don’t get sentimental on me now. Twenty seconds to party time.”
Bill nodded, shifted her weight, and growled to herself as some other dipshit swept in to spot-clean him with a Tide pen. This sniping shit wasn’t as easy as she’d thought it would be.
“Ten seconds. Vans on final approach.”
The vans had two jobs: block the escape routes, and raise hell. No stupid fuckin’ baseball bats and shit this time, this time the APA had sprung for guns. When the party started every poor fucker in the park was gonna be caught in the crossfire. They were about to stack a lot of bodies.
Fuck, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d been this excited. Her heart was pounding so hard it felt like it was knocking on her ribs, and she stared unblinking down the scope with her teeth bared in a clenched, delighted rictus. This was it.
She settled the dot perfectly on Etsicitty’s head, right as the commercial break ended.
Her finger tightened on the trigger, and the party started with a bang.
++END CHAPTER 57.1++
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As well as Sixty-Four Deathworlders…
Graham Lynk Austin Deschner Aaron Hescox Adam Beeman Adam Shields Alex Hargott Andrew Ford Andrew Robinson Andrew Arnor atp Ben Thrussell Bruce Ludington Chris Bausch Chris Candreva damnusername Daniel R. Dar Darryl Knight David Jamison Derek Price Devin Rousso Doules1071HFY Elizabeth Schartok ELLIOTT S RIDDLE Eric Johansson Fabiola Pachecano Fiona Dunlop galrock0 Gavin Smart Ignate Flare Jason Dyer Jim Hamrick John Eisenberg Jon Kristoffer Skarra Lovot Marquis Talmadge Martin Ã˜stervang Matt Demm Matt Matthew Cook Mel B. Mihkel miks Mikee Elliott mudkip201 Myke Harryson Nicholas Enyeart Nicholas Lemp Nick Annunziata NightKhaos Oliver Mernagh Patrick Huizinga Peter Bellaby Richard A Anstett Ryan Cadiz Ryan Samuel Wilson Saph Sintanan Stephane Girardin Stephen Prescott theWorst Tyler Kelloway Woodsie13
…Seventy-four Friendly ETs, 100 Squishy Xenos and 302 magnificently derpy Dizi Rats
“The Deathworlders” is © Philip Richard Johnson, AKA Hambone, Hambone3110 and HamboneHFY. Some rights are reserved: The copyright holder reserves all commercial rights and ownership of this intellectual property. Permission is given for other parties to share, redistribute and copy this work under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0International License.
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The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 57: “Cat And Mouse” pt 2: “The Dark.”