The Deathworlders

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Chapter 57: Cat and Mouse, pt.2: Worlds in the Dark

Date Point: 16y6m AV
The “tank,” the White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth

President Arthur Sartori

Trust.

It was an awful thing, trust. It automatically included the possibility that the trusted individual might betray: In effect, it was a bet that they wouldn’t.

The stakes in today’s particular gamble of trust were high indeed, but the fact was that if the people now shoulder-to-shoulder alongside Sartori in the situation room turned out to be untrustworthy, then the APA wouldn’t be bothering with somebody like Julian Etsicitty: They’d have access to much more important targets.

The sole criterion by which he’d selected the people around him today was simple: That if they were APA, he himself would already have been assassinated while he sat at the Resolute desk.

Nobody else needed to know. And, if the men now springing into action in Manhattan did their jobs right, nobody would ever know.

“They’re live.”

That was Steve Beckett, director of the Secret Service.

“Alright. Now we just have to make it through the next half an hour…”

Beckett grunted. He’d voiced objections to allowing Etsicitty to stand out in an open field like that, and on some of the restrictions on this operation, but from Sartori’s perspective it was quite simple: If Etsicitty and the Ten’Gewek were abruptly bundled away to safety by their personal protection team, then that meant the APA had won.

The same went for if shots were fired, grenades went off, cars crashed or… basically if anything violent was seen to happen at all.

They either made it through today without the general public so much as suspecting what had nearly happened, or the good guys lost. There was no middle ground today.

Not for the first time, Sartori fidgeted with the little USB drive in his pocket. It contained… evidence. Very, very damning evidence about just how high up the APA’s influence went. Evidence that had already utterly incriminated an extremely senior CIA case officer, and above him…

Above him was someone that Sartori had counted as a friend.

The drive’s source —Somebody with the conscience of a saint, a hero’s sense of duty and an adamantium pair of balls—had put themselves and their young family in mortal danger to get the drive into Sartori’s hands. The Secret Service was already providing silent protection to the young fellow, whoever he or she might be. With luck, they’d never notice. That rotten case officer was still on the job, after all: They couldn’t remove him without alerting the network, which had to be dismantled all at once, and brutally.

The long knives would come out within the next few minutes.

“We’re certain about these Whitecrest toys?” he asked, to keep his hands from shaking.

“Champion Thurrsto demonstrated them for me personally. Utterly silent, instantly effective. Apparently his predecessor invented them. Or, well, had the idea, anyway.”

Sartori nodded distractedly. God, the aliens had brought a child with them…

“I have never felt so afraid for anyone,” he confessed.

“We brought the absolute best in on this, sir.”

“And I put them in the line of fire. As bait!” Sartori tried not to gnaw on his fingernails. “What fucking right do I have to do that!?”

“You are the President,” Beckett pointed out. “If not you, then who?”

And that was all that could be said, really. This was a moment when duty demanded doing terrible things to avert something worse. And if things went to plan, then Etsicitty and the aliens would never know anything had happened.

…If.

From across the situation room, one of Beckett’s chosen few gave an update. “…Our insider says the APA vans are nearly there. Looks like they’re timing it for just after the commercial break. Still no sign of Hyde.”

Hyde was the codeword for Briggs-Davies. The woman herself had been a fearsome Jekkyl already: a psychotic, a bomb maker, a cyberterrorist, and a figure of dark notoriety. The idea of her hopped up on gut-generated Cruezzir was honestly terrifying. The last time that had happened the aliens had taken to calling it the “Human Disaster” and a whole planet’s ecosystem had been written off for lost.

And those had been two fundamentally decent people. Thank God Hyde didn’t have proper instruction in how to use her newfound gifts. With luck, they wouldn’t need to send in one of their own supersoldier monsters to counter her.

Though, the time had come to use a monster of a different kind. May God forgive Arthur for what he was about to do.

“Margaret… I think it’s time for that… contingency… we discussed.”

Margaret White gave a curt, somber nod and stood to leave the room. “Yes, Mister President. I’ll see to it,” she said.

She’d be running to succeed him. If Sartori couldn’t trust her, then the war was already an abject defeat. But in that moment, he felt profoundly painful about what he’d just asked his good and trusted friend to do.

But she needed to be ready for the role if she won the election, and there were some secrets that had to be handed down personally.

Beckett looked up. “Sir? Hyde may be in play. Riddick is moving to counter.”

…Sartori need a whiskey.


Date Point: 16y6m AV
Bryant Park, Manhattan, New York, USA, Earth

Agent Thomas Child, Secret Service

Paradoxically, high-vis jackets tended to make the wearer invisible. People didn’t see people in high-vis jackets. They just saw the jacket, and assumed that some important but boring and/or dangerous work was being done by its wearer.

The work Tom and his buddies were doing was definitely not boring, and definitely was both Important and dangerous.

Silently aborting a terrorist attack at the moment it began on the streets of Manhattan at breakfast-time? Oh, sure, merely stopping the terrorists in their tracks was straightforward enough. But doing it silently? So that not one of the dozens of people in and around Bryant Park suspected a damn thing?

…Well, it was possible. Their talking raccoon buddies had some really neat toys, and had sent along a couple of cool customers to demonstrate their proper use. Awesome gear, bitchin’ mohawks, and quiet professionalism. They definitely had the right stuff.

First up: the nerveshock wand. A less-lethal adaptation of nervejam that completely put the taser out of business, it looked and operated basically the same as an old-school Maglite. Point and click, and anyone inside its cone of influence promptly lost all voluntary motor control and dropped to the deck numb and limp and paralyzed. And, unfortunately, shitting themselves.

Trick number two were Stick-n-sleep patches. Slap ‘em on a person’s bare skin and that person passed out like they’d been doing shots for a day straight. “These ones are for Deathworlders,” the huge burly one had warned. “They’re lethal to most anything else.”

And finally, Tom’s personal favorite: knockout gas pellets like something straight off Batman’s utility belt. Odorless, colorless, rapidly decomposed on exposure to oxygen so as to limit the range and not gas everyone in the area, but even more rapidly put anyone who breathed it straight to sleep. And they even came with an antidote, for the sake of the guy using them. Rub the oil on your gums, and you could huff the stuff all the livelong day and at worst you’d get a headache.

Too bad the oil tasted like fermented anchovies. “The best flavor,” the Gaoians had enthused.

For Tom’s money, though, the most effective weapon in his arsenal was an ordinary steel pry bar. All he had to do as the APA’s van full of nasties rolled up was step smartly behind it and thread the pry bar through the door handles as it stopped. The guys inside tried to open the door and he popped a gas pellet through the crack, then darted round the front, flashed the two assholes in the front seat with the nerveshock…

Done. Both men slumped in their seats and started to drool on each other. And crap themselves in a few minutes, but that was the clean-up crew’s problem, not his. The important bit was speed. They couldn’t spend more than a couple seconds on each van.

There were three. This first one had come up 6th Ave and been stopped half a block from the park, held up by some inconvenient road barriers that lent that little bit of extra credence to Tom’s Con-ed jacket and blue hard hat.

The second was coming along W 42nd, where it would be held up next to the library by some sign-waving isolationist protestors. And the third was going to find itself boxed in by a pair of very inconsiderate yellow cabs at the corner of 43rd and 6th.

All of that, though, was the easy part. If Riddick had been right about spotting Hyde, then…

Well, they’d been nervous and a little…uneasy…letting someone outside the Service be so involved in their principal’s security. They’d had discussions over the prior weeks, and at some point there had been some demonstrations. Including some mat time.

Riddick—Hoeff—turned out to be a tough and impressive tank of a man, and had managed to single-handedly humble three of Tom’s fellows at the same time, effortlessly, and with brutal efficiency. He did that despite being at a significant height disadvantage, too.

That had bruised some egos, but he wasn’t done. They next went to the range, where they ran scenarios together and recovered some pride…but then he showed them how to shoot. Which was saying something, since Tom could bullseye a rabbit at three hundred meters with plain ol’ ironsights. They hadn’t needed any more convincing after that. If Hyde was what they believed her to be, then aside from some serious small arms or, well, one of those monsters they keep on Cimbrean—or Julian himself, in another situation—it was hard to imagine anyone better to take her down.

Tom listened to the last muffled thump as some particularly hardy motherfucker in the back of the van finally succumbed to the gas, then turned back to the work he was pretending to do.

“Gas main fixed, send in cleanup,” he reported.

Cleanup, of course, would be a regular police dispersal once the TV segment was over. Which it would be in just a few minutes, once they came back from commercial.

“Hyde is taking aim.” somebody said.

“Acknowledged.” Riddick. He sounded entirely calm.

Tom gritted his teeth. Etsicitty was wearing the latest in personal shield tech, a “speedbump” shield designed to rob an incoming bullet of most of its energy and deflect it, rather than stop it entirely. He’d probably be fine even if Briggs did shoot him… but the mission would be an abject failure. They could not allow the APA to pull off yet another attack on American soil, let alone an assassination on live TV like had happened to poor Steven Lawrence.

And despite everything, their infiltrators in the APA hadn’t been able to dig up Hyde’s whereabouts. This was the only way to lure her out and neutralize her, one way or the other.

Tense seconds followed.

“Bravo neutralized.”

“Charlie neutralized.”

Tom tried not to visibly sigh in relief. The three van-loads of armed men were all dealt with, anyway. Even if the APA won today and got a shot off on Etsicitty, there’d be no casualties.

Somebody grunted heavily on the radio, a pained noise.

Their controller was on it instantly. “SITREP.”

No reply.

“Riddick, status?”

“…Ow…”

Hoeff’s voice had the wheezy, gasping quality of a man who’d just had the wind knocked out of him.

“How you doin’ buddy? You good?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Hyde backhanded me through a fuckin’ wall… She’s on the move. Headed for the roof.”

“Medic, go check on Riddick. Everyone else in pursuit.”

“Naw, don’t bother. Julian’s done way worse… In pursuit, takin’ the west stairs.”

Well, damn. Tom doubted he’d be able to bounce back from something like that. He didn’t dwell on it, though, he was already in motion toward the target building, along with the rest of the agents.

Dispatch had different plans.

“Wonderboy: Move to 39th street, short black building opposite the alleyway. Hershey: 40th street, red brick building with the fire escape next to the hotel. Those are her best ways down off the rooftops.”

Tom was Wonderboy. He changed course and tore down 6th, leaving a few scandalized and gossiping pedestrians in his wake as hung a sharp left at the corner and sprinted the leather off his boots. Sure enough there was a two-storey black building on the north side of the road about halfway down, and behind that he could see a fire escape.

“Jesus! She just jumped down four storeys!” somebody blurted. “Wonderboy, she’s headed your way!”

“Copy,” Tom grunted, fetching up next to a bus and discreetly gripping the familiar weight of his sidearm under his clothes. Somehow, though, he really didn’t feel like that the SIG Sauer P229 was going to do much to somebody who could literally punch a man through a wall.

But he was in position, and dammit she was not getting through him…


Bill Briggs-Davies

The party started with a bang alright: A heavy crunching one as somebody bust the door in behind her. Bill spun, cursing, her shot ruined as she startled violently. She had just enough time to recognize Hoeff as he blitzed in through the wrecked door and aimed something that looked like a fuckin’ Maglite at her, then—

Pain.

Bill had put up with a fuck of a lotta pain in her life. This one felt like a really bad electric shock, like the time she’d been tied to a bed and jolted over and over again with a stun gun. Another “show” for the Internet. She’d been nine years old.

Whatever Hoeff used felt a lot like that: it ripped through her whole body, locked up her muscles, left her numb. The rifle fell from her fingers as she collapsed, too stunned and locked-down to even scream. For an instant, just an instant, she was a scared and confused little girl again, promising she wouldn’t tell, she’d never tell if they’d just please stop hurting her…

Then she was back. And she was MAD.

Hoeff made a satisfying ”Whuff!!” noise as her lashing fist caught him unexpectedly in the chest and flung him through the air. He smashed through a wall which crumpled around him, depositing him in the next room in a shower of drywall and wood splinters.

Bill lurched to her feet. He was writhing as he tried to draw breath, and he’d dropped his flashlight gizmo. She grabbed it. Mission was a bust, no way she had time to pop Etsicitty now.

She ran.

Roof access. Stairs. Pounding feet, shouting voices. Up. Door at the top, not locked, fuck opening it. Through.

CRUNCH.

Ways down? Two, she remembered. Probably watched. Fire escape down the closer one, too slow again. Had to go for the back way.

She ran to the edge of the roof and stopped. Too far down to jump, even for her. Fire escape? Too slow. Other side of the roof was a taller building, but there was a ledge on the back side. She scrambled over a bank of air conditioning units toward it, saw at the last second that she could go down instead of up…

She jumped down, rolled hard on the concrete. Scared the shit outta some pigeons. Next ledge was four storeys down, but nowhere else to go at this point. She was committed, and it was a long fuckin’ way down if she missed her step.

Shouting behind her. She ignored it, vaulted over the edge, held on, dropped.

“Fuuuuu-!!!”

She hit hard, but rolled through it again. Her ankle went click in a painful way and she lay on the little strip of concrete for a second with the wind knocked out of her.

“Bill. Report!” Her handler had finally figured out something was wrong.

She groaned and rolled over. “We’re rumbled.” The ankle already felt better. Thank fuck for the Cruezzir.

“Are they chasing you?”

“They’re trying!”

“Can you escape?”

“I’m trying!”

“You remember the rendezvous?”

“You’d better fuckin’ be there!”

Another drop down. Six storeys, this time. Good way to break the fuck out of her legs or maybe splatter her skull all over the yard… but there was a drainpipe. She shimmied along the ledge. She could hear shouting bouncing off the walls around her. No idea if any of them could see her, maybe they’d just blow her brains out with a rifle…

She reached the drainpipe and skidded down it, skinning and cutting her fingers as she tried to control her descent. Somehow, it didn’t fall apart on her until she was only two storeys up.

She handled that landing like a goddamn cat, on her feet, hands out, stood there for a moment as surprised by herself as she was glad to be back on solid ground. Her ankle didn’t like it much, but the fucking thing could shut up.

The back of the black building was easy enough. She ran at it, then up it, kicked her foot down the wall to gain some height, stretched up with one hand to grab the top and hauled herself over.

She dropped down off the roof to the shock of some nearby New Yorkers, who got the fuck outta her way. All except for a Con-Ed worker, who was suddenly advancing on her with a pistol drawn, yelling for her to stand down.

Maybe it was the adrenaline, but even he seemed to be moving slow as fuck. She decided to try Hoeff’s flashlight gizmo. Aimed it at him.

The guy might be moving slow, but his trigger finger didn’t, and the makeshift armor under her jacket turned out to be not that great. Getting shot hurt, and the flashlight thingy didn’t work at all.

Fuck it. She launched herself at the dumbass with the gun. He got a second shot off that she didn’t even feel, and then she palmed his head and smashed it good and hard against the side of a bus. There was a kinda wet splash, sticky stuff everywhere. A lot of nearby folks screamed and started running away.

Fuck yeah. Bill could get used to this shit.

No time to have fun, though. Save that for later, if she got away. She saw the alleyway and sprinted toward it. There was a chain-link fence over the end, but whatever: She jumped clean over it.

In mid-air, something happened to her left hand. A kind of hard tug, and after that the after-echoes of a powerful gun shot.

She whipped her head around to look back and there was Hoeff, shirt ripped up and his left arm holding up a fuckin’ monster of a pistol. He wasn’t charging after her, and she could guess why: She might be able to leap over roadworks and a fence, but he looked like he was barely standing. Fucker must have sprinted the whole way over to catch up.

She ducked as he fired again. Brick dust showered on her, got in her hair and her mouth. She darted back into the alleyway, around the corner and tried to wipe the dust out of her eyes…

…Her fucking hand was missing.

Her arm just… ended, in an ugly mash of meat with two sharp bits of bone sticking out. In a kind of distracted way she noticed that it wasn’t actually bleeding all that much, and it didn’t even really hurt. Was that the Cruezzir?

…Fuck, she hoped Cruezzir meant it’d grow back.

Okay, fuck subtlety. The time had come to put a long way between her and whatever else these bastards had. She turned and crashed through the back door of some place that turned out to be a restaurant. A couple of cooks gave her a shocked look as she vaulted the counter, then breakfast diners out in the front shrieked and scattered as she plowed through and out the plate glass window in the front, cradling her new stump to her belly.

She skidded on her butt over the hood of a taxi, jinked in front of a honking pickup, into another alleyway and toward the waiting black car with its open back door. Crashed onto the back seat, hauled the door shut with her good—only—hand and gave her handler a wild look in the mirror.

He pulled out into traffic like it was just another weekday morning. “Get your head down.”

“Wh-?”

“Head. Down.”.

Bill did as he said and laid across the seat. “Dude, my hand–!”

“Cover yourself.”

“But–!”

“Your hand’s not gonna fucking matter if you’re spotted, cover yourself!”

There was a black tarp over the seat, the same color as the upholstery. Bill dragged it down on top of herself with a groan and lay there gasping.

“…You bleeding?” the handler asked after a second.

Bill whimpered as she inspected the wreckage where he limb ended. “…Not as much as I thought,” she admitted. Part of her was freaking the fuck out, but the rest was weirdly ice calm.

“Good. The Cruezzir should deal with that. We have a bigger problem.”

“Is this gonna grow back?”

“No. But you’re not gonna die, and we can deal with that later.” The Handler’s driving was getting on Bill’s nerves. She would have been flooring it away from the scene like a bat out of hell, but the fucker even stopped for a red light.

“I think I got shot, too.”

“You think.” The Handler grunted. “Better check.”

Bill groaned and tried to inspect herself. As it turned out, the steel plate in her jacket had stopped the bullet. She found a neat hole through her upper arm, clean through the meat. She hadn’t even felt that one. She also found a number of cuts and scratches, all of which were healing way faster than any other she’d had in her life. She wasn’t quite Wolverine, but goddamn if the Cruezzir wasn’t working.

“…Except for the hand, I think I’m okay,” she decided.

“Good.”

“I mean, the hand is kinda a big deal,” Bill repeated. She felt like he wasn’t taking that point seriously enough.

“What do you want me to do about it right now?” He clicked the indicator on and smoothly turned right. “What can I do? Look, we were clearly set up here. They were waiting for us. All three of the trucks went silent and then you were attacked. We must have a seriously high-level infiltrator, so for all I know there’s a drone tailing us even as we speak and we’re about to be intercepted at any second. If that happens, I guess you’ll get your hand seen to.”

Silence fell. After a minute or two, Bill inspected her wounds again. They were definitely healing.

“…What happens next?” she asked.

“…Assuming we aren’t being followed,” the Handler added, “We have some planning to do. But you let me worry about that.”

He turned the radio on, and that seemed to be the end of the conversation. Bill shut her eyes, laid her head back, and tried to just… cope.

But failure was a damn difficult thing to cope with. In the end, exhaustion and pain and the adrenaline crash and the fact she’d been awake all night combined to lull her into a doze.

She knew one thing, though. She was going to get her revenge.


Date Point: 16y6m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Daar, Great Father of the Gao

Daar felt like he could stare into the fire for days.

It was as if…as if he’d been blind his whole life. He’d finally noticed the change one day while staring at something funny shimmering against the horizon up at High Mountain fortress. It took him the longest time to figger it out, but once he did, he was so excited that he’d been vibrating with glee the whole time they held their quarterly rationing board—most were lifted! He held it together despite that he’d been just itchin’ to finish up so he could go chase that shimmering, strange newness that he was seeing so far away…and then, down in the field…and…

He charged outside to see and it hit him like a wall of bricks to the face. It was as if the world had completely changed. He paused, awe-struck at the vastness of it all. Never had he felt so small! Never had he felt so humbled. Or so blessed, to share this with his love. His Naydi.

Gods but he loved her!

He’d decided to hold court on Cimbrean that week, which was convenient for a lotta reasons, defense planning being one of the most biggest, but another was that it gave him and Naydi ready access to people who could help them understand what the hell they were seeing.

Preed really was the most graciousest host, balls. He didn’t complain or nothin’, just smiled and let Daar crash with them. Every waking moment that Daar wasn’t attending to matters of state, or doing liaison, or visiting people back on Gao, or…any of the billion things he did on any given day, he was either cuddled up with Naydi or play-tusslin’ with Leemu and Gorku.

They talked too, a lot. And so far, Daar was progressing mostly like Gorku did. It was a slow and gradual thing, maybe even slower than Gorku, but once he saw it, he couldn’t ever unsee it. Everything was slowly different. Every single thing. There wasn’t a balls-damned element in his daily life that weren’t enriched by red, and it was growing stronger every day. Holy balls, he just din’t have the words for it. Not yet, anyway.

Naydra had surprised them all by having her new color vision come in fast. Leemu’s had taken a couple of weeks: Naydra’s, a couple of days. Daar and Gorku were the slowest so far. Mighta been a degree thing. Which, Daar’d heard that Human males tended to have color-blindness more often than females, so maybe there was something similar going on?

Well, Daar was a lotta things, but a geneticist weren’t one of ‘em.

It mighta been worse too, ‘cuz Gorku was a very rare fifth degree. Talk about the most bestest of bad luck! By the Female’s reckoning, there were maybe only a few thousand or so fifth degrees possibly alive, and that was before the upcoming census, the first since the war. That Gorku would be one of those precious few, and have his prospects jus’ stomped on by bad developmental luck, and then find himself tied up in this drama…

…Actually, maybe that was why he liked Gorku so much. A lot of fifth degree males went way off the rails when they were young. Bad developmental luck was common, but so were bad temperament, bad injuries, way too much aggression so they’d end up gettin’ kilt long before they’d ever had a chance to breed…

Well, Gorku’d be one of the first fully restored gaoians, so that hadta be pretty good for him! He was still young, not even twenty-one, so he had plenty o’ opportunity to catch up if he wanted. He was workin’ at it, too! And bringin’ not-so-lil’ Leemu along! Daar couldn’t help but like ‘em.

Though that was gettin’ ahead of himself, cuz they only had a sample size of four and one of ‘em—himself—was a totally unique case. There hadn’t never been a recorded case of a sixth-degree male since the Gao learned ‘bout genetics, ‘cept for a couple o’ really well-preserved ancient Stoneback monks. In hunnerds o’ years o’ routine genetic assay for every single cub, they ain’t never seen even one sixth degree, an’ it was to the point they’d thought it was prob’ly impossible now…and then Daar was born. He din’t find out about any o’ that until later, but…well. He always knew something was different ‘bout him. Way different.

It was a good reminder that, for all Daar’s singular gifts, his luck might have been the bestest of them all. That, and the discipline his den Mothers beat into him from a young age, which the Stoneback Fathers then took way, way further than any Mother would ever dare. It sucked at the time, but balls: without that he wouldn’t be a Great Father. Wouldn’t be Daar.

He’d see if he could pay it forward with Gorku. The young Associate had almost everything he needed. Maybe with a little bit of mentoring, and some firm but not unkind encouragement…

Whatever. That was scheming for later. Daar considered that he musta been super happy and content since his mind din’t usually wander that far afield, and that was okay. Been a while since he felt so relaxed! He had Naydi, he had new friends on a weird new adventure with him, he had his weights and his sparring with Champions and HEAT operators and big caveman friends, and everything with the Gao was going super nice right now…

Well, there was some stuff goin’ on with the Humans that might end up not so nice for people Daar cared about. He was confident it’d be taken care of, though; Daar trusted ‘em to do it right, and Champion Thurrsto had personally shared some Gaoian tricks ta’ make sure.

He knew it’d end up okay in the end. And Red was happening in his life! And it was making absolutely everything better! Even the colors he’d always been able to see were better! Greens were…more alive. Blues sometimes became so intense they were almost difficult to look at. Yellows had colors that were actually called orange and some of them blended into something called cream which was so much more…more…

It wasn’t just the vision, either. Everything was getting sharper, more intense. It probably wasn’t to nearly the same degree that poor Leemu had experienced, but he could feel himself sorta…hell, climbing up through the gears, maybe? He’d always had a sharp mind, even next to Humans, but now he was finding himself a bit quicker on the uptake, a bit more eager to obsess over a topic and learn, just like he did when he was young and preparing to Challenge the Champion. Recovery from exercise was just a bit faster, too. Maybe there were improvements in other things too, maybe it was just the general feeling of intensity growing inside him, but he swore that he was just that little bit more attuned to the world around him, just that little bit better. That little bit was a little bit more, every single day.

And he smelled better, too! Sharper, stronger, manlier even! Well, Naydi said so, anyway, and if anyone was an expert on what a Daar should smell like, it was his Naydi.

Anyway. All of those were things he thought about while he stared at the fire, arms and neck curled up around his Naydi, with Leemu and Gorku crushed affectionately under his strength.

The log split open, revealing the glowing embers within. They were such a fantastic shade of what he now knew was ‘orange,’ and it only grew prettier every day. Daar keened and pulled everyone in nice and close for a smashingly tight snuggle. There were some brief chittering protests from the three, but ain’t nobody don’t like cuddles. They sighed happily in unison.

Preed sat in his chair, doing something with a big bowl of freshly-picked garden veggies. They smelled nice! Clean, crisp, kinda sweet! They also sounded like they might be crunchy, and they had a really nice bright green color, too. Preed looked up, gave them one of his affectionate smiles, and stoked another log on the fire.

“I find myself almost jealous, watching you four discover all of this.”

“Maybe we should figure out how to sensitize the Human nose next,” Naydra suggested playfully. She was lying on her back, counting embers as they drifted upward.

“If my nose were any more sensitive, I don’t know how I’d tolerate Gorku after he’s been at his weights…”

“Or me!” Daar said playfully.

“Oh… Fssh.” Naydra made a dismissive sound. “You’d enjoy so much more!”

“‘Specially your own cooking!” Gorku agreed, loyally.

“Gorku, one of these days you’ll figure out that I was never a great cook,” Preed told him. “I was just the best cook on the station.”

“Wassat word Champ Gyotin said? Heresy!”

“Simple home cooking and stews, that’s all,” Preet said as he sat down. “Do you know how long it took me to get the noodles right? I could barely remember how my mother used to do them…”

“Well…I like it.” Leemu was just as loyal as Gorku! “And, uh, My Father…I’m having trouble breathing.”

“…Oh! Sarry.” Daar let go. A little. It was enough for the two to squirm into a more comfortable position but he weren’t gonna let ‘em up just yet. He had more snuggle time to catch up on!

“Is it me, or does red have a scent in my head?” Naydra asked, dreamily. “Not just the one I can smell right now, but whenever I think of it, I feel other things, too. It’s all connected now.”

Daar could definitely sympathize with that. He snuffled at her neck and sighed happily, then rolled everyone over to enjoy a different view.

“Red has always made me think of smoke, and spice, and warm things,” Preed agreed.

“Yeah… but other stuff too.”

“Passion? Rage? Life? Those are other associations humans have with it. Where I grew up, Red is Sunday, the day of Surya so it’s associated with the sun… in China, red is good luck. It also has political connections! In America it means the Republican party, elsewhere it means socialism, or communism, in Thailand it’s the colour of pro-democracy…”

“I dunno if I can load all that into it,” Daar mused. “I’d, uh…mebbe not wanna load it down with how Humans think ‘bout it, yijao?” That was a nice sharp clear thought, which was always nice when he was wallowin’ in sensation. Kinda literally, just then.

“I have some books on colour theory, My Father. You can borrow them if you want.”

“Hmm! I might jus’ take ‘ya up on that, lil’ Brother! Still…meebe we should explore all this on our own. An’ I think you been doin’ that already, ain’t’cha?!”

“I’ve tried.”

Daar decided he needed to encourage the little silverfur, and he did it the only way he knew: smother him in affection. Which was admittedly more of a brownie thing…but whatever.

“Naw! I seen ‘yer paintings, and they’re pretty damn good I think!”

“Hnnngh! My Fath–hrk!!”

“He can’t paint if you squish him, bumpkin…” Naydra said, softly.

“But I ain’t hardly squeezin’ much! We just gotta git him stronger!” Daar felt his tail wag up a storm.

“I think his eyeballs might pop out, my love.” Naydi was trying not to chitter, he could tell.

“Oh…fiiiine.” He let Leemu up, who gasped a little overdramatically. Daar followed up with a fond nip on the ear. “Don’t unnersell ‘yerself, y’hear?”

He was about to pounce on Gorku and spread the love a little more, when Brother Tiyun showed up pretty much from nowhere, like he always did. Sneaky silverfur, he was. He may have been an off-breed Brother of Highmountain but he had to have some Whitecrest in him.

“I have your evening briefing, My Father…”

Daar sighed, rolled over, kicked through his legs and kipped himself up. Life didn’t stop for new colours.

“Alright,” he grumbled. “In private.”

“The Fourth Claw material is very brief tonight, My Father.”

“Oh! Well, less jus’ bubble up, then.”

Daar flowed over to his Bag of Many Things and grabbed his personal privacy button. It made a nice little opaque and silent space just big enough to fit him and an advisor or two; super useful for briefings on the move. He pressed it and enjoyed the very satisfying clunk it made, then shook his head at the sudden very heavy silence.

“Alright, what’s first?” he asked.

Tiyun flicked an ear and ducked in a slight apology. “An update on that matter with Mister Etsicitty. The game went off well. No public notice of anything untoward.”

“Oh? That’s good t’hear. And the rest…?”

“In motion, My Father. From what I can tell, the AEC nations will shortly be purged of the APA’s influence.”

“…Good. I’m glad. Very glad. An’ nothin’ at all outta shape ‘fer my friends?”

“Nothing that we know of, My Father.”

Daar duck-nodded. “Good news! What else?”

“That’s it for the sensitive items. I did say it would be brief, My Father.”

“…Fair ‘nuff!” Daar clicked his Button again, and was again put slightly out of sorts by the sudden presence of background…everything.

“Okay. What else…?”

Tiyun briefed him as they meandered into Leemu’s studio, where his sleek lil’ aide sniffed interestedly at one of Leemu’s paintings. Even as Daar had used to see them they’d been pretty good he thought. Now, of course, they were so much more.

Mostly, it was a bunch of trade deals and Clan actions that the Conclave had somehow (Daar wasn’t sure how) decided needed the Great Father’s approval. He’d made a point of diligently respecting their advice, ‘less it was something completely fur-brained.

It usually wasn’t. Well, sometimes the Sea Clans got a little testy…but they’d always been that way. As long as they weren’t warring over territory out in the archipelagos…

“That concludes my briefing, My Father. Which puts us slightly ahead of schedule, for once. And we need to be, today…”

There was one last game afoot, and it would make getting home difficult, so Daar duck-nodded. “Right, yeah. I s’pose we’d better git our tails in motion, then.”

“Yes, My Father. We’ll want to be back inside Gaoian territory within the hour.”

Leemu sniffed the air and his ears shifted suspiciously as Daar and Tiyun returned to the living room. “Uh…is something wrong? My Father?”

He was a courteous lil’ tail, which Daar always appreciated even if he was still a bit manically nervous. Daar pulled him into a fond and reassuring one-armed hug.

“Ain’t nothin’ ‘ya should worry ‘yer handsome lil’ head over, Leemu. So don’t, ‘kay?”

“…Yes, My Father.”

“Oh, don’t gimme that! If it were something ‘ya needed ‘ta know, I’d tell ‘ya. Now I gotta git goin’ ‘cuz a Great Father’s games never stop…” Daar chitter-sighed resignedly. “An’ believe me, ‘yer better off not knowin’ this kinda shit.”

“Okay.” Leemu seemed happier with that explanation. “I trust you, My Father.”

“An’ I trust you to do the right thing. Anyway! I hear tell there’s a pretty lil’ number over at Ninja Taco who’s taken a shine to ‘ya…”

Daar had to admit, the look of sudden nerves and maybe a bit of fear that flashed across Leemu’s expressions was…well, he would be lyin’ to himself if he claimed he didn’t enjoy it. He…mighta pulled the lil’ Brother in a bit tighter too, jus’ for fun…

“Uh…My f-f-father, I can explain–!”

And that was enough; Daar never let people dangle too long, that would be mean! “Naw! Brother, I’m the most happiest ‘fer ‘ya! She an’ I, uh…well. Les’ just say I remind her way too much o’ some really bad memories from the war.”

Everyone knew what that meant, and both Leemu and Gorku keened in sympathy for her.

“Did…she git her justice?” Gorku was a purebred ‘Back an’ he had exactly the right attitude. Daar was decided; he needed to invest in him.

“Yes. I gave it personally,” Daar growled. “But she don’t know that. I din’t wanna, uh…take advantage. Or ruin the fun.”

“I won’t tell her,” Leemu swore. Daar needed to invest in him, too. Maybe Starmind might be a good fit…

“I’d ‘preciate that a whole bunch, but you can tell her someday, if it’ll help. Anyhoo. Mostly it were a sorta game ‘tween us, yijao? And I’m seriously happy ‘fer ‘ya both. Now go make a cub! When ‘yer ready I’ll send over a nice blanket or somethin’!”

Naydra uncoiled gracefully to her feet, gave Leemu and Gorku affectionate cheek-nips in farewell, shook Preed’s hand, and followed him out.

“It went well,” she commented once they were outside. They both knew she wasn’t talking about their visit and ‘color therapy’ session.

“Yeah.”

She snuggled up to his arm. “I’m glad.”

“We do have a request of your time from the Mother-Supreme, My Father,” Tiyun interjected. “And there shouldn’t be any transit problems from the Island portal…”

Daar whined softly. “I know. I’d better go. Both of us, ‘specially you Naydi.” Daar gave her a significant look. She seemed resigned to what this meeting was likely to mean.

“…Yes,” she agreed. “We’d better.”

Duty called.


Date Point: 16y6m AV
Bryant Park, Manhattan, New York, USA, Earth

Julian Etsicitty

“There you are!”

The show was over and apart from some nearby sirens at one point it had been pretty uneventful. Vemik was still up the tree, showing off for a group of kids who had turned up once the cameras were gone, and the Singer was talking with some bead-wearing crystal-healing hippy type women who’d seemingly appeared out of nowhere…

Julian had done some shirtless tree-monkeying himself, and there would definitely be some B-roll footage of that in the news cycle. As much as he hated to admit it, there was a certain utility to him attracting attention to the cause, so if that meant monkey fun in the trees and jumping around like a flea, then well…he’d do that, and he’d have enjoyed himself anyway.

Still. He’d wondered where Hoeff wandered off to. Now the smaller man was back, and Julian had a sneaky suspicion he’d got in some trouble. He was wearing a different shirt and jacket for a start, and his hair wasn’t as clean-cut as it had been. Little details, but they told a story.

“…You change your clothes?”

“It’s a hot day.”

Julian quirked an eyebrow. “Riight. That’s totally the reason.”

“…Had to run a few blocks down. There was a shooting.”

“Shit! Is everyone okay?”

Hoeff shook his head sadly. “Cops are dealing with it. Just the Big Apple, I guess.”

…Hoeff was lying, or at least keeping his own counsel. Julian had become really good at reading people over the years, and Hoeff wasn’t exactly a closed book in the first place.

Now wasn’t the time or the place to drag the truth outta him, though goddammit he would one way or another, when the time was right. So Julian let his skeptical expression do the talking for him and changed subject. “Alright, well… I think I’m about done with being in the public eye for one day. I wanna get back to Anna and everyone.”

“Can’t blame you. Ride’ll be ready in a few minutes, they just gotta disperse the crowd.”

The USSS guys sure did have a solemn, grim look to them. It might’ve been hard to spot past their usual professional poker faces, but Julian could tell. Something had gone wrong.

…Well, okay. Julian decided to wrap things up. He went back to the reporter and had a few last words. Then he spent some time with the friendly crowd, did some autographs and selfies with the adults, talked shop for a bit with a couple of big like-minded fellas, and even indulged in some playful flexing for the kids. They had the best questions too, and would do things like point at his foot (“See!? It’s real!”) or make guilelessly adorable observations (“You’re way bigger than my dad and he’s super fat!”) while their parents looked on, embarrassed. Singer and Vemik had a big crowd of fans too, which of course was the point of all this. Many selfies were taken, Singer and Vemik “autographed” many things.

Then they got to playing with the more adventurous folk. Honestly, the whole thing was pretty fun! He hadn’t expected that, but just the opportunity to ape about with Vemik and generally carouse was always welcome. That it was in New York City of all things, in a small park built over a vault with literally millions of books in it…well, Vemik thought that was neat as heck.

Eventually, his security detail finished whatever big secret thing it was they were doing, and were ready (and definitely eager) to go. Julian went to fetch his shirt, pulled it back on, said his goodbyes to the crowd and yelled up at Vemik to do the same, much to the disappointment of the kids he’d brought up in the trees with him. That last part was probably not so much fun for their adventurous parents down below, who were definitely worrying their heads off even if they were smiling and all that. Julian understood that better, now.

Vemik gave the kids an exciting ride back to ground level, they all said their last goodbyes and… well, thus ended the trip. They bustled back into the suburban and headed out.

There were a couple of police vans parked half a block south of the park, and a bunch of dudes in black clothing with black-green-and-blue bandanas were being loaded into them straight off the back of a U-Haul truck, firmly handcuffed despite moving like they were drunk.

“…Some’a the protestors got too rowdy or something?”

“Somethin’ like that,” Hoeff grunted.

“Hoeff, buddy…” Julian shot his friend a look. Hoeff’s reply was a sorry, sad sort of facial half-shrug, just the faintest tilt of his head and a shifty quirk of his eyebrow. The message was clear: ‘I can’t talk about it; I’m sorry.’

Well…Julian knew what that meant. He sighed internally, and did his very best to put on his usual jockular attitude for his most favoritest cavemonkey.

“Well, hey! I’m glad you took care of it. I wouldn’t trust anyone else for the job.”

Some of Hoeff’s usual attitude returned. “Aww! You flatterer! I’ll have you know I’m taken!”

Julian grinned, and pulled Hoeff across the seat and into a crushing bearhug. “Ah, don’t worry little fella, I’ll be gentle…”

“Hnnngh, bro! While I’m flattered you wanna boldly shove ‘yer fuckin’ baseball bat where no man has shoved before…”

“Never?” Julian tightened his hug into more of a friendly smash. “Uh-huh. You’re an ex Navy SEAL, I find that hard to believe…”

“Hrrrf! …Buddy, a man’s gotta breathe–!” Julian relented a bit and Hoeff gasped for air. “…Christ, huge fuckin’ weirdo. Anyway. You’re too late, I belong to Claire. No dice, dude.”

“So?” Vemik trilled quietly. “We don’t let that stop us!”

“Diff’rent rules for diff’rent folks, my friend.”

“Also, Claire would have his balls,” Julian added, and let Hoeff escape his grasp.

“God, I swear the combat arms weirdness is rubbing off on you, Playboy…”

The rest of the drive was mostly uneventful, until they reached their destination. NYC’s jump array was under Grand Central, deeper than any of the metro lines. They’d gone on a subway ride the night before to explore the night life—no way in hell would he let the cavemonkeys come to NYC without seeing Times Square all lit up—and they had been perhaps Vemik’s most absolute favorite part of the entire trip.

The subway, not the lights. He’d enjoyed the lights well enough, but he’d loved the trains. He’d groaned audibly when told he wouldn’t get to ride again, but there were limits to Julian’s patience; just getting him through the turnstiles was a diplomatic (and frankly, physical) challenge even worse than dealing with the sheep-heiress back on Cimbrean.

It was probably for the best. A train carriage containing Julian, Vemik and the Singer didn’t have a lot of room left over for anyone else.

The Array terminus was a wheel shape, with no fewer than five arrays around the central hub, all powered by a fusion reactor in the sub-basement. It managed a jump every five minutes for destinations elsewhere on Earth, and off-world jumps every half an hour.

Considering how heavily the Folctha array hammered away nowadays, and all the other big arrays on Earth, there were probably all sorts of crazy intricate treaties and international standards and specialty industry going on behind the scenes to keep everything running synchronized and without conflict.

Thanks to jump arrays, though, long-haul airlines were going the way of the old ocean liners. Arrays were quicker, more convenient, carbon-neutral and safer. There had not (yet) been a single array accident anywhere, ever. Not even mishaps with the ultra-sharp stasis field edge, thanks to well-planned safety measures. Between the railings, forcefields and emergency shutdown, Julian doubted whether somebody could get themselves cut in half by a jump array even if they were trying to… and if one failed, all that happened was it didn’t jump. It wouldn’t come tumbling out of the sky, or have to land on its belly.

Still. They were expensive to install, drew huge power, and demanded good connections. No wonder they mostly only served major cities. Nobody was going to hop through a wormhole to get to the other side of town for the foreseeable future.

As always, though, Vemik wanted to stop and take in the sight of the concourse. Julian could see him wanting to climb up and get a closer look at the schedule boards.

Hoeff stopped him by grabbing his tail. “Sorry buddy, it’s time for us to go. The array fires in a few minutes.”

That was a weird gesture with Ten’Gewek. With loved ones and close friends it was perfectly friendly, and usually presaged a tussle or some other form of monkeyplay. With respected elders, it was a form of gentle correction. In Hoeff’s case with Vemik, it could very well mean both. Right then it seemed to mean the latter, since Vemik flicked his ears and nodded agreeably.

“…Okay.”

They had some kind of VIP fast track pass to skip past the people waiting in line, most of whom weren’t going to Folctha anyway. The last step before boarding the jump platform was a biofilter field—Julian didn’t think he’d ever quite get used to the way they left his teeth feeling unnaturally squeaky-clean—then a minute or two of standing around awkwardly in the middle of the platform as the attendants cleared it out and made sure everything was safe, then…

Thump.

Considering that the Array was matching momentum with the surface of an alien world several hundred parsecs away, the utterly tiny jolt Julian felt through his feet was a damn miracle.

As it turned out though, Julian and his Ten’Gewek friends weren’t gonna part ways just yet, as one of Hoeff’s ill-defined “colleagues” from the security services explained:

“Sorry fellas, it’ll be a bit before we can send you on to Akyawentuo.”

“Why?”

“Maintenance work on the array. Apparently they gotta take up the deck and swap out the spacers.”

“How long?”

“Not sure, but at least overnight. Sorry.”

Singer hooted sadly, but Julian could fix that. “Aww, it’s okay. You can stay at my house! And maybe you two can explore a bit if you want, go visit the art store–”

Vemik perked up immediately. “Burg?!”

“…Yes,” Julian chuckled. “We can burg. I can make them at home too.”

“And deprive them of the famous Folctha Best Brioche?” Hoeff asked. “You fucking monster.”

Julian felt the need to defend himself. “Well, I mean…I make a pretty mean burger.”

“You don’t make Best Brioche.”

“I bet mine’s better!”

“Mhmm. I think we burg twice,” the Singer suggested. “At Best Brioche, and Jooyun’s hut. We see which is stronger! For science.”

“I like this kind of science!” Vemik declared, earning the trilling Ten’Gewek version of a giggle from the Singer.

Julian rolled his eyes, amused. “Okay. But the four of us are gonna gym tomorrow morning to pay for it all…”

“Well, maybe not.” The security fella chimed in again and turned toward Hoeff, “You’ve got a meeting. Old friend of yours from rural Virginia came a’visiting, apparently.”

Hoeff almost didn’t show it, but he was clearly surprised. He paused ever so slightly before acknowledging the information. “Oh? That’s unlike him.”

“He said as much. Here.” The security fella handed Hoeff a note. “The details.”

Hoeff read it, then nodded. “…Alright. I’d, uh… better go put on some nicer clothes.”

“Must be a special old friend,” Julian commented.

Hoeff, once again, was back in a non-talkative mood. “Yeah,” he grunted and that was that. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

And then he was gone. He wasn’t hurrying, Julian noticed, but he was doing that thing where he didn’t waste a second of his time. Moving with a purpose, as they called it.

Weird.

“Well… okay then. Wanna come meet Anna, Vemik?”

Vemik stopped scratching his head and hooted even more enthusiastically than at the idea of burgers. “Yes!”

The Singer knuckled him affectionately in the chest. “Be gentle,” she reminded him.

“I will!”

Julian grinned, and allowed the security guy to lead them outside to the waiting car. Honestly, he was getting kinda sick of being driven around in black SUVs, but whatever. He was nearly home. Something was clearly up with Hoeff, but there was no getting in there unless he was invited, so… may as well just go home, cuddle Allison and Xiù, hold his daughter, have some burgers, and just go back to being himself.

All in all, that sounded like a pretty good way to spend the rest of his day.


Date Point: 16y6m AV
Grand Commune of Females, Tiritya Island, Cimbrean

Naydra

Yulna had bared her throat to Daar, when she made him the Great Father. Technically, his authority applied even on the island, at the very heart of the Clan of Females… But Daar liked to pretend that it didn’t. There were some areas, he felt, where what he called the ‘nat’ral’ laws between Male and Female won out over mere crowns and power.

Which was why, even though he had the perfect right to enter uninvited, he never ever set foot in the Mother-Supreme’s private rooms. And why, when Yulna requested to speak with Naydra in private, he simply duck-nodded and went off to enjoy the island and very probably sire another cub or two. He had a waiting list. A long waiting list.

Naydra wasn’t remotely jealous. The Females on that waiting list were a pleasant and enjoyable duty to him, but she was his love.

Besides. She had more important matters on her mind.

Yulna was… Tough. She’d always been tough. Even being abducted by a Corti xenobiologist and having one of the eyes plucked from her skull had ultimately just made her tougher. She’d certainly been tough enough to make a hard decision in wartime, and she was tough enough now that even though her body reeked of tumors and pain, she still stood tall and refused to take up a cane like her predecessor had.

Then again, she was still a lot younger than Giymuy had been. And a lot more proud. Her reply to pain was to stare it down like the stern old Mother she was.

And she absolutely refused to let Naydra make the tea.

“You know who the most popular candidate to replace me will be,” she said. She’d adopted Champion Gyotin’s tea ceremony. Naydra had of course practiced and mastered it because it was increasingly becoming the done thing, but she still didn’t quite understand the why of it. But this was Yulna’s office, in her private chambers, and making the tea her way was her prerogative.

So Naydra sat politely as the Mother-Supreme rinsed and then heated the tea cups with hot water, and carefully prepared the leaves in the pot. And she answered politely when Yulna spoke.

“I can guess. I… have reservations, though. Doesn’t it feel like concentrating too much power and trust in one place?”

Yulna chittered as she wiped a cup dry. “All the power is already concentrated in one place,” she pointed out. “You’re probably the best antidote we have… should we need one. Nobody else can influence him quite like you. He loves you very much, Naydra.”

“Yes. But I love him very much too.”

“Would you allow him to do something awful? Do you tell him when you think he’s going wrong?”

Naydra’s ears pricked up indignantly. “Of course!”

“Oh good. You really do love him then.” Yulna gave her a sly look and placed the last dry cup in a row.

“I mean, I take your point, but…”

Naydra tailed off. The fact was, she honestly didn’t know what the but was, and the look Yulna gave her as she poured the water into the teapot with her ears slightly askance said more than a prepared speech would have. Yulna was good at puncturing objections with nothing more than a look.

“None who are called to Duty are ever quite prepared for it, my dear. He managed and so will you.”

“So have you.”

“Giymuy threw me in a deep pool without any swimming lessons, true enough…” Yulna sighed. “I always imagined I wouldn’t do what she did, and I’d spend my later years grooming a successor so that we could have a smooth transition when my time came. But no, here I am and here we are… Do you know, I still don’t know why she picked me? She barely knew me!”

“Perhaps she knew you better than you think.”

“Probably. The old girl had a mind that makes me feel small.” Yulna sighed and carefully finished tidying up her implements as she waited for the sand to finish its journey from one glass bulb to the other. “You’re a more natural choice, as far as I can tell. Influential, especially with the Males who really matter, and very popular indeed with the Females. The young Sisters idolize you.”

“For what?” Naydra asked. “For the abuse I went through during the war or for being naive enough to fall in love with my rescuer?”

“Both and more. It takes strength to go through what you did, and a blessing to still be naive afterwards.” Yulna duck-shrugged and her ears moved to a wry angle. “What am I to do? They want you. I daresay if I named another successor she’d still lose to you, and what’s a Mother-Supreme to do in that situation? Do I have any choice but to trust my Sisters and Daughters?”

“I suppose not…” Naydra admitted.

“No. But I can undermine your authority, plant seeds of doubt…” Yulna nodded to herself as the sand finished running, and took the lid off the teapot to hook out the basket full of leaves within. She set it aside in a shallow bowl. “Should I sabotage you? Why? Is the Clan so badly wrong? I don’t think they are.”

“…You don’t have to step down yet. I’m sure Nofl—”

Yulna set the teapot down sharply. “No Corti touches me ever again,” she said, sharply. “And the fact that you let him mess with your genome is the one thing that’s giving me pause, here.”

“He’s trustworthy.”

“Is he? He might be!” Yulna sniffed. “But he’s just a fancy flamboyant scalpel in somebody else’s hand, my dear. Nofl may be the most wonderful being alive for all I know, but the Directorate…”

“I didn’t do this because I’m overly fond of Nofl,” Naydra retorted. “I did it because we are poised on the brink of destruction, Yulna. Have you seen the statistics? The Great Dying has already begun. Our population dropped for the first time ever outside famine or war. For now it’s just a blip. In a few years…”

Yulna poured the tea. “And am I the right person to see us through it?”

…Well, damn. She had her skewered.

“…No.”

“Exactly. So, Nofl might be truly wonderful. He might get these damn tumors out of me like a darling and at least I’ll live to speak kindly of one Corti. But I must let go, Naydra. For our people and for what they’re about to endure, I must. I can’t just step down, because so long as I’m still alive, I’ll sabotage you just by drawing breath.”

“Yulna, you sound… You’re effectively talking about suicide. I don’t want that.”

“No, I’m talking about letting the serendipity of nature take its course.” Yulna handed over the teacup, and Naydra took it from her without really being conscious of doing so. “I have some time left, yet. Time enough.”

“Still…” Naydra fidgeted.

“…It’s thanks to the Corti that I’m dying now, you know. All those experiments all those years ago. That was when they were beginning to realize we weren’t just another regular, disposable first-contact species like all the rest. They’ve known what we were for years, Naydra. All of this pantomime about discovery and such is just that. Controlled information release.” Yulna sat down and sipped her tea. “Now: Think how much damage it would do to our strategic agreements with them if I said that in public. Think how much it would hurt the Gao if I denounced the Directorate over… this.”

She gestured to herself. “I’ve known this was coming for a long time. Since long before I was Mother-Supreme. I learned my fate on the day we returned to Gao and took Sister Shoo into our care. When the Openpaws showed me what they found, and told me the most they could do was slow it, I knew this was coming. And I have kept utterly silent about it. Not even Giymuy and her clever eyes and ears knew.”

Naydra knew her ears had gone flat. She keened softly, not knowing what else to say. Yulna gave her a sympathetic look and put a paw on top of hers.

“You, I’m quite sure, will live even longer than Giymuy. And perhaps you’ll even be a better Mother-Supreme. I feel small next to you too, you know. But you’re still rather naive, my Daughter. You’re still willing to pretend that a pleasant scalpel makes up for the mad gleam in the surgeon’s eye.”

She chittered. “Or maybe I’m just bitter and prejudiced. I have a good reason to be, don’t I? But I still say you’re naive and a bit of a dreamer, though you’re less so than most. The Mother-Supreme cannot be either of those things, not even a little bit.”

“Then…I suppose I have much to learn.”

“Well, that’s good! You only stop learning when you die!” Yulna gave her a warm look, then nodded at the tea. “Drink.”

Naydra did so. It was, she had to admit, excellent. That was probably the point, first and foremost: to get a perfect cup of tea. Gyotin himself had composed the paradoxical sentiment ‘not everything spiritual has to be spiritual.’

Despite what they’d discussed, her ‘lessons’ or whatever she was to receive from Yulna, would have to wait. The Mother-Supreme had plenty of business to attend to, not to mention a visit from an Openpaw physician that Naydra knew was too perfectly timed to be coincidence.

She wandered the Grand Commune and thought about what she’d learned, what it meant…

…And promptly forgot to think at all when she wandered into the flower garden.

It had always been a beautiful place. Several species of delicate mountain and tundra flowers native to Gao had been brought over to save them, and were thriving thanks to the attention and affection of the gardeners and their drones. Naydra had visited it many times, and every time the scents had made her close her eyes and bask in the aromatic symphony around her.

With her newly improved eyes firmly open, however…

There… There were no words. Only feeling. And so she did just that, re-acquainted herself with the bounty of Gao, and knew: No Gaoian could be kept from this, It belonged to them all.

Resolve settled into her belly and lit a fire there. Yulna was right, of course… but in one important regard, perhaps she was also wrong. The Corti were who they were, and the Gao would have to be very foolish to forget… But did the past have to steal the future? Were gifts like the riot of pinks and purples around her to be scorned just because they grew from a poisonous tree?

Could one safely bargain with a devil? But the Corti weren’t devils, of course. They were just flawed people, and the Unseen knew the Gao had their own faults too.

…Or was life nothing but a series of devil’s bargains, with an inevitable price at the end?

Something to ponder…but not just now. Right now, she wanted to wander, and see.

When she eventually caught up with Daar, he was over at the obstacle course about to make a run of it, much to the studious interest of a number of young, fiercely fit Females. He stretched out on all fours, shook out his once-again short pelt, crouched, and—

Speed, poise, unmatched poetry in motion. Power, and not simply of body.

She watched for a bit, and decided to leave them to their fun. Innocence and play was important after all. There was no point in souring the mood by bearing bad news.

“I think I shall retire to our apartments,” she told her current aide, a fiery young Sister with clear Longear heritage, and who had a sharp nose for trouble. “Please inform the Great Father when it seems convenient.”

She needed the time to herself to ponder things, and more importantly she didn’t want to disrupt Daar’s connection with the young Sisters. He loved the Females. All of them. That bond was just as important to nourish as the deeper, more personal love she shared with her big, soppy-hearted Bumpkin. Vulnerability and love, intertwined and inescapable. It was the oldest story there was.

He didn’t return until much later in the evening, just as she had expected.

“Well, you certainly smell like you had fun…”

She enjoyed teasing him entirely too much, but it was a good way to break the moment. He did at least have enough tact to chitter with some embarrassment. “Well, I weren’t gonna say no to a paw of adventurous young Sisters…”

“You are the most predictable ‘Back ever, bumpkin.”

“I know. An’ I bet ya’ needed the free time, anyway…”

“I did. I needed to think.”

He curled up around her, squeezed his powerful legs ever so softly around her waist, and groomed her fur gently with his claws. Sometimes, when she really needed him to be, he could be supremely tender with his affection. She sighed, and leaned into him.

They shared a long moment together, saying nothing and simply enjoying each other’s scent and warmth.

It didn’t last. Eventually he nuzzled in the top of her headfur exactly like he always did before he had to get moving.

“The last Array to Gao fires not too long from now, Naydi…an’ we really need ‘ta not be on Cimbrean tonight.”

She really would rather stay put, if possible. “Why the rush?”

Daar shook his mane out and sighed. “Duty, an’ secrets. Sarry.”

“They must be serious secrets if they dictate which planet you need to be on.”

“…Yeah.”

That said everything she needed to know. She slithered upright and shook herself. “Okay. But if you haven’t seen the flower garden yet, I definitely need to show you when we come back.”

Daar flopped himself over and sprang to all fours. “Deal. Lessgo.”

As she walked alongside him and as their entourage fell in around him, Naydra calculated furiously. The list of things that would cause Daar to need to be elsewhere was pretty tiny. It must be big politics, something where he needed plausible deniability.

As they rode the elevator down into the basement, a suspicion settled in her belly though it did not, she was surprised to notice, shock her. Maybe it was her conversation with Yulna from earlier, maybe it was a truth she’d figured out a long time ago…

…But she was pretty sure they were going home so Daar would have an alibi.


Date Point: 16y6m AV
The Pinkwood Michelin star restaurant, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

“Hello, Daniel.”

“Hello, Marcus. Never thought I’d see you again.”

The two men shook hands, and then embraced in a fond hug.

“You’ve grown into a hell of a fireplug, I see.”

“Yup. Needs of the job, and fuckin’ demanding friends. And hell, I won’t say I don’t enjoy it.”

Marcus pulled back and gave Daniel an appraising look. “I hope this hasn’t slowed you down.”

Daniel shrugged. “Pretty much the exact opposite of that, actually. Everything’s better now. Only downside is I’m even more ravenous than I ever was before.”

“That’s a little frightening,” Marcus chuckled. “I’ve already ordered for us.” They walked over to the waiting table, which had a substantial spread laid out.

Daniel nodded approvingly. “You remembered! And you bought me a fancy-ass steak, too.”

“I’ve never spared you courtesy, Daniel. How are things?”

“Not too bad. Family’s doing all right, friends are okay. You?”

“Oh, I was never one for a family. Doesn’t suit someone like me, I’m afraid.”

“Too bad.” Daniel bit into his steak and savored it for a moment. “You’d make a good dad.”

“So I am told. You have a partner now, I hear?”

“Yeah. She’s… nice. Never thought I’d fall for a girl like her, or that she’d ever dig a guy like me. Whole lotta dirt under my fingernails, y’know?”

“Of a very different sort than the kind under hers.”

“I woulda thought that’d go without saying.”

“It must be nice. A different world.”

“Yeah. I’m digging this a lot better than my usual one-night flings.”

They ate in silence for several minutes, comfortable in each other’s company.

“Daniel, I have a job offer for you.”

He raised an eyebrow. “I’m not in the market for work, Marcus.”

Marcus sighed. “People like you and I, we don’t get to leave this particular job market, Daniel.”

“I beg to differ. I’m sure there are others who would love the employment.”

“Nobody as good as you, my friend. And this particular job needs a very skilled hand.”

“I’m not interested.”

“Arthur asked after you, Daniel. Personally.”

Daniel paused, and put his cutlery down. He contemplated his bourbon for a long moment.

“Did he, now?”

“Yes. Reluctantly, it must be said. He knows you’re enjoying your retirement.”

“…Goddamnit.”

Marcus gave him a sympathetic look. “Yeah.”

“I presume all the usual terms and conditions apply?”

“All the worst ones, yeah.”

“Wunderbar.”

“Here.” Marcus slid a small envelope across the table. “Your advance payment, and accommodations. Further details will be made available to you once you’re checked in.”

Daniel tucked it away for later reading. His hand only paused as he withdrew it from his pocket.

“…Guess you’re right. We don’t really get to retire, do we?”

“Daniel, my friend…there’s some kinds of work that’ll never go out of style. Most people aren’t suited to do it. Those of us who are…“

Daniel sighed, and picked up his steak knife. “Go to interesting places, meet interesting people…” he said.

They left the sentence unfinished.


Date Point: 16y6m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Captain Anthony “Abbott” Costello

Leadership was a challenging proposition, regardless if it came naturally for a man or not. Leading utterly irreplaceable men was even worse. Correcting the behavior of a well-meaning, young-at-heart, peerless hulk of a warrior who, like everyone, had made mistakes in his life, and was now paying for a particularly egregious fuckup in a particularly painful way? And who lately had an unconscious habit of intimidating the ever-lovin’ fuck out of everyone he met, even if he didn’t mean to? Or even necessarily realized he was doing it?

Well, that was why they paid Costello the “big bucks.” That joke had never once been funny.

Technical Sergeant Arés was an interesting challenge. He was, aside from Burgess, about the most intelligent lad on the team, and in this group that was genuinely saying something. He had Costello beat on the raw scores by a fairly intimidating margin, even if he wasn’t an intellectually curious type of man. Arés was a blue-collar genius at heart and nobody really matched him.

That meant that at certain things—observation and intuition, for example—he was pretty much the best there was, certainly the best Costello had ever met. But on others—self-awareness, in this case—he sometimes fell a bit comically short. Mostly it was a harmless personality quirk of his, and one of the things that made him an endearing, hard-to-hate Lad, but right now…

The giant man was hovering around the outside of the party, trying and utterly failing to hide his sulky, self-loathing slump.

Costello understood and even sympathized. It was hard to be overtaken, and must be doubly so in this case. Burgess was a genuinely modest person, and level-headed enough to be content with only being the second or third strongest man in history. He was a natural member of the pack: happy to keep up with his friends, perfectly willing to outshine them, equally happy to be outshone by them.

Arés, on the other hand, was the single most intensely competitive and determined man Costello or anyone he knew had ever met, or even read about. He was a natural alpha male personality and an effortless pack-leader, and he wasn’t used to failure, either. At anything. He’d been some form of a prodigy since his teens, and his failure to promote along with his buddy represented one of the few real setbacks he’d ever endured.

He wasn’t handling it very well. In fact, he was handling it like a spoiled teenager.

Well… almost. The difference was that, where a teenager would have found somebody else to blame and whined about how it wasn’t fair, Arés knew good and well that it was fair—generously merciful, in fact—and had therefore lapsed into sullen self-directed anger.

Letting him tear himself apart over his own shortcomings wasn’t an option. Nor was letting him sour the mood of the party.

Costello had discussed the long-term management problem at length with Senior Master Sergeant Firth. They hadn’t really come up with much of a solution, and in fact about the only effective tack they’d arrived at involved getting Firth up to and perhaps one day beyond Arés’ level. That was as caveman as it came, and normally he’d prefer another option…but what else could they do? Punishment in the traditional sense would ruin their relationship. In any ordinary military unit, the officer corps held all the cards. Any man was replaceable, if it came to that. Nobody, not the lowliest grunt nor the highest general, was such a precious asset they couldn’t be swapped out for a better man.

But among the Lads, that wasn’t true. They were the best there was. Or, at least, the only ones capable of the task at hand. Costello had to be friends with his men, in a detached sort of way. Firth did too, maybe even more so.

Which, in the end, was the only way forward. Tough love, friend-to-friend.

Lubricated, in this case, by joining him at the edge of the party and handing him a beer bottle. “‘Horse, you look like shit. Something wrong?”

Adam stirred out of his grumbly fugue to look at Costello. “…Eh. Not really. Just, I dunno.”

…Yup. Blue-collar genius, paired with the enlightened introspection of a brick.

“How’s the family?”

That was a subject always guaranteed to perk the big guy up. He beamed happily and swigged his beer. “Goin’ good! We’re workin’ on another baby. Gonna give Diego a little sister, maybe!”

“Ah! Well, I imagine you’re enjoying the work…”

“It’s a tough job, sir. Someone’s gotta do it.”

Costello chuckled, and offered his bottle for a kind of impromptu toast. Glass clinked against glass and they drank.

“…I was kinda makin’ plans on what I’d do with a master sergeant’s pay,” Arés confessed. “I think we’re gonna have a biiiig family, an’ our place just isn’t good for that now. I need someplace with plenty’a bedrooms an’ where they can run around.”

“Never count your chickens before they hatch, big guy. Tech to master is a very hard promotion to make. Colonel Miller tells me this last selection was the tightest he’s seen ever.”

“Yeah…sorta found that one out the hard way.” Arés sipped his beer. “…I do that a lot.”

“Well…let me offer you a little tough love, big guy. Burgess promoted because he was ready for it. Your flash of anger a while back, well. That’s unbecoming of a senior NCO. You know that.”

“Yeah.”

“Firth is almost guaranteed he’ll never be promoted to chief as a result of his own indiscretion, too. That’s a tough thing for someone of his rank. There’s still hope, even for him, but realistically he’ll probably not recover from his mistake. You, though…”

Arés sighed, but it wasn’t the moochy, self-hating sigh Costello had seen him give a few times already. This one was more relieved.

“…I think that’s what I was worried about, yeah.”

“I won’t lie. It’ll be quite some time. I can’t justify putting you in for a STEP package, not after all that. So you’d better figure out how to make that big family work as you are now… but it’ll happen. Eventually, and if you can prove you’re ready.”

“I’ll do my best.”

“I know you will. In other news…how goes Project: Build Even Scarier Monsters?”

Arés chuckled. “Is that what we’re calling it now?”

“Why not? I’m supposedly the boss and I say it is. So…status?”

“Firth is growing like a mutant weed, as fast as I ever did. Daar isn’t quite as ridiculous but he’s not slowed down, either. And the other day…he beat me on the leg press. And bicep curls, too.”

“Wait, really?”

“Yup.”

“…Damn.” Well, that was probably the source of it. There’s always someone bigger and badder, and Arés had finally found him. Even if he’d had to build that monster himself.

“I mean, I’m glad for him…” Arés added belatedly. “But I sorta bet he’s actually got me beat on everything now, or will soon.” There was obviously a war going on in his head between his pride as a trainer and his relentlessly competitive soul. “… I mean, I’ll make it hard for him, though. And who knows? Maybe I just needed the competition, and pretty soon I’ll beating him again!”

“That’s the spirit!” Costello encouraged him. “Anyway, you’re here in this corner commiserating with me, when you should be over there with your best friend, embarrassing him with stories from training or whatever.”

“Eh,” he said dismissively, and looked down at his feet. “You’ve heard those all a million times.”

“Of course we have. That isn’t the point. It’s tradition, ‘Horse. This is his night. Don’t make him feel bad. Go be happy for him.”

Arés objected, “I am happy for him!”

“I know. Make sure he knows it, and that we all know it. He’s been doing the same for you since Basic, after all.”

“…I’ve been bein’ a jerk, huh?”

“Not intentionally, but yeah.” Costello clapped him on the shoulder. “We all have bad days. Go turn it into a good one, yeah? And we could all stand to be a bit more mindful of ourselves, y’know?”

“Yeah…” ‘Horse nodded and finished his beer. “…Thanks.”

With that, the giant Protector thumped his way over towards his best friend with his trademark ground-shaking unintentional swagger. They talked for a bit, maybe a bit awkwardly… and then the usual energy reasserted itself.

Costello grinned as a great big bro-hug dispelled the mood. It was as if the party’s atmosphere suddenly lightened, and he could breathe a little more easily.

He was about to head outside to see how Firth’s infernally perfect brisket was doing when his watch buzzed, drawing his attention to a new message. He read it, sighed, and tapped Akiyama on the shoulder instead.

“Give my apologies, would you? Work.”

Akiyama nodded. “We needed, sir?”

“No, just me. You all have fun.”

“Will do.”

Duty done, Costello slipped out of the party and took a cab back up to the base. That was the hazard of his position: work never quite went away. He wouldn’t change it for the world, and a nine-to-five would have felt like a slow death sentence by suffocation to him, but it would have been nice to have a whole party go by without something coming up.

Still. For the APA, he’d make all the time in the world.


Date Point: 16y6m AV
The Oval Office, the White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth

President Arthur Sartori

Sartori had a pen, a fine bespoke fountain pen commissioned for him as a gift from the King of England. It was the kind of subtle, classy gift that carried weight beyond mere ounces and symbolism beyond that of an ordinary writing utensil. He used it for when official hand-writing or the Presidential signature was needed, but it wasn’t his best pen.

His best pen was a Meisterstück he’d inherited from his grandfather, and he saved it for personal hand-writing. It slid freely and evenly across any paper, and the paper Sartori was using right now was the absolute best. It made writing easy, though in this case he was writing slowly and carefully. This was a letter to be done correctly. There were a few lives hanging on his conscience today, but United States Secret Service agent Thomas Child’s hung the heaviest.

He’d known Child, a little. The young man had been on his personal protection team a few times and Sartori made a point of knowing the men who would, if necessary, throw themselves in harm’s way to save him. He memorized their birthdays and a few details about their personal lives. Child had been unmarried and without any kids of his own, but he had a nephew he adored, and had collected vintage tobacco tins. He’d been left-handed, and had a golfing handicap of 15.

His family deserved more than an impersonal form letter.

Sartori refilled and cleaned the pen while consulting the draft letter he’d typed up, then nodded to himself and applied the nib to inscribing the next sentence.

…Although I cannot disclose the exact nature of the operation, I want you to know that Thomas fell protecting not merely our nation’s powerful but, much more nobly, that he fell defending the ordinary and the innocent…

It was not, in the end, a long letter, and it consisted of nothing but platitudes as far as he could tell. He bitterly wished it could have been more substantial, but there was nothing more he could write without saying too much.

Still, he poured himself into it line after line until finally he reached what felt to him like a stilted and awkward ending.

You and your family remain in my thoughts and prayers. May Almighty God bless you.

—Arthur Sartori
President of the United States of America

And with that, it was done. It wasn’t enough, but it was done. He screwed the cap on and returned the pen to his inside jacket pocket, before standing to prowl aimlessly around the office.

It was getting very late. Sunset was turning the White House pink, and touching the trees and lawn with a hint of summer fire. He watched the purples and reds in the sky for a while, trapped in a mood he didn’t want to escape.

In the end, he was lifted out of it by a knock on the open door. Steve Beckett joined him with a sympathetic expression. He was one of only a half-dozen people in the building, never mind the wider world, who knew exactly what sort of things were on the President’s mind tonight.

“We’ve got them,” he said, shutting the door behind him.

“Got them?” Sartori asked, sitting down on the arm of one of the twin cream couches in the middle of the room.

“The APA’s NYC cell broke communications discipline: What happened to them in Manhattan panicked them. We pull on that loose thread, and they will unravel.”

“Good.” Sartori returned to the Resolute desk and slid the finished letter across its surface. “Here.”

Beckett read. His expression didn’t change much, but he nodded and gave Sartori a knowing look. “You put your soul into this one.”

“He was a good man. Loved his nephew like life itself.”

“You didn’t kill him, Arthur.”

Sartori sighed, and transferred the letter to his out tray. “Never tell me that, Steve.”

Beckett said nothing.

“…The… other matter?” Sartori asked after a second.

“Being addressed as we speak.”

“I suppose I should go to bed. Though I just know I’ll be woken up in the middle of the night by, uh… some crisis.”

“…Yes, Mister President.”

“I don’t know how I’ll sleep, Steve.”

Beckett did something that would have been a smile, if it had reached his eyes. “I think you’ll find you rest more easily than you think. Good night, sir.”

Sartori nodded. “Good night.”

He was left alone again. True to his word, he retired to the bedroom suite, changed into his pajamas, and climbed into bed. The sky was still a little light outside and he lay there and considered it, certain that he wouldn’t rest as well as Beckett had predicted, and even more certain that he didn’t want to.

Nevertheless, he did.


Date Point: 16y6m AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha), Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Captain Anthony “Abbott” Costello

“Evening, sir.”

Powell had never moved to a bigger office. Apparently he liked the small one he’d occupied since the HEAT had first moved to Sharman, and Costello could see why. It had a decent but not distracting view, and it was right at the top of the stairs so he didn’t have to squeeze through the admin building’s narrow hallways to get to his desk.

Besides. He’d left his mark on it now, moulded it to himself. The office had spirit thanks to Powell.

He was playing with Bozo when Costello arrived, engaged in a claw-scrabbling game of tug-o-war over a length of cargo strap that was probably going to give up before either man or dog would. “How’s he holdin’ up?”

Costello smiled at the way Bozo contrived to welcome him with a wag and a glance that said, with canine eloquence, ‘I’m happy to see you, but I’m a little busy right now.’

“As well as can be expected, I think. Firth is less happy with the likely consequences for making Chief, but he knew that was coming.” He sat down. “Something came up?”

“Aye.” Powell let Bozo win their game, and the dog trotted a circuit of the room with his prize in his mouth and his tail proudly up. “Turns out the US government just thwarted a terrorist attack in New York, but not wi’out some interesting complications. The APA got their hands on some Cruezzir, dosed up one’a their worst psychos with it an’ let her loose in public. She got away.”

“I thought the Crude was a controlled substance?”

“Not Crude. Cruezzir. The original full-fat shit. And aye, that stuff was controlled as hell too, but it’s startin’ to look like the APA have friends in lots of places they shouldn’t.

“…Hmm. That’s…alarming.”

“That’s one word for it.” Powell handed over a tablet. “Read.”

Costello had mastered the art of quick-reading pretty much anything put in front of him. It was practically instant: he saw the page, took it all in, swiped down. He hadn’t been able to do that before the Crue-D, but nowadays he took it as one of the areas his training had really paid off.

The file’s contents were a hastily assembled jumble. The Secret Service, it seemed, were busy pulling on a loose thread that was unravelling practically as fast as they could tug on it… but with some conspicuous and troubling gaps.

Of codename HYDE—Wilhelmina Briggs-Davies—or a figure known even to the captured APA terrorists only as ‘The Handler,’ there was no sign.

The part that made Costello grunt and pull a small face was when he got to a list of the actors and agents involved in the little silent drama in the park.

“So. They brought one of our guys in, and used a friend of ours as bait. And they’re telling us because…?”

“Courtesy. Mostly.”

The tablet pinged as an increasingly confused Costello handed it back. Powell inspected the new message, and the tiniest of vindicated smiles briefly lifted the corner of his mouth.

“…Good news?” Costello asked.

“Expected news. Daar just caught the very last jump out off the Island, instead of staying overnight like he usually would.”

“What does that mean?”

“Best if we don’t dwell on it, I think,” Powell reasoned. “Less said, the better.”

Costello blinked, then shrugged. “So what are we doing about Folctha’s APA cell?” he asked.

“Don’t see why we have to do owt. It’s a Colonial Security matter. They fook with us and ours and I’ll want in, but if not it’s for the best if we leave it to the police.”

“So… what did you call me here for, sir?”

Powell’s reply was a grim smile, and he drained his tea. It wasn’t an expression Costello had seen often: a good deal less nice than usual, and that wasn’t even a word that most people would have applied to Powell at the best of times. Whatever was going on, the Colonel knew a lot more than he’d let on.

All he said, however, was three words, spoken as he set down his empty cup.

“…Wait and see.”


Date Point: 16y6m AV
Statler Hotel, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Ross Guillory, United States Secretary of Agriculture

“Unscheduled maintenance? The whole array terminal?”

“Apparently, sir. They say it will be up again by tomorrow afternoon.”

“We may as well just fly out to Franklin and go home that way! This is ridiculous!”

“I’ll see if that can be done, sir. I’m told there’s no communications disruption, it’s just passenger traffic that’s affected…”

“I don’t care. I want to be back on Earth as soon as humanly possible, and I don’t care if we have to go through a cargo array instead! Make it happen!”

Guillory’s personal aide fled the room with an expression like a kicked puppy, and Guillory did an angry sort of march around the Statler Hotel’s VIP suite to silently vent his frustrations.

Great. Just fucking wonderful. As a personal favor to the President—a man he considered a friend despite also being an enemy—he’d come all the way out to ground zero of humanity’s greatest shame to assist with a trade deal between Franklin and Folctha. Cimbrean was a slap in the face of everything he quietly stood for; it had an actual ongoing planetwide ecological disaster because some stupid bitch couldn’t be assed to dig a fucking latrine. He’d endured the insult silently and had to spend time in the company of that insufferably old-fashioned ambassador while the most important event of his life was underway.

And, apparently, failing. Every news station in the world should have been focused on New York, but instead it was a slow news day. ESNN were covering the launch of the RSS Steve Irwin, a research vessel that Guillory personally held to be yet another avatar of humanity’s shame. Its entire job would to catalog Cimbrean’s native oceanic life before the invading Earthlings ate them all.

Today should be going down in history. Today should have been the moment Sartori and Washington and the whole world had it beaten into them just what kind of extreme measures were needed to protect alien life from the scourge of humanity.

Today, the only thing anyone on social media was talking about was Julian fucking Etsicitty and his poor duped fucking monkey-pals. Their grotesque minstrel show up in the trees was a social media coup too. All three of them were big, beautiful, unstoppably charismatic people doing what they did best in front of cameras, complete with a very pretty reporter unconsciously ogling Julian’s ridiculous body; the internet was already memeing the everlovin’ hell out of that.

It was enough to make him sick. Guillory grumbled for a while before finally saying “fuck it!” to the empty room, and deciding to order some room service. Whatever had gone wrong would just have to go wrong without him. Hopefully it was just that the Handler had spooked and called it off.

They’d passed over some other and arguably better opportunities for this because the Handler had said they felt a little too perfect, like they were staged. He was a paranoid man, but then again that was and had always been his job.

Guillory’s musing and brooding were interrupted by his phone. He picked it up, and reminded himself to be civil: His frustrations and nerves couldn’t be allowed to get the better of him and cause him to say something he’d later regret.

“Hello?”

He listened to the bad news, and sighed. Franklin’s smaller and less developed jump terminus would be on the ‘international’ end of its long slow cycle and so flying out there would actually get him home slower than just waiting for the Folctha terminus to resume normal operations, and the cargo arrays absolutely would not transport passengers for safety and insurance reasons.

He gave up, and decided to be conciliatory. “ …Never mind. I’ll take the jump tomorrow…Yeah. Sorry for being snippy…no no, I should be more polite…right…Okay. Thanks. Bye.”

Guillory was in a foul mood, but he had an expense account and he was damn well gonna use it. He pulled up the hotel’s on-screen room service, ordered the best steak they had on the menu, along with a “Gaoian sampler” just because he was feeling extra hateful of everything, and rounded it off with a small bottle of wine. If he was stuck in the Statler’s admittedly excellent VIP suite for the night, then there was no sense in wasting the luxury.

The food arrived courtesy of a short, broad-shouldered fireplug of a brute wearing the hotel’s immaculate white uniform. “Your dinner, Secretary Guillory.” His voice was deep and gravelly almost to the point of menace, despite his polite, mild demeanor.

“Yes, thank you. On the desk, please.”

He delivered the wheeled cart to the middle of the room, pulled out a corkscrew and opened the wine with a practiced, effortless motion. Which was odd, since despite his obviously impeccable training, the man seemed wildly out of place. Rarely did wait staff have hands so broad and thick-set they were noticeable even through gloves, or a neck so sturdy he couldn’t fasten the top buttons of his shirt. Definitely a demerit for the uniform tailors, there.

Incongruous brutishness aside, there was certainly nothing bad to be said about his skills, oh no. The waiter deftly poured wine into the glass, set it on the table, and set to preparing the rest of the meal. Part of that involved making fresh hollandaise at the table, a luxurious touch Guillory had never experienced. Top points for that.

He offered some polite, absent thanks and decided not to worry about it. This whole planet was full of fitness freaks, after all, and the governments slapped some hefty extra taxes on residents who didn’t exercise. If they all wanted to be parodies of the natural human form, so be it. In short order an immaculate spread was laid out on his desk. The waiter stood to the side and even had a crisp linen draped over his forearm. Extra points for style.

Guillory picked up his wine and drank about half as he watched the research ship’s champagne ceremony, ignoring the food for now.

The wine, it had to be said, was excellent. He sniffed appreciatively at it, finished the glass, then frowned as he felt a… peculiar… sensation rush up on him from behind.

He fell quite suddenly, and the tanky little man somehow appeared behind him without making the slightest sound. He caught Guillory with one hand, the wine glass with the other, and in one deft movement had both safely under control. The effortlessness of the whole thing…

Once the waiter had placed the glass on the desk, he picked Guillory up like he was as light and precious as a sleepy child, padded silently across the room and gently laid him across the bed. Guillory was by no means a small or frail man and felt a rush of embarrassment at his sudden weakness, and tried ineffectively to move and steady himself….

“Ssh, relax.” The man’s gravely voice was almost gentle. “No point in bein’ uncomfortable.”

He couldn’t—Guillory tried to speak, and the words…he couldn’t talk. He couldn’t talk!

The man in white entered his field of view with a blank, calm expression. Guillory blanched as a lance of white-hot fear shot through him. There was no way any mere waiter or chef or whatever had ever had eyes like that. Guillory had never met anyone who did before. If the eyes were the window to the soul, then this soul had sent many others on their way ahead of him.

Then he noticed some of the details. The man had white gloves on…and the waiters in the hotel normally didn’t. The uniform came right up to his collar and covered everything up to the man’s tree-trunk of a neck. He had no long hair, no beard, no piercings, nothing…

…Nothing that might leave evidence.

“I am sorry, Secretary Guillory,” the man said, quietly. The apology seemed weirdly genuine. “Arthur conveys his sympathies, his apologies, and his personal disappointment.”

…Oh God, oh fuck!

With that, the man effortlessly tidied Guillory into a comfortably dignified position on the bed, as though he’d just taken a nap in his clothes: on his right-hand side, just like he normally slept. He also pulled off Guillory’s suit coat, removed his shoes, removed his tie, loosened his belt, opened his pant’s waist and undid the cufflinks, all exactly like Guillory would have done. He could do nothing but quietly rage at the personal violation, and marvel in the back of his head at the attention to detail. For his part, the man had no trouble at all maneuvering Guillory or wrestling him into position, despite that he’d been reduced to a two hundred and fifty pound sack of limp meat.

That was the most terrifying part of his sudden predicament. Guillory had never felt so helpless.

Satisfied with his work, the man then silently hopped off the bed, tidied the comforter and pillows, padded over to the desk, and re-covered the food. He moved out of Guillory’s field of view for a moment and did something with the TV. He was, Guilllory realised, carefully removing every trace of his presence, including any sign that Guillory had ordered a meal.

Guillory was starting to have trouble breathing, now. And his heart was suddenly racing in his chest. Somehow, he knew that wasn’t from his own terror. He tried to say or do anything, but the most he could coax from his traitorous body was a strangled, panicked grunt. That at least made his…his assassin look back at him.

The man again seemed polite and almost sympathetic. He proffered some advice.

“Nobody is coming, I’m afraid. And it won’t be quick, or painless, but you’ll have about a half an hour before it gets bad. Try and fall asleep if you can. After that…”

He shrugged, matter-of-factly. Guillory tried, and failed, to whimper. His secret service agents should have burst into the room, they were in the adjacent suites…

With a lance of horror, Guillory realized they’d been compromised. They wouldn’t be dead, because that would ruin the assassin’s work. They were working together! His team had undergone a routine rotation about five months ago…

Oh my God… Guillory realized this must have been in the works for months. Against that level of pre-meditation, against the President’s secret service… His doom was certain.

Guillory could do nothing about it besides helplessly watch the assassin’s work. The man took a minute or so more to finish cleaning up, then wheeled the cart back to the door. Once he’d done that, he quietly laid down a big sheet of plastic, carefully pulled off his fake uniform to include the shoes, then stripped down to his skin.

Guillory would have gulped if he could. The man was a study in powerfully knotted masculine geometry, the kind which spoke loudly about hard-earned ability and his willingness to use it.

But other than that, the assassin was fascinatingly plain. He was quite handsome yet generically so. He had no obvious racial features beyond a plain American blend of “white.” There were no tattoos on his body, no scars, no body hair, no physical malformations, no significant asymmetry, and yet no remarkable symmetry. There was absolutely nothing about him besides his height and extreme muscular fitness that might serve as identification. In a normal place that might have been of some use, but here on Cimbrean…

If Guillory somehow survived this experience, there would be little useful to tell the police. But he wouldn’t, he knew. That realization gave him a strange sort of calm. Nothing he could do.

Once stripped, the assassin pulled out a suitcase from the cart’s lower shelf and quietly bundled the old clothing up in another plastic sheet, then stowed it in the suitcase. Another suitcase came out, and then he quietly and efficiently did…something to the cart. The cart’s table folded down, its legs extended out…

A lance of pain fired down Guillory’s left arm. Heart attack in my sleep, then. At least Arthur left him his dignity. Finding himself resigned to his fate, he watched on, fascinated.

The cart now looked exactly like one of the hotel’s luggage carts. Leaving the rest of it aside, the assassin’s alarming quietness again struck Guillory as the most frightening part. His killer loaded the first suitcase onto the cart, then bundled the remaining evidence of his deadly room service into the other. That left nothing left but the large plastic sheet and his nakedness to resolve.

He had a plan for that, too. The burly little killer reached for a large packet of some kind, broke its seal and pulled out…hell, a gigantic moist towelette or something. He then carefully wiped himself down, broke the seal on another packet, and pulled on a full-body running suit of the kind the local fitness fanatics wore for jogging in Folctha’s ice-cold evening rain. The final touch was some thin running gloves on his sturdy feet.

That done, he carefully folded up the plastic sheet and stowed it in one of the suitcases and loaded up the luggage cart, leaving absolutely no sign anything had happened.

Ironically, the dark running suit made the assassin look much more like Guillory might have expected, if it weren’t for the thick reflective stripes running around his biceps and chest. His killer was covered from head to toe, no longer looked anything at all like a hotel employee, and suddenly had such a powerful, intimidating presence, nobody would stop him for chit-chat.

That was probably the intent. The assassin gave Guillory one last look before he left. He nodded, with perhaps the faintest trace of consideration on his face. “Goodbye.”

With that, he was gone. He left the lights and TV on. The slow news day continued, something about persistent rumors regarding the Mother-Supreme’s health… Guillory didn’t listen. He was far too concerned about his own health, especially when, as promised, things grew exquisite. His vision was going unfocused and the pain in his chest was mounting into a sickening, queasy agony that was somehow so intense he couldn’t even scream.

It lasted a long time. Then, very abruptly, it faded. In its wake was the eerie absence of something he’d heard and felt his entire life.

Secretary Ross Guillory lived just long enough to realize that his heart had stopped in his chest.

After that…


Date Point: 16y6m AV
Ark Project, Planet Tangent, the Corti Directorate

Project Archivist Tlenm

The first Corti v2.0 baby was decanted at a healthy weight of nearly double that of an ordinary Corti.

It was a female. Over the ensuing seven hours, her “siblings” all reached the same delicate hormonal tipping point that triggered their gestation chambers into delivering them safely into the world of air and movement, but Female One was the first. And it fell to Tlenm to start her Banner.

A whole new caste had been discreetly invented for the Ark project: Carbon. Tlenm felt that the black cloth of this new caste’s banner was actually rather distinguished and handsome, a sentiment he would have suppressed anywhere else in the directorate.

Here, though… in the Ark Project, the rules were a little different. The “distraction” of sentiment was somewhat less taboo. The Carbon Caste were anticipated to be a universally more passionate breed than the existing Castes, and that demanded an environment which stressed healthy management of emotions, not their relentless suppression.

The very first item on the banner was, of course, name and date of decanting. The gestation unit provided the infant with a name from the approved list, and Tlenm signed off on it as acceptable and appropriate.

He set the machine to stitch it across the top while he composed the Accolade to be recorded beneath. Being the firstborn of one’s species’ hopes for the future was the sort of thing that deserved an Accolade.

In the end, he kept it simple.

Meru
Decanted: 7847.226.54, Ark Facility, Tangent, District 1
Serial number: X0012-0002114/X0012-0003445/C000000000001

Accolades
First of the experimental 12-series generated by the Ark Project using deathworld-derived genetic data. The foundation of a new future.

It was, despite the relative mundanity of recording a newborn’s name and opening their Banner, an important moment in Corti history. Very, very few Corti had ever been born with a known caste and with an Accolade simply for existing. Usually the process of caste determination took years, and hinged in part on the collection of Accolades.

Meru and her siblings were deeply special, Tlenm knew that better than anyone. He took special care over their Banners, and placed each one next to the wriggling newborns as they were delivered into the special care of the creche and the nanny robots that would care for and raise them in the opening months of their lives.

He was surprised by the burst of… affection that settled on him. And another emotion he wasn’t familiar with, a sense of loss when the newborns were out of sight.

Curious.

He quashed the feeling, and moved on to prepare for the next day’s decanting. There was much to do: by the end of the year, there would be thousands like Meru.

But he knew that he would always consider her to be special.


Date Point: 16y6m1d AV
Presidential bedroom suite, the White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth

President Arthur Sartori

In the end, Sartori was woken at about 4:30am. As always, it took him a confused moment to get his brain into gear. A dream about playing football—not an unpleasant one, but strange in the way of all dreams—slipped into forgotten oblivion, but just for a second he found himself disoriented and wondering how the hell he’d gone from the field to… here…

Then whatever slumbering part of his brain was taking longer to catch up finally fizzed into life and he was awake. He blinked at the alarm clock by his bed, registered the time, then turned his attention to the door.

Whoever was outside knocked again.

“…Come in.”

It was his personal aide, Hagen Hodgkins, who turned the light on as he entered. The young man should have been asleep, but instead he looked like he’d dressed hastily, forgetting a few details about his suit. His shirt cuffs weren’t buttoned up, and his tie was sloppy.

“Mister President, I’m afraid it’s bad news.”

“What happened?” Sartori asked, sitting up and stretching. He suspected he knew, but Hagen wasn’t in the loop. He hadn’t needed to know, and he was too honest, too idealistic and too innocent anyway.

“I’m… afraid we just got an urgent message from Folctha, sir. The Agriculture Secretary was, um… He was… they found him dead in his hotel room, sir.”

Sartori swung his legs out of bed and looked down at his feet. “…Ross is dead?” he asked. He didn’t need to fake the grief in his voice.

“Yes sir. I’m sorry, sir.”

“What happened?”

“They… found him in his bed sir. They think it was probably a heart attack or something, but…”

Sartori sighed. “Well… if so, at least it was quick,” he said. “And merciful.”

An evil, primitive part of his brain supplied the opinion that quick and merciful was a lot better than the treasonous fuck deserved. He crushed that thought and stood up. “I’ll get dressed,” he declared. “And we’ll prepare for the morning press release.”

“I’ll get you a coffee.”

“Get one for yourself,” Sartori replied. Hagen shut the door and he stood in the middle of the room to balance himself.

He’d authorized plenty of deaths. Most had been terrorists and criminals in far-flung corners of the world, and the authorization had been vicarious, filtered by giving his approval to CIA action, air strikes, SEAL teams or other such applications of the state’s occasional duty to end lives.

But he’d spoken at Ross Guillory’s son’s college graduation. He was going to have to write a letter of condolence to the newly widowed Juliet Guillory, and address the nation and praise a traitor for his hard work and dedication to the USA. He was, in short, about to tell a bare-faced lie to four hundred million of his fellow Americans.

But the alternative—honesty—required admitting that the very Cabinet of the United States had been infiltrated by the largest and most successful domestic terrorist organization in the nation’s history.

He got dressed. Picked out a graphite suit with a neutral silver-and-black Prince of Wales tie and the stars and stripes lapel pin, which he paired with simple cufflinks. Today was a day to look somber and plain, not that he needed to fake it.

Hagen had his coffee waiting when he stepped out the door. Sartori accepted it with thanks and sighed at the darkness outside the windows. Early mornings were a hazard of the job, but this one felt extra heavy.

“Do we have anything prepared?” he asked.

“You know Jill. She has speeches prepared for almost any situation.”

“The mark of a good press secretary.” Sartori sipped his coffee again. “I’ll glance over it. Is Margaret awake yet?”

“She’s on her way. Liam’s compiling a shortlist of potential new Ag Secretaries…” Hagen looked a little uncomfortable. “I mean, I know it’s early…”

Sartori sighed and nodded. “It’s okay. We have to be practical and a little callous about these things… I’ll need some time to pen a letter of condolence to his family.”

“Yes sir. More coffee?” Hagen indicated the empty cup.

Sartori handed it over. “Thanks.”

He walked by himself the rest of the way to the Oval Office, alone with his thoughts aside from acknowledging the greetings and commiserations from the few staff who were awake and available at such an early hour.

Let most of them rest. This was his own cross to bear. After all, he’d made it.

But that didn’t make it any less heavy.


Date Point: 16y6m1w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

They’d had to change the division of labor around the house a bit. Al of course had to be at Anna’s beck and call at all hours, so Julian and Xiù had taken on some of the stuff she usually did to free her up.

For instance: breakfast was Julian’s job now. While Xiù took care of making sure the boys had their homework, school lunches, gym kit and textbooks, Julian juggled bacon, eggs, hash browns and pancakes for five.

He’d even learned a few flourishes from Xiù. A slice of blood orange in the juice, half a strawberry and three blueberries on the pancakes, some finely chopped chives on the eggs… practically zero effort, just a little extra attention to detail, and his breakfasts had gone from functional to gourmet.

His Grandpa had used to say something similar: “Going the extra mile only takes an extra inch.” Julian hadn’t understood it at the time, but now he was definitely gonna pass it on to the kids if he could.

Something to think about discussing with Vemik, too. It seemed like the kind of thought Vemun might benefit from, when he was old enough to listen. God, it was hard to forget sometimes that Vemik was so young, maybe only the equivalent of sixteen…

He looked young too, in exactly the same kind of incongruous way that Adam did, which made it hard for a fella to wrap their head around his friends. Was Adam nineteen? He didn’t have any laugh lines or weathered skin or anything. He looked young. Or was he twenty-eight, which is what his birth certificate would say? And what his freakshow physical development would suggest? Same thing it said for both of them, really.

For that matter, how old was Julian? Those five years in stasis made his age on paper kinda different to the amount of actual life he’d had. And what would happen when those new medicines he’d heard about hit the market? Another twenty years of youth without any of the downsides, if you took care of yourself? He’d be stupid to think people wouldn’t jump on it…

Which would re-open the Crude question for him again, probably. He knew Al and Xiù would be all in on that medicine, and he had a sneaking suspicion the civilian stuff wouldn’t do much for him. He was…probably too much for that stuff to work, being honest. And in any case, what would that mean? Another twenty years in his prime, back to being as youthful as he was when he was abducted? Or something like it, anyway? Except, now he was pretty much an actual gorilla in human form. He kept mostly to himself, but outside of the HEAT he was physically unbeatable, and he knew it. Heck, even among the HEAT…which was a scary idea for someone who would have been effectively nineteen. Except, well, he wouldn’t be, would he? He’d actually be in his fifties. Sorta. How old would he really be?

But still, whatever the answers to those questions were, Vemik was a man of his people by their own view of things. That wasn’t something he could or would disrespect.

Anyway. Breakfast. He’d taken a liking to it, though he tended to eat light in the morning. He preferred a quick jog, then a big meal, and then he’d go tackle the weights later once his chores were done and finish off with a nice long run in the early afternoon.

Nowadays, he needed all that to keep himself feeling limber and relaxed. That was one of those double-edged sword things, really; he’d built himself into something pretty special, even uniquely so if he was being honest, but now he couldn’t stop or he felt awful. Or he felt jittery, anxious, desperate to get some activity…get that dopamine hit, really.

Xiù got it. As much as Julian fretted for how active she was around her pregnancy, she was just as kinetic as ever, though she had at least quit the pole dancing classes when she got her positive test back. She gave him a swat on the butt as she slipped past him and under his arm with the morning’s laundry tucked against her hip, grinned at him, then vanished into the garage.

On the whole, it was a good morning.


Date Point: 16y6m1w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Gabriel Arés

Sometimes, Gabe just knew something was sideways. He couldn’t prove it, couldn’t do anything but say what his gut was telling him…and the previous week’s shock death of the Secretary of Agriculture just…felt wrong.

On the surface, it seemed like a tragedy. A healthy, fit man in his mid-fifties had died of a sudden heart attack right in his suite. The Secret Service had immediately summoned the police, and Gabe had by courtesy invited the FBI; they were on foreign territory, after all. This was a Foltchian show, not an American one. A painstaking investigation—by Gabe’s men, not the FBI—had revealed…

Well, a whole lot of nothing. Secretary Guillory had, by all evidence, helped himself to some wine from the wet bar, got himself a bit more comfortable, turned on the news, took a nap…and died of a massive heart attack.

Gabe had absolutely no doubt the toxicology report would show nothing suspicious, too.

On the face of it, it really did just look like a tragic death of unexpected medical causes. Except….

Secretary Guillory had no history of heart trouble, cholesterol problems, hypertension or anything like that. He’d definitely gained a bit of a dad-bod paunch over the years, but it wasn’t anything to write home about. He’d been a linebacker in college and had retained much of that strength over the years. The man wasn’t a fitness fanatic by any measure, but he’d certainly kept up on exercise, and he’d been on prescription statins that had kept his blood pressure perfectly within the normal range.

Men like that did occasionally just tragically drop dead, and Gabe honestly would have written the entire incident off as a genuine tragedy…except. His investigators had asked to interview the Secret Service agents who were on-duty at the time…

…And they were already through the Array, out of his reach forever.

That was deeply suspicious. In fact, it set alarm bells ringing in Gabe’s head. So he’d gone over the surveillance footage again… and found something very interesting indeed. At exactly the perfect time of night, a very familiar little juggernaut of a man was caught on CCTV, jogging past—or possibly out of—the Statler Hotel.

That was odd. Gabe knew Hoeff. They were good friends in fact, and the two had set off on a hilarious adventure to learn how to play golf very, very badly. Hoeff was a morning person, not a nightowl. He always did his runs at the buttcrack of dawn.

He also didn’t use running suits. Ever. And he had no reason to be anywhere near the hotel…

Nevertheless, Gabe tracked him via the street cameras as, at the wrong time of day and in the wrong kind of clothing, he traced a lazy loop through the wrong part of town, then over Westbridge, along riverside park, and back across the bridge by Rooney’s, two laps around the Alien Quarter’s perimeter and then back across town to jog around Palace Lake.

It was a decent run. A lot further than Gabe himself ever bothered with nowadays. And every last step of it was in clear view of the cameras.

It was, in short, much too perfect.

But that was the problem. Too perfect was still perfect. A suspiciously watertight alibi was still watertight. And there was no indication whatsoever of foul play in Guillory’s death.

Nevertheless…. Gabe knew. Even though it was unprovable, he knew. And that sort of thing simply could not be allowed to pass without at least a modest token of protest.

Gabe drummed his fingers on his desk as he thought, and finally decided there was only one thing to do in these situations: play golf.

He called Hoeff.

An hour later, they met on the fairway, and a few more details tickled at Gabe’s senses as he shook his friend’s hand. Hoeff had always been a hairy guy, bordering on having his own personal sweater. Now, the man’s forearms were perfectly smooth-skinned.

“It’s hot on Akyawentuo,” was of course a great excuse…

They got around to the third hole before Gabe, with his ball firmly lost in the rough, decided it was high time he start angling toward his suspicions. He knew he wasn’t going to get anything—Hoeff was far too shrewd for that—but he could still make his point.

“…I’ll be glad to put the business with Secretary Guillory behind me,” he commented.

“I bet. Can’t have been a fun time for you.”

“Wouldn’t be fun at the best of times, but something’s been… I dunno. My spider sense is tingling.”

Hoeff nodded amiably. “Yeah, I getcha.”

“It’s never failed me so far,” Gabe added.

“A man should listen to an instinct like that, I reckon.”

Gabe nodded, and made a soft grunt as he found his ball. He shut up long enough to successfully take a stroke, and by pure fluke chance it rolled onto the green.

Hoeff chuckled. “I swear you’ve been practicing without me, man. You ain’t never made a shot that good!”

“If I knew how to do that on command, this game would already be over,” Gabe retorted, wading back out of the rough to join him. “Anyway. Spider sense.”

“What about it?”

Gabe knew there wasn’t any point beating around the bush. “Daniel, I’m going to be suspending your personal protection license. I thought I ought to tell you in person.”

Hoeff stopped lining up his swing. He paused, then wound up and whacked the ball firmly down the fairway.

“I think I should warn you of the consequences of that, Gabe. Firstly, and immediately, you will almost certainly earn the ire of Ambassador Rockefeller. Secondly, that will more or less bring our training work with JETS teams on Akyawentuo to a dead stop, because I am the registered agent for arms traveling across the Array. Are you sure you’ve thought this through?”

“Ciertamente. You know me.”

“I do. I happen to like you a lot, for whatever fuckin’ reason. You’re a good man. And I don’t want to see you do something that won’t go well for you. Now don’t get me wrong,” he offered immediately, “I’m all about doing the right thing, even if it sucks doing it. So if you think this is your hill to die on, by all means, do. But everything we choose has consequences, man.”

Hoeff’s expression was mild. Almost friendly. But that, right there, made Gabe certain. Hoeff was a man who could shut off his remorse like a switch. Gabe had never seen it in him before, but he was seeing it now.

That was also the moment he knew he was about to set some very unfortunate things into motion. But there was a principle at stake here, and old men near the ends of their careers could afford a little principle.

He tapped his thumb on his golf clubs. “Consequences,” he said, “are exactly the point.”

Hoeff didn’t betray any emotion. He simply reached into his pants and produced a pistol. And then another. And a knife from above his ankle. And a small device Gabe couldn’t identify.

“Well, in that case, I gotta go make some phone calls.” He set everything down on the green in front of them.

“…Yeah.” Gabe agreed, trying to keep a touch of bitterness out of his voice. He’d made his career on being an honest and by-the-book sort of man, so being confronted with…

…Well, with the unprovable certainty that a man he liked and respected had assassinated—most likely on orders from the very highest authority—a member of the US cabinet under his, Gabe’s, nose and that not only the Secret Service but also somebody at the Jump Array authority must have been complicit…

…It didn’t sit right. He was far from being okay with it, in fact. But the only thing he could do was raise the gentlest and most discreet of protests.

Stripping Hoeff of his license was as far as he could go without things becoming official. It was unquestionably within his authority, nobody could overrule or question him on it, but it was enough to sting Hoeff’s superiors and send his message: that he knew, and did not approve one bit.

There’d be a reply, of course. And in that contest of gentle power, Gabe was only ever going to be a loser. But sometimes, the only honorable thing a man could do was to lose gracefully on his own terms. It was that thought that kept him calm and outwardly civil.

“I look forward to hearing from the people you call,” he said. “I hope my successor reverses this decision, I really do. And for what it’s worth… I’m sorry.”

“Nah, it’s just business. Nothin’ personal.” They shook hands. If Hoeff’s grip was iron-like to the point of near agony, Gabe didn’t betray any discomfort. That was as clear and stealthy a warning as he could have received.

Be careful.

Hoeff had an awfully unsubtle delivery for such a discreet message.

“…I was thinking of retiring anyway.” Gabe just barely managed to avoid shaking his hand out.

“Funny thing, retiring. I don’t know many people who actually manage that trick. I’d try pretty hard though, if I were you.”

“I’ll take that advice.”

“Okay. Have a good life, Gabe.”

“You too.”

They went their separate ways.


Date Point: 16y6m1w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Daniel “Chimp” Hoeff

“I can’t help it, big guy. I gotta step down. For now, at least.”

“This is fuckin’ bullshit! What the fuck is he doin’?! Does he know how much he’s fucking shit up with this little pissing contest?!”

“He knows exactly how much. I don’t worry myself with those kinda games. That’s for diplomats and special envoys to worry about.”

“Well how am I supposed to worry about it? A decision like that just goes… I mean, I don’t know why he’d make it!”

Hoeff tried really, really hard not to roll his eyes, and somehow succeeded. “He has his reasons. Don’t take it personally.” That was probably one of the things he really liked about Julian. The big bastard was a lot of things, but jaded sure as fuck weren’t one of them.

For that matter, the same was true for Gabe. Anyone who stuck up for their principles like that was too idealistic to be called jaded.

Too bad, really. He liked Gabe. That was gonna be a friendship he missed.

“What possible reasons?!” Julian demanded.

The best part of this situation was that Hoeff didn’t even need to lie. All he had to do was very carefully tell the truth.

“Oh, that’s easy. He thinks I might have had a hand in some foul play. Not uncommon, really. Guys like me always seem to get tangled up in shit like this.”

“Wh–does he have any evidence?”

“‘Course not. I ain’t in jail, am I?”

“Then—”

“Julian. Bro. This is the Game. Don’t worry your pretty head about it too much, okay? It’ll work out. Pretty quick too, I bet. This isn’t even close to the weirdest bullshit I’ve gone through, and there’s gonna be weirder still. Just go with the flow.”

A part of Hoeff sorta regretted lying to Julian by telling him nothing but the truth, but Hoeff took his protection duties very, very seriously. That meant protecting his favorite slabmonkey from anything that might harm him. Including Hoeff.

“…How quick?”

“Dunno. However long it takes for his replacement to take over and put it right. I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do in the meantime, though. I’m gonna send a video message to Claire and apologize my head off, then I’m gonna go lift the entire goddamn gym, and then I think I’ll probably eat way too much sushi at Kobe’s. They got Gaoian sushi there an’ I wanna try it.”

“I warn you, it’s an… experience…”

“What kinda experience?”

“Uh…well, they’ve got that nose, y’know? They like really strong flavors to contrast against that. I mean, I liked it, but…”

“I’ve seen you slurp raw bone marrow right out of a Werne’s thighbone.”

“Yeah. I’m maybe not the guy to ask. But they put on a heck of a show too so I’d still go. Maybe take Claire?”

“Maybe. Sounds good. We ain’t been on a proper date in civilization yet.”

“Definitely fix that.”

“Yeah.” Hoeff stood up. “Anyway. I’ll see you at the gym on Friday, yeah?”

Julian nodded. “Yeah, sure.”

“Cool. Say hi to Al and Xiù for me.”

And with that little bit of duty done, Hoeff clapped Julian on the shoulder and left.

He checked his phone on the way back to the hotel. Still no sign of Briggs, or the Handler. That was the bit that worried him. She’d been… well, a lot stronger than he’d predicted. Strong enough that he was kinda glad she’d just pimp-slapped him and run, ‘cuz if she’d decided to do what she’d done to Agent Childs…

He set the thought aside. Wherever she’d got to, the bitch was down a working hand and most of her support network. And the APA was unravelling fast. Their days were numbered.

But that was exactly when they’d be most dangerous…


Date Point: 16y6m1w3d AV
Abergerrig, New Belfast County, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Wilhelmina “Bill” Briggs-Davies

“Easy! Easy! We’re on your side!”

Bill uncoiled. She’d been expecting to walk right out into a wall of guns and cops. After the shit that’d gone down in NYC, her Handler had stuffed her into a cargo container—one of the expensive ones, with a stasis field—and promised she’d come out somewhere useful.

Considering the shit that’d gone down in NYC, it was a fuckin’ miracle that his plan had worked. The farmboy with the weird British accent who’d opened the doors sure didn’t look like a cop.

Still…

“…Prove it.”

“Wisdom is the most exquisite curse.”

Bill relaxed, and ducked out of the container. “You know he never actually said that, right?”

“Actually he did, but he maybe didn’t say it first. The women rarely get mentioned in history.”

Fuck, the geeky little shit almost pushed his glasses up his nose. Woulda, probably, if he’d been wearing some. Whatever. Little guy had some kinda hangups or whatever going on. Bill settled for not commenting and just said: “Hm.”

She looked around. She was in a barn or workshop or something. Kinda agricultural from some of the shit about the place, but there was some decent tech too, and electronics all over a workbench in the corner including what looked like actual field emitters. “…The fuck is this place?”

“We’re on Cimbrean, about two hundred miles outside Folctha. You were in stasis just over a week… Jesus, they said your hand was bad, but…”

Bill grimaced at her stump. The skin had grown over it while she slept in the car. “Yeah, I heal quick. And I’m fuckin’ starving, you got anything to eat?”

“Uh, sure. They said you’d be hungry…” The farmboys beckoned her through a workshop. The one with the goofy accent, who’d so far been their spokesman, had a bad case of couldn’t-shut-the-fuck-up. “I was going to try and make you a prosthetic. I know how.”

“Uh-huh.”

“It’s actually pretty simple with modern—”

“Okay, shut up.” Bill palmed his head and squeezed just hard enough to give him a taste of how easily she’d squish it if she wanted to. “I’m tired as shit, I got shot like four hours ago, an’ you are giving me the worst headache. Go get me a fuckin’ sandwich.”

“R-right.”

Still. Annoying, but kinda cute in a dorky sorta way. And he was looking at her in just the right way, too. Maybe later she could break in a new toy…

Mission first.

“So. Folctha huh?” she asked of the so-far silent one as she flopped down on a couch and the dorky one fled into the kitchen.

“Nope.”

“…So where are we?”

“Little farm town way outside of Folctha, in New Belfast county. We can’t operate in the city itself.”

“…What’s that you got there?”

The guy grinned and unholstered it. “Gauss pistol. Homemade, but it’s good for five shots. We have rifles too.”

“Okay!” Impressed, Bill held out her hand and he pressed the weapon into it. It was stamped metal and carved wood, which meant it felt and looked like something from a hundred years ago, but it fit solidly and comfortably in her hand. “Only five?”

“More if we rig it up to a capacitor belt. Ammo isn’t the problem, power is.”

“…The Handler said you’d only wake me up when you had a target for me. If I’m on Cimbrean, it had better fuckin’ be Etsicitty.”

Quiet guy nodded. “Watching him wasn’t easy. He has serious protection. But we’ve been working around the security in Folctha for a long time, we know how to stay under their radar, and now a vulnerability’s come up…”

Bill grinned and sat forward.

“…Tell me,” she said.


Date Point: 16y6m2w AV

The Doghouse Gym, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Julian Etsicitty

“—Hnnnngh! Fuck!!”

Adam chuckled. “See, Tiny? I told’ya Playboy here would kick ‘yer ass…”

Julian grinned fiercely and tightened his hold by squeezing down hard around Tiny’s waist and pulling his bicep as tightly as he could into the huge man’s neck. He’d gotten really dang good on the mat over the years, and it was gratifying as fuck to use it against a badass like Walsh. Tiny tapped out after a while, and the two of them distangled, then pulled each other into a fierce, brotherly hug.

And then flopped to the mat, utterly spent.

“…Jesus, dude.” Walsh coughed a bit as he sucked air. “I gotta…up my game…”

Julian wasn’t exactly in any condition for a witty comeback, but he did at least manage a bit of bravado. “Gotta….keep Vemik in line…fuck.”

Hoeff gave Adam’s special super-heavy punching bag one last kick, one that would easily have broken pretty much anyone’s ribs, then sauntered over to look at the wreckage.

“You two are adorable.”

“You’re…you’re next, Chimp…” Somehow, that threat sounded much less…well, threatening once it came out of Julian’s mouth. Probably better to catch one’s breath first. He should also probably get up and get on with his workout.

Of course, lying on the nice cool mat for the next fifty years sounded pretty good, too…

Adam’s big smiling brick-face suddenly appeared in Julian’s field of view. “Right! Good match you two! Now get up, let’s see how you three are coming along!”

Tiny and Julian groaned and stumbled back up to their feet, helping each other stand tall. All in all…it was a good day. Adam was on a month-long “staycation” to hang out, spend time with his wife and child, and probably work vigorously on the next one, too. He was also using all that free time to train like the insane freak that he was, and inflict a small taste of that insanity on his friends. Yesterday it had been a literal day-long event with Daar, who was lately spending a lot of time on Cimbrean. Today though, Julian, Hoeff, and Walsh were Adam’s playthings.

It’d been a “light” day by the borderline criminally-insane standards Adam inflicted on his friends. All they had done was play a little basketball, lift a little, practiced some nicely difficult yoga-like something-or-other in front of the gym’s big mirror, and then beat each other stupid.

Well… Adam didn’t properly tussle, for fear that he might accidentally break his playmates.

Now, though, they were back in front of the mirror, showing themselves off for Adam’s critical eye. It had once felt weirdly awkward, but he was a strength coach first and foremost and could spot any problem with posture, asymmetry, maybe a muscle that was about to cramp up…

And holy hell was it surprisingly hard work! Julian had learned that prepping for the Laid Bare shoot not all that long ago. Chimp and Tiny were just now learning that little tidbit for themselves, and both were full of complaints…and apparently, lots of little issues that were gonna require some agonizing massage time to work out. Julian was sympathetic, but well…

“Never thought I’d see myself looking anything like this,” Hoeff grunted. “Christ.” The mirror wasn’t just there for vanity; there was no better way for a fella to self-check his form—very important under a barbell—or identify issues before they became a problem.

Adam had a God-given gift as a physical training coach, there was no denying it. He could whip nearly anyone into an impressive athlete practically overnight, if they were willing to suffer for it. Give him someone who had their own natural blessings, even if they didn’t know it at first…

“I think I’m doin’ pretty good, huh?” Julian asked as he bent his arms and pulled his entire upper body into a super fun “most muscular.” He’d never quite stop feeling goofy about posing in front of a mirror—and fuck, the teasing he’d suffer if Al and Xiù ever found out about it—but he had to admit… it was good for the ego. And fun, too! But sometimes, when he saw what he’d managed to build himself into… Christ. Hoeff was entirely right.

“Fuck yeah! You’re doing damn good!” Adam agreed. He was posing in front of the mirror too, which was…humbling, to say the least…but there really wasn’t any better encouragement a fella could get than from a man like him. Julian felt himself grinning stupidly from the praise.

The real purpose behind their bro-fun was training, though. Adam’s fingers poked and prodded in a painfully businesslike way as he checked on a long-standing point of concern, then he nodded and stepped back. “Yeah. You don’t need anything ‘cept maybe a bit of accessory work. But you two,” he added, turning to Hoeff and Walsh, “You’ve been ignoring your aches and pains for a long damn time, haven’t you? We’re gonna need to sort that out…”

Julian grinned sadistically at Tiny. “Oh, you’re gonna love the fuck outta that, buddy.”

“Am I?”

“Oh yeah, it hurts like a motherfuck, trust me. But it’s nice when he’s got you fixed up.”

“What about Chimp?”

“Yeah,” Adam chimed in. “We gonna get you fixed up?”

“Try it and I’ll stab you right in your pretty fuckin’ face,” Hoeff replied, amicably.

“Well, you can try and stab me, little guy…but okay. Offer’s on the table, if you’re interested.”

“…Maybe. I wanna hit the weights first, though. Never skip leg day.”

Adam nodded seriously. In his Temple of Slab, there was no higher truth.

“Wait,” Julian laughed, “what about our run?”

Hoeff groaned. “Dude, I can’t fuckin’ keep up with you. Your jog is nearly a sprint for me, and ain’t no fuckin’ way I’m gonna go thirty fuckin’ miles ‘round the lake at that pace.”

“I can slow down!”

“You’ve never once slowed down for me, fuckin’ long-leg weirdo.”

“My legs aren’t that long…”

“They are next to mine! Go fuckin’ run, I ain’t gonna be ‘yer pet Scrappy-Doo. You told your team you’re gonna run, right?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Good, they gotta be in place before you go. Ain’t none of us normals can keep up, got it?”

“Alright,” Julian laughed again, “I got it!”

“Heh. Anyway!” Adam turned his attention back to Walsh. “So how ‘bout it? It’ll hurt but it’s worth it, I promise.”

“Well…okay, then. What’s next?”

“You lie face-down on the mat, I go get my tools. I got worked over fuckin’ bad by Daar yesterday too, so I won’t be gentle…”

Tiny laughed a bit nervously, but Julian cocked his head curiously. “Why the fuck does that matter?”

“Never you mind, you’ve got a run to do. Get!”

“Alright! Ain’t gotta tell me twice!” Julian chuckled. “Good luck, Tiny!”

He thumped upstairs before Walsh could protest and decided against a heavy running vest for today. Instead he filled up his water pack, limbered up a bit, and set off on a nicely quick run.

Julian loved running. Always had, always would. And cross-country running was his favorite. He didn’t bother with roads here, he stuck to the minimal trails and nice, soft grass wherever he could. He preferred barefoot running and could run over pretty much anything, but he had to admit that turf was a lot nicer on his feet than hard concrete or gravel. The trails were all packed dirt, and where they were graveled over it was mostly to prevent erosion. Not bad at all.

He took the lake trail, the less popular one that ran counter-clockwise around the water away from the resort spa and Sara’s Beach. The lake’s west coast was completely terraformed, being the spot where the “Skidmark” had made its closest approach to Folctha. One of Jennifer Delaney’s long-abandoned campsites was a mile or so upstream, immortalized by a marker stone.

Julian had always found that funny. Those markers might as well read “On this spot, several years ago, an Irish lass took a dump in the woods.”

It was a shame she’d never been heard from again after leaving Cimbrean. She’d become a kind of modern-day Amelia Earhart in that regard: The mysterious space-babe pirate queen who’d left such an indelible mark on a whole planet, and through it the whole galaxy and the course of human history, before vanishing over the horizon and into legend.

And speaking of legends…

“Wurf!!”

Julian chuckled. “Hi, Bozo…”

The dog spun excitedly, announced one of his thundering barks again, and fell in alongside him. Julian wasn’t quite sure exactly when or how the giant mutt had figured out his running habits, or knew exactly when and where to wait for him, but he knew why Bozo came along—there were very few people in Folctha who could actually keep up with his insatiable appetite to run and play.

Julian had to wonder just how much longer that would last. Bozo was somewhere on the wrong side of seven or maybe even eight years old at this point, and going gray around the muzzle and cheeks. His energy seemed endlessly youthful, but a dog that size just wouldn’t live long.

He shook off the gloomy thought. Dogs were all about the here and now, and Julian felt there was a wisdom in that. He grinned, picked up his pace, and the booming dog fell in alongside him at a happy lope with his ears and jowls flopping majestically, though he sometimes dashed off ahead or fell behind whenever he encountered an Interesting Smell.

The transplanted Earthling life in and around the Skidmark was a blend of European and North American species well-suited to the local cool, damp, temperate climate. The trees were all fast-growing, chosen primarily for their ability to fix the soil and prevent erosion. Slower-growing species would be introduced in due course.

Of course, bringing in rapid-growing trees and letting them compete with the much less aggressive Cimbrean natives had created problems which in turn demanded cures that hopefully weren’t worse than the disease. Mark Tisdale had pioneered the introduction of beaver with remarkable success: for whatever reason, the big water-loving rodents just didn’t like Cimbrean wood. Maybe it was too porous or something, but if there was any other kind of wood available to make their dams and lodges out of, they’d go with that instead. So they kept their fellow Earthlings in check, managed the waterways, created wetland…

…And reminded Julian of home.

He’d sold the land in Minnesota, eventually. That had been a wrench, but he just couldn’t face going back, and frankly he couldn’t risk the security headaches. He didn’t want to inflict that on the neighbors either, and if any of them were glad to see him and his space-troubles gone, at least they were polite and supportive enough not to let any of it show. Thanks to the Byron Group’s lawyers, it had legally been his to sell, which for years was not at all obviously true. And he was pretty damn happy with his life in Folctha now, but it was nice to be reminded of younger, simpler times occasionally.

Besides, those beavers would probably need trapping in a few years…

He never got tired of nature. There was always something different to see, or hear, or smell, or experience. It never ran out of its little surprises, never lacked for a drama to show whether big or small.

And Folctha kept producing special surprises, too. For instance, the natives were proving to be a lot hardier than anyone predicted. Oh, sure, a lot of them were on a one-way trip to extinction, but several more were adapting to the new ecological opportunities around them. Cimbrean “birds” were turning out to be surprisingly clever when it came to Earthling nuts, for instance, and had learned how to raid the squirrels’ winter caches. A few of the folivore “bird” species were absolutely thriving on the richer, denser deathworld vegetation, and one native was actually giving the terraforming effort a serious headache after turning out to be completely immune to bee stings.

Julian had long ago learned the trick of running quietly. He did that now, as much to be a polite visitor in nature’s garden as for the challenge; it always took more out of him to lope along at what was effectively a prowling jog rather than the more efficient stride Adam had eventually beaten into him.

It tended to eat up the miles faster, and heck, he’d finally admitted it to himself; he was addicted to all the hard work. The lower gravity weirdly made it more difficult too, because he had to constantly moderate his stride, which meant he couldn’t zone out, couldn’t let his muscles just do the run like they would normally want.

Running without the vest was harder.

He slowed down for a sip of water at the imaginatively named “Little Rock,” a weather-rounded knob of stone that thrust up through the earth to stand about twice Julian’s height.

Actually, there was a pretty good view to be had up there, so he decided to enjoy himself and took a running leap right up to the top of the thing. He landed it surprisingly well, and had to pause for a moment and marvel that he’d just made a jump like that. Lower gravity or not…

It was amazing what a little height could do to a view, even if it was only like five meters higher or whatever. It lifted him above the underbrush and gave him a steeper angle down into the lake’s clear waters. He watched the ripples of fish under the surface for a minute, and craned upwards to see if he could spot any sign of the wrecked spaceships that had once littered the bottom, relics of a battle from before Folctha was even a preliminary idea.

Maybe he could, maybe he couldn’t. He wasn’t sure.

“Wurf!”

Julian glanced down at Bozo, who was circling the rock and whining at the lack of obvious canine-accessible ways up. “What, you’re chicken or something?”

“Wurf!!”

“Aww, c’mon! Jump up and enjoy the view!” Julian bent down and slapped his thighs to encourage the huge mutt. “C’mon boy, you can do it!”

Bozo whined, scratched at the rock and backed up a bit with his tail wagging uncertainly. He barked again and spun in a circle.

“C’mon! Dogs can jump like crazy, you can totally make this!”

Bozo backed up a bit further, bounced on his paws a couple times, and then…

Thanks to a thundering run-up, a vigorous leap of faith and some paw-scrabbling, the huge mutt almost made it. Julian was able to catch him and drag him safely up to the top, where he balanced uncertainly on four legs and wagged nervously. Bozo, it seemed, was not fond of heights.

Julian made a fuss of him regardless. “Good boy! You’ll do better next time, huh?!”

That earned him a wag, but Bozo had clearly decided that he’d rather be safely back on ground level. He turned and skittered his way down the rock again, dropped to the ground with a thump, and then danced in a circle looking rather pleased with himself.

“Scaredy.”

Bozo parked his butt on the ground and yawned. Then he looked away and his ears pricked up at something. His tail thumped in the dirt a couple of times, and then he was up and haring off back the way they’d came. Julian couldn’t tell what the dog had scented, but he did take it as a hint. He was there to exercise, not sightsee.

“Yeah, you’re probably right…”

He scrambled down off the rock and continued his run. Bozo would catch up.

He was about half way around the lake when something tickled his instincts. Some little thing was out of place that he couldn’t put his finger on or consciously identify…. But he knew, and immediately he was on edge.

He slowed his pace, listened carefully, kept an eye on the bushes and trees around him. If he was a predator, where would he be hiding?

He was looking right at the perfect spot when the largest woman he’d ever seen blurred out of it with a knife. She was as exaggerated a picture of feminine athleticism as the HEAT were exaggerations of male physicality, all hard strata of muscle and a rock-solid core.

He…wasn’t quite sure what he did. Well, no. He wasn’t sure how he knew what to do, but what he did do was something he’d later have trouble believing.

Catch, deflect, twist—

His attacker went sprawling in the grass, having gone clear over his shoulder in a textbook throw. He kicked her hard and then followed up with a stomp, twisted on her arm for good measure, dislocated her elbow and definitely busted a few ribs. She dropped the knife, so Julian scooped it up and flung it into the lake.

Then he ran. He ran like the fucking wind.

After all, he’d been helping Firth teach kids to do exactly that if somebody ever came at them with a knife, so why the hell wouldn’t he heed his own advice? The scream behind him, however, was not a scream of pain or defeat, but of visceral rage.

…What he’d just done to her would have straight killed a normal sized man. Julian realized right then and there he was up against something much worse than a random hulked out mugger.

He poured on the speed, triple-pressed on his watch, and hoped the cavalry would arrive soon.


Wilhelmina “Bill” Briggs

Etsicitty was fucking annoying.

Bill’s elbow started healing almost as soon as he broke it, though she had to do a one-handed push-up to get to her feet. The ribs, though, were sending spikes of pain through her and making breathing difficult.

Fucking Hell. So he wasn’t just a boy scout after all. The fucker moved so goddamned fuckin’ fast she couldn’t see what the fuck he’d done. One second she was about to close with him and stab the fucker right in the heart, and the next—

And now he was running away, too!

Didn’t matter. He was unarmed, and a long way from help, and he couldn’t heal like she did.

She drew the gauss pistol. She’d been hoping to enjoy cutting on him a bit, but if the monkey-raping fuck wasn’t gonna play ball then she’d happily settle for shooting him instead. She had a second knife anyway.

There was a clear, straight stretch of trail. She paused, lined up a shot….

The pistol kicked in her hand like somebody had hit it with a baseball bat and a tree branch several feet above Etsicitty’s head exploded in a shower of splintered wood. He yelled in fright, covered his head, jinked and dodged.

Cursing all the things that were way more difficult to do one-handed, Bill put her head down and charged after him. At least if she hit him he’d be fucked, but she needed to be closer.

Shit, the fucker could run. But Bill had clocked herself at more than thirty miles an hour thanks to the Cruezzir. Branches and sticks whipped her face and stung her arms as she opened up to full speed and started slowly closing the gap. Too slowly.

…Fuck. He’d been running for miles and he could still pour on the speed…too fuckin’ bad he had to die. Boy scout was a fuckin’ specimen. She’d love to drug his pretty ass up and put that huge dick of his to proper use…hell, Bill bet he’d have lasted for weeks before he broke.

She grinned as she rounded a bend and found she’d halved the gap.

Too bad they’d never get to find out together…


Julian Etsicitty

How? Fucking how?!

Julian was fast. He knew he was fast, fast enough to embarrass nearly anyone. But the crazy bitch chasing him with a fucking cannon could run like the goddamn Terminator.

…The sharp bit of wood in his foot from the tree she’d exploded wasn’t helping, either. Fuck running barefoot. Thank God it wasn’t in the sole of his foot or he’d be hobbled…and dead.

As it was, it just hurt like a motherfucker and bled everywhere.

Just got the fucking thing regrown, too…

Welp. If he got through this, it’d be another visit to Nofl, maybe. Or whatever. He gritted his teeth as he got back on the straight path to Little Rock, breathing hard, and glanced over his shoulder.

She was big, yeah. Easily the biggest woman he’d ever seen, probably somewhere in the neighborhood of four hundred pounds and not a scrap of it was fat. She was as big and as dangerously muscled as a lioness, and probably just as dangerously fast. Her expression was pure feral murderous glee. He’d never seen somebody look so genuinely psychotic before.

The real problem, though, was the gun. Julian could out-wrestle Ten’Gewek and even a bunch of the HEAT’s troopers on a really good day, especially if he’d had a nice good rest and a nice big meal. Now, he was half-spent from being twenty miles into a long-ass run after a morning workout, and he was deliberately running on something close to empty, too.

Not really a good hand to be working with, but escape wasn’t looking like an option. He’d have turned and faced her, if not for that fucking gun.

When Julian had been about fourteen his Grampa had taken him to a historical re-enactment, and they’d seen a musket being fired. The historian had bragged up the gun, and mentioned how a lead ball that big and that fast didn’t leave men to elegantly clutch their chest and collapse; It left their arm twenty feet away in a ditch.

The musket had sounded a lot like that pistol.

The crazy bitch took another shot as if to prove the point, and drilled a crazy cracked bullseye in the side of the Little Rock. The round missed Julian so closely that it felt like a stinging slap on the arm.

Well, nothing for it. He’d need to risk a fight. He gritted his teeth and vaulted the rock, just like he’d done before, slithered down the other side and ducked low. She’d have to get close to draw a bead on him, and he just prayed that—

“WURF!! WURF!!!”

The pistol fired again as a furry black, brown and white missile shot out of the woods. Then there was a furious riot of snarling and human shrieking.

Oh fuck no please—

He darted back around the rock. The crazy psycho bitch was rolling on the ground trying to fend off the enraged dog, gun discarded in the grass next to her. Before he could act, Bozo got his teeth around her throat and SHOOK.

There was a grisly crack. She gurgled, spit what sounded like a curse, yanked a knife from a sheath on her hip and stabbed.

“NO!!”

Julian leapt forward, heart leaping into his throat, but Bozo wasn’t done. The dog made a noise he’d never heard come out of a canine throat before, shook his head viciously and ripped…

Blood went everywhere. It soaked Bozo’s head, soaked the dirt. A spray of it jetted in Julian’s face and blinded him. He groped forward, found the gun under his hand and wiped his face clear…

But the fight was already over. The crazy bitch’s desperate attempts to hold closed a throat that wasn’t even there anymore weakened, became a few frantic spasms, then failed entirely. A horrible rattling gurgle bubbled out of the disgusting mess Bozo had made of her neck and she slumped, eyes staring glassily at the sky.

Bozo spat out a gobbet of gristly meat, limped a few steps away, whimpered, then sagged to the grass.

Julian was at his side in an instant. The knife was still buried between the dog’s ribs. He knew better than to pull it out, but…

…But that just meant there was nothing he could do. Bozo coughed, whimpered again, and licked his hand. His tail thumped a few times, weakly.

Julian realized he was weeping. He stroked Bozo’s head.

“Good boy…” he whispered. “…Good dog…”

Bozo’s tail thumped the ground one last time, then he rested his bloody chin on Julian’s knee and shut his eyes. Julian scratched behind his ears, Bozo gave a kind of grumbling sigh…

…and was gone.

When Julian’s protection team finally caught up two minutes later, they found him sobbing brokenly.


Date Point: 16y6m2w2d AV

Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Gabriel Arés

Meeting the ambassador was a courtesy. But it was, Gabe felt, an owed courtesy.

He did after all bear some blame for the debacle with Julian Etsicitty and Wilhelmina Briggs that had, mercifully, played out far in the woods out of the public eye.

The fallout was far-reaching. The SOR’s beloved regimental mascot had fallen, an influential local figure who—worse—also happened to be a US government official had been attacked and survived only by the barest margin, by the woman right at the top of the USA’s most wanted list, who had somehow been smuggled into the city that he, Gabe, protected.

And it had happened only a day or two after Gabe had personally stripped the Special Envoy’s three-man security team leader of his firearms license.

Ambassador Rockefeller was being cruelly understanding about it all. Understanding… but firm.

“You understand of course that we would very much appreciate an explanation,” he said.

On that point, Gabe didn’t technically have to give him an inch. Pragmatically, though… perhaps an inch wasn’t too much to ask. He was treading on potentially very thin ice.

“There was an irregularity,” he said, calmly. He’d broken out his cane again, even though he technically didn’t need it nowadays thanks to the nerve regeneration. But it came in handy as a prop sometimes, to make him seem older and more harmless than he truly was.

He doubted whether Rockefeller was fooled, but the point was not to fool him.

“It must have been quite an irregularity,” the ambassador said.

“The kind that might be nothing, but which a man in my position can’t ignore,” Gabe replied.

There was a brief, wordless kind of a standoff.

“…A valued and well-liked member of my staff was attacked, Mister Arés,” Rockefeller said, breaking it. “I find it hard to be content that he was left vulnerable over an irregularity.”

“Mister Etsicitty is a good friend of my son’s,” Gabe reminded him. “I’m as shaken by the attack on him as you are. If you want my assurance that I would never knowingly endanger him…”

“No, no. I appreciate that you would never knowingly, do so…” Rockefeller agreed, pointedly.

“If only we could see the future,” Gabe said. “Like I’ve always said to my kids, the best you can do is be true to yourself, uphold your oaths and stand firm on your principles. It’s not a perfect strategy, but it usually steers us right.”

He stressed the word ‘oaths’ just enough to make it the focus of the sentence.

“Mister Arés… I hope you appreciate that to my knowledge, Mister Hoeff has only ever done his duty, and his job, and upheld his own oaths…”

Gabe gave him a long, slow look. That, he felt, was the closest thing he was ever going to get to an outright admission of foul play at the very highest level.

“I… appreciate that,” he said. Neither man broke eye contact. “And I hope you appreciate that sometimes… events just have a kind of momentum to them, don’t they? When everyone involved is true to themselves and their duty as they see it, the future can become a fixed thing.”

“That is precisely my worry. I am hoping this unpleasantness won’t escalate any further.”

“There, Ambassador, I think I can ease your worries. I had a breakfast meeting up at the Palace this morning. The Prime Minister has graciously accepted my resignation.”

“She has?”

“Yes. I… Well. My son and daughter-in-law tell me they intend to have a large family. And the tragic case of Secretary Guillory has made me see that I wouldn’t want, uh, work-related stress to drive me into an early grave and deprive them of their abuelo…”

“No…” the Ambassador agreed. “…No, I suppose not. But I hope you’re not falling on your sword over this affair, that’s not what we’re asking for.”

“I know. Thank you. But I still think the time has come to pass the torch. I’ve been in this job for ten years!”

Rockefeller nodded. “What will you do in your retirement? Write a book, perhaps?”

Gabe shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. I like my privacy… and my discretion.”

That was the thing he knew he had to believably convey. Fortunately, Rockefeller seemed happy enough. He smiled warmly, stood, and extended his hand.

“Well, if you’re determined to bow out of public life…”

“I am,” Gabe assured him, and shook his hand. The Ambassador’s grip was firm and warm, and he added a clap on the shoulder for good measure. His smile reached his eyes, too.

Gabe wasn’t reassured. But it was probably out of his hands at this point. He’d retire, and keep his head down, and… Well, hopefully when he inevitably did pass on, it’d be in thirty or forty years with a legion of grandchildren around his hospital bed.

One thing was for certain: he wasn’t interested in playing the game of state any longer. Not for these kinds of stakes.

Hoeff was leaning against the wall outside the embassy when he left. Arms folded, waiting patiently. They made eye contact.

“…Heard you’re stepping down,” he said.

“That’s right.”

“Think you’ll be able to stay away?”

“I have plenty of good reasons to. And plenty more to come.”

“…Good.” Hoeff straightened up and took a step closer. His voice was low and quiet. “…You nearly got my best and just about only genuine friend killed, Gabe.”

Gabe stood his ground. “…I don’t think either of us want to have a really candid conversation about that,” he said.

“…No. Prob’ly a bad idea.”

“We were friends just a few days ago, you know.”

“Yeah. We were.”

Gabe sighed. He knew an utterly impenetrable wall when he saw one. “Well, then… I wish you the best. I’m going to miss golfing with you.”

Hoeff nodded. He didn’t say anything else, just turned and walked away. Gabe got in the car and went back to his office. There was about a month of cleanup and transitional work to do in making sure his successor, whoever they’d turn out to be, could pick things up and carry on smoothly. Somehow, he doubted he’d have a hand in selecting them.

But that was okay.

He’d done enough.


Date Point: 16y7m AV

Abergerrig, New Belfast County, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Daniel “Chimp” Hoeff

It was a shame, really. Jobs like this had a way of tarnishing the souls of big damn heroes like Adam. But sometimes, the job—the mission—was way more important than the poor fucks tasked with carrying it out.

That was the thing, though. Adam volunteered for the mission, and even cut his own leave short.

The whole Regiment was out for blood. In Powell’s own growling words, the APA were ‘going to fookin’ pay for Bozo.’ Hoeff sympathized, he’d liked the dog too. But for him, there were a few other personal layers to it.

The APA had promised to kill the scientists on Akyawentuo. That included Claire. That was a fuck-up: The Lads liked the scientists, some had even visited here and there. But fuck that. Claire was his to protect, and there wasn’t much that filled Hoeff with murder more than the idea of somebody wishing her harm.

Then there was Julian, who was still badly shaken. He was a brave, tough man, but everyone had their limits, and despite everything he was a gentle soul at heart. He was a lover, a dad and a provider, and only took up the sword reluctantly. The attack, and surviving only at Bozo’s expense (or at least, that was how he saw it) had rattled him to his core, and Hoeff hadn’t had the chance to properly check on him while planning this raid.

Hoeff had found himself growing awfully protective of the big slab over the years. For more than professional reasons. His family too. Hopefully Xiù and Allison would be all the help he needed, though they too were understandably freaked.

Tonight, all of that would be answered for.

The APA cell in New York had gotten a bit sloppy with their communications discipline after their leadership were taken out. They’d made the number one cardinal mistake that a terrorist could never, ever afford: they’d sent a message to another cell.

And from that, the NSA had in short order blown apart nearly the entire organization. Raids were going on everywhere on Earth, he’d heard. Literally hundreds simultaneously, plus strikes in Franklin, New Botany and Nouveau Acadia.

In less than a night—no, in less than an hour—there would be nothing left of the APA. Most of those raids would be big, splashy affairs with lots of praise going to the local SWAT teams or whatever. For good reason, to be sure, but a few of these cells weren’t simply wannabes who might be reformed with a taste of Lady Justice. No. Some of these cells were simply going to be exterminated, including all of them on Cimbrean. Hoeff’s contribution to that butcher’s bill would be the three dozen or so targets he and the HEAT were about to service.

This cell had been the one that sheltered Bill, had served as a command-and-control node. This one had to be snuffed out entirely, all its evidence preserved, and its ringleader saved, if possible. Some of Hoeff’s former associates wanted to talk with the leader…

The heavies were there for three reasons. Firstly, the six of them were hands down the fastest men alive. Speed was everything in these things, and if you had the assets, you may as well use them. Secondly, Hoeff poached the veteran Aggressors because they were the most capable raiders on the team, and had experience with these types of missions. And thirdly, the Protectors were there to manage the perimeter, waiting outside at a fair distance.

Their job was to deal with squirters and any possible unexpected cavalry, especially if their targets had more Cruezzir monsters waiting to strike. Nobody out-ran, out-muscled, or out-fought the Protectors. Not even Firth, the one exception left standing, could humble Arés on anything. They were ruthlessly selected, trained to an utterly peerless degree, and superhumanly capable. There wouldn’t be any hope for anyone who escaped Hoeff tonight.

It had been a bit of a job getting night raid uniforms and equipment for them all, but it was that or the EV-MASS in dark grey, and that would have been too obvious. Would have involved a lot more people being brought in on the mission too, which made a leak much more likely. Oh well, needs must.

And so there they were, crouched in the rain, ready to do violence on behalf of the innocent.

Abergerrig barely existed: it was basically just a bridge over a shallow, rocky river, surrounded by a bunch of farms. But those farms were a long, long way even from New Belfast, and they, along with the fishery and the forestry plantation, had needed somewhere to put a few essentials like housing, telecom infrastructure, a general store and a vehicle charging station. So a village had been arbitrarily sketched in on the map at the only local landmark and thus Abergerrig had been born. Its population of forty-six souls lived so far from Folctha itself that even on Cimbrean’s rare clear nights there would have been no hint of light pollution from the city lights.

Tonight was not a clear night. Tonight, the usual rains had picked up a little extra from somewhere. It wasn’t raining heavily, but the droplets were fat and slow and cold. There was a lot of water coming down.

It made for pretty good concealment as the team drew near to the target farm and Hoeff skulked ahead, staying low in a drainage ditch until he was close enough to survey it.

His scope didn’t give a shit about the dark and the rain. When he looked through it, he could see the farm clearly, and more importantly the APA’s sentries. The nearest was a guy in waterproof overalls and a rain jacket standing out front of the farmhouse with what looked like a varmint rifle tucked away in the shadows behind him, ready to grab on a moment’s notice.

This was Folctha after all. It was still a British colony in its weird, unique, cosmopolitan way, and they’d inherited that British squeamishness about firearms. Shotguns and rifles were farm tools, and tightly controlled.

In the back of his head, Hoeff idly wondered if a varmint rifle could even hurt some of his HEAT friends. Arés and Firth might just be mutant enough to ignore something that small, but still: They were dealing with the APA here, a terrorist group who’d managed to get their hands on Cruezzir and a madwoman to pump it into. They had more serious hardware in there, Hoeff had seen it over a week of scoping the place out.

Which was why he was covered neck to feet in the latest full-body scale armor. It was thin enough to conceal under a baggy T-shirt, though it was still heavy as shit and noticeably bulky, even if it didn’t print much through the clothing. His HEAT bros were doing the same: no EV-MASS this time. It was hard to run a covert operation when you had giants stomping around in like a half-ton of armor or whatever the fuck it was.

The heaviest stuff they had fit Christian perfectly, and Arés was so fucking big, a man couldn’t hardly tell he was wearing armor at all. Hoeff would need to rethink his tactics if he’d be playing with HEAT again in the future. Supersoldiers changed all the rules.

All of that flit idly through his head as he scanned the scene waiting for…bingo. He grunted in satisfaction when he saw a second sentry come around the side of a barn. Sure enough, this one was packing something more serious than a varmint rifle: a Sinaloa.

The Sinaloa was a cheap homemade gauss rifle that some cartel shitstick had leaked the blueprints for onto the Internet years back. All you needed to make one was a half-decently equipped workshop and some innocuous mail-order parts. Vehicle batteries, some EM-field generator capacitors, copper wire, steel bar stock… The kinda stuff that really wouldn’t look out of place on a farm.

Being cheap came with disadvantages: It wasn’t exactly accurate, the power cells and capacitors were external so they had to be worn in a backpack or on a harness, and the ammo was pure steel rather than the ballistically superior lead. The HEAT got around steel’s inferior ballistic properties by using a jacketed lead round with a ferromagnetic plug at the back, but it was cheaper and easier to just cut down and turn some bar stock on a lathe.

Too bad Hoeff couldn’t realistically wield a Grid. The lightest version the HEAT had was over twenty pounds, and while he was strong enough to easily manage that these days, why bother? A SCAR was much lighter and almost as effective. Okay, definitely not as good as ‘Horse’s fuckin’ cannon… But Hoeff could barely lift the damn thing in the first place, so fuck that noise.

Still. For all its flaws, that Sinaloa wasn’t nothing. It was a fuck of a lot more than a varmint rifle or a birding shotgun, at least. The roaming sentry stopped to chat with his stationary colleague, then carried on his circuit, weaving through and around the farm buildings and equipment, following his usual course.

Approach was always the tricky bit. Hoeff had been casing the target for a week with sensors and his own Mark I eyeballs, reporting back the details to the team so they could plot out the details of the raid. Their defensive posture was sound, really, but it was basic, and repetitive. It had only taken Hoeff a few hours to nail down their patterns.

The roaming sentry was their first major problem. He covered the gaps Hoeff’s heavy backup would have to sprint through once the game was on, which meant that sentry had to be serviced first, quietly and unnoticed.

Time for Hoeff to earn his pay.

He crawled on his belly in chest-deep running rainwater at the bottom of the drain. Gettin’ soaking wet was normally a problem as it left sign everywhere, but this time it wouldn’t matter much. He crept along, silent as an alligator, and waited for the roaming idiot to stop like he always did to smoke under the open-sided tractor shed at the farmyard’s east end, right next to the drainage channel.

Lucky for Hoeff, he decided to take a piss against the tractor’s wheel tonight. Slowly, Hoeff raised himself out of the water and drained dry for a moment, unnoticed under the sound of rain on the thin fibreglass roof. He let the target finish up, then exploded forward and drove his best knife right through the rear of the target’s neck and into the base of his skull.

It was a clean service, and perfectly quiet. Hoeff caught the sentry and frog-marched him over to the ditch where wouldn’t be seen, then laid the body down, out of sight. He took a moment to wipe his laser-projection night-vision sunglasses clean—thank you, Clan Whitecrest—then raised his SCAR and tucked it into his shoulder.

That was the sign for the HEAT to get moving. And boy howdy did they. Hoeff could actually feel the giants’ footsteps thumping softly through the ground and before he knew it, they had all quietly serviced their targets, cleared away the bodies, and pre-positioned for the breach.

From his position, Hoeff watched the Protectors in action. It was…awesome. Biblically so.

Arés…well, he wasn’t Adam at the moment. He was Warhorse, who was a very different man. He’d serviced two sentries almost simultaneously by backhanding the first upside the head, throwing him over a shoulder, then taking a handful of light-speed bounds right across a clearing towards his next target, which he serviced with the most brutal display of casual strength Hoeff had ever seen. All Warhorse had done was wrap an arm around his target’s chest and gave the quickest, most perfunctory squeeze, like anyone might as a friendly little hug. There was a muffled crunching sound, and the target went instantly limp. Warhorse ducked behind the shed and let the bodies hit the floor, both utterly lifeless. He moved on to his next targets without a moment’s hesitation, and serviced them all with unstoppable force.

Baseball’s targets were serviced with a similarly perfunctory display of brutality and might. Irish, the youngest of the three, was a newbie at this particular dark game, but if he had any nerves about it, Hoeff couldn’t see them. All three clicked their throat-mikes at the same time. Twelve targets serviced in only a few seconds. Damn.

The Aggressors were of course impressive as well. They operated more like Hoeff did and let their skills speak for themselves. The inner sentries needed a bit more of a quiet approach, and while the Protectors were quiet and seriously skilled, the Aggressors were utterly silent, even Righteous. All the inner sentries were serviced in less than half a minute, well before anyone had time to report trouble or check in with the guards.

Hoeff was pretty sure Firth enjoyed the work, on some level. The thrill of the hunt, the pleasures of the kill… Hoeff had long since gotten over it. To him, this was mostly just taking out the trash. As for Murray… probably the same, though Murray had a certain artistry with the dagger that spoke to more going on under his calm face than just cleanly doing his job.

Blaczynski was harder to read, but there was a stone cold killer underneath all the tattoos and the playfulness. The three of them nodded silently, and stacked up into position.

Readiness check. All the sentries were clear. Video surveillance was obviously not a problem, because nobody inside had responded. They were either stupid, or asleep and stupid, and either was good luck. With a nod, the Protectors blitzed back to the far perimeter, ready to catch and service.

Hoeff was on point for this because they were hoping for an evidence-free raid, and he had the most experience in these types of missions. The key was keeping quiet. No painting the walls and leaving carnage for the police and press to fret over, at least not if it could be helped.

Fortunately, his three Aggressors had all played such games in their previous lives. Hoeff still had trouble believing a seven-foot-and-change juggernaut could move without a sound, but he could and it was more than a little alarming.

And wouldn’t you know it, Firth wouldn’t get much opportunity to show off his ninja-giant skills, because they apparently had just the fuckin’ best worst luck ever. Right as he was about to silently breach the door, some idiot decided to step outside. Hoeff wasted no time: the target had just enough time to blink in surprise at him before Hoeff’s fist crushed his throat. Before he could choke or make any noise, Hoeff followed up by tripping him, then snapping his spine.

Not silent enough. A dog started barking frantically inside the farmhouse. There were footsteps, a raised voice, the whine of a Sinaloa being charged.

Oh well. Carnage it was. He and his best friends were there to slay evil. They each did it for their own reasons. For ideals, for purpose, for justice. Hoeff could dig all of that. He’d do it for Claire, and Julian. And… hell.

For Bozo.



++End Chapter 57.2++



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“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 58: “The Future”