The Deathworlders

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Chapter 58: Gjallarhorn

Date Point: 16y7m1d AV
Abergerrig, New Belfast County, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Gabriel Arés

“…I hate it when I’m right.”

Gabe was retiring, not retired. Men like him didn’t have the luxury of just quitting with immediate effect. So, for now and the next couple of weeks, he was still technically Folctha’s Chief of Colonial Security, and that meant occasionally having to turn his personal attention toward interesting or unusual cases.

For example: the way a large carrot farm out at the furthest extremes of Folctha’s settled territory had abruptly become a ghost town. The mail carrier had tried to deliver a number of parcels for them, found the place deserted, grown suspicious, reported it to the New Belfast police, who’d taken a look at the place and promptly kicked it up the chain.

The place had been expertly cleaned, but not perfectly. A Gaoian officer had claimed to smell a faint hint of blood under a workbench in the garage, his nose had been vindicated with the assistance of Luminol, and from there…

From there, Gabe had gotten involved, because if there was one thing his senior investigators could sense by the pricking of their thumbs, it was a shitstorm far above their pay grade.

There wasn’t anything big, no splattered walls or anything like that. Mostly, it was small things. But it was a lot of small things, as if there was enormous time pressure on the assailants to clean up quickly…and as if the assailants had no fear of consequence, and were therefore doing said cleanup as a courtesy anyway.

Also, there was a deep-set and freakishly wide size thirty footprint out in the field about a hundred yards from the farmyard. The next print was ten feet away, and those after that were significantly further apart. Somebody—a human—who was both impossibly heavy and impossibly fast had sprinted through the soft soil, leaving ruined baby carrots in his wake.

Gabe knew exactly who it belonged to.

From there the little details started to come together. By the end of the afternoon, they had a pretty solid idea of what had happened: a raid led by extremely competent operators—everyone knew who, even if they wouldn’t say it—had descended on the place and committed some act of extreme physical confrontation. Beyond that…

…Nothing. There was evidence of some violence, but nothing even remotely on the scale that several dozen people just disappearing might indicate, especially in the dead of night, especially while stripping the compound clean. There wasn’t a personal piece of property to be found, anywhere.

There were, however, a couple of bullet holes. But only a couple. That suggested a rather massive imbalance between the combatants…

And again, there was little question what group of men might be involved.

One major set of evidence did remain, however, and it spoke volumes. It seemed that somehow the occupants of this farm had been acquiring a bunch of items that were individually harmless—copper wire, high-capacity power cells, electrostatic field emitters—but which put together should have been raising some red flags with the customs and port authorities, as they could be assembled into crude gauss weapons.

It was clear why that stuff had been left—there was too much to get rid of except with a convoy of big vans—and it told Gabe a lot about the sort of people who’d called the farm home, especially to have attracted that kind of ire.

…It was probably also left in place to be found.

Gabe hated this covert cloak-and-dagger shit. Oh well, that left one thing to do.

“Well… okay. So I want all this stuff inventoried and a preliminary report drawn up. I’ll… Liaise.”

He called the Prime Minister on the flight back toward the city. Her image on his tablet nodded solemnly as he laid out what he’d found.

In the end, she took a deep breath and gave him a clear, challenging look.

“…Come out and say it, Mister Arés. What do you think happened?”

“I think the SOR just flattened Folctha’s APA cell. I think that’s pretty obviously part of a coordinated action, given the news that’s been breaking since this morning. And I think they did so around Folctha Colonial Security Services and the police.”

“You are correct. I advised the Governor-General to authorize that action, in official consultation with our interested allies.”

“This should have been a police matter, Prime Minister.”

“No, it should not have been,” Winton told him, flatly. “Not in this particular case. Your diligence is admirable and appreciated, as always.”

Gabe knew when there was no point in arguing. “…I’ll have the evidence brought back to Folctha. And then I suppose there’ll be a legal proceeding to see who takes ownership of the farm.”

“Appreciated. Expect appropriate contact from my office shortly. And Gabe, please remind your staff about their obligations under the Official Secrets Acts.”

“…Yes, Prime Minister.”

And… that was that. It was frustrating enough that once upon a time he might have ground half his teeth down, but Gabe found that he no longer cared. He was retiring, he was unofficially persona non grata among the allied security services even if FCSS were still loyal to him. But that couldn’t stand: it’d just get in the way of them doing their jobs.

So, he made the appropriate calls, checked with his secretary that there was no other urgent business waiting, and informed her that he’d be spending the rest of the day on-call rather than pacing his office.

With that taken care of, he spent the rest of the flight thinking.

The APA were dead. Okay, most of their members probably weren’t, on an individual basis, but the Alien Protection Army’s demise as an organization had been headline news all morning even before the business at the farm filtered up to him. And given that he’d known for a fact there must be an APA cell somewhere in Folctha…

…What exactly had the Ag secretary been up to, that it would justify activating an apparently undercover assassin to take him out? Who happened to be Hoeff of all the fucking people?

Gabe suspected he knew, now. A mystery closed, albeit never to become public knowledge.

Sartori had even wept on the news as he told the nation all about Guillory’s selfless service and virtuous character, the lying hijo de puta.

Well, whatever. So the president was the kind of asshole who’d murder a friend and shed crocodile tears. So Gabe himself was now firmly out of the loop on national security matters, and Winton was apparently quite comfortable and happy with letting foreign powers, albeit allies, assassinate their own citizens in her jurisdiction.

Either Gabe had woefully underestimated the nature of his leadership, or he was woefully unfamiliar with the nature of evil. Or both.

It didn’t matter, he decided. It wasn’t his problem any longer, and making it his problem could only end in bringing grief to the people he loved. He didn’t think of himself as a coward, but…

…But there was a time when sensible men knew when to quit. There was a time to stand on his principles, and a time to… to…

To what? To turn his back on them? Maybe he was a coward after all! But search his gut, his heart and his conscience though he did, Gabe just couldn’t find it in himself to stand up any longer. It had taken a lifetime, but the bastards had finally worn him down.

All he wanted was to see his family grow up. He wanted to walk Ava down the aisle, and hold his grandkids, and live out his sunset years with his kindly angel of a wife. If that meant not making a futile stand against the evil of men and women more powerful than him, then… God forgive him, he had no more fight left.

It was with that thought in mind that, once he was back in Folctha, he walked over to Adam and Marty’s apartment, jogged up the stairs, and knocked on their door.

The floor shook as Adam rolled to his feet and thumped his way over to the door. He opened the door clad in his usual broad handsome smile and not much else, all bouncy energy and grins. Once he looked down and saw who was visiting, however…his expression hardened instantly.

The boy—what a ridiculous word for the hulking warrior of a man standing before Gabe—hadn’t ever really stopped growing from…hell, whatever it was the military was doing to him. He was now so tall that his head brushed the top of the doorframe, so ridiculously broad that he plugged the rest of it full from his head to his toes with his hypermuscular bulk, and his shoulders were so wide, his arms hung entirely outside the door frame. Dios Mío.

“…Dad.”

Getting that look and that tone of voice from his own goddamn son hurt. In fact, it nailed Gabe’s feet to the floor and glued his mouth shut for good measure.

He pulled himself together quickly, but thank God Adam wasn’t completely immune. A mirroring wince of pain crossed his face, and he stooped under and barely squeezed sideways through the door for a hug that was a lot less enthusiastic and a lot more awkward than usual.

“…Come on in.”

Marty gave the two men a quizzical look as she crossed the room with Diego cuddled up against her shoulder. “Damn, are you two okay?” she asked, as she gave Gabe a one-armed hug.

Gabe kissed her on the cheek, then gave his grandson a special little bit of affection. “I’ll be glad to retire,” he said. “I swear, I think this job’s gonna start tearing me apart soon.”

“Uh-huh…” Marty gave him a skeptical look, then shrugged, handed him the baby, and headed for the kitchen. “Coffee?”

“Sounds good.” Gabe nodded and followed his son back through to the living room, tickling Diego’s cheek as he went. He noted dispassionately that Adam was deliberately soft-stepping his way across his own home; either he was being nice to the neighbors, or he was worried about Diego.

“I think you’ve outgrown the apartment, Mijo.”

“…Yeah. I’ve got a land deal in the works, but it isn’t done yet. Hopefully I can save money and build the house myself.”

“You’re not a carpenter.”

“No, but I can still learn.”

“That’s hard work, being a carpenter. It’s how I got through college.”

Adam grinned a bit wanly, looked down, balled up a gargantuan fist and curled his waist-thick forearm into a terrifying flex. “Eh…I think I can handle a little hard work.”

Despite his black mood, Gabe smiled and laughed faintly. “That you can,” he agreed. He settled on the couch and bounced Diego on his knee. “…You know, I hate to do it. But there’s something I gotta bring up, Mijo.”

“…You sure you gotta?” Adam asked. He settled himself down right next to Gabe, ignoring the muffled screams of the ironwork underneath the couch’s homemade padding. He’d never grown out of close physical contact, even now while he wasn’t happy with his papá. That meant he’d basically crushed the two of them together on the comparatively tiny couch and pinned Gabe in place with one of those giant arms draped inescapably over his shoulders. Gabe wasn’t one to complain about well-meaning affection…but Adam was, as always, a huge musky iron-hard furnace of a man. And that arm of his was far too heavy for any normal man to comfortably bear.

Gabe sighed, and tried to wiggle into a more comfortable position. “You know me. And my damn code. There are some things I can’t let go without comment.”

“Papá, you know I can’t comment on anything I may or may not have done about what you may or may not definitely be here to talk about. That’s part of the deal. I obey lawful orders.”

“…Well some hulked out titan with size-thirty feet was out running around New Belfast last night, before apparently dragging some bodies into a storm drain or something. That doesn’t leave a lot of suspects. Not even clown shoes leave prints that wide—”

“Dad,” Adam interrupted him. “I can’t comment, either to confirm or deny. You know this.”

“Fine. You don’t have to.” Gabe sighed. Why was he even here? He’d known that he’d meet an impenetrable wall.

But the question answered itself. He was here, first and foremost, because he was worried for his son.

“…Are you…okay with this, Adam?”

“Okay with what exactly?”

“I thought we couldn’t talk about that.”

Adam sighed, and ran one of his calloused mitts through the stubble of his HEAT helmet mohawk. There was no surer sign he’d been on a mission than that; he normally let his hair grow out to the limits of the regs. “Okay. Look. In general I love the mission. I maybe don’t like some of the stuff I do–”

“Such as–?”

“–But I haven’t ever objected to anything I’ve ever been ordered to do. Sometimes, if you wanna save lives, you gotta take out the fuckin’ trash first.”

“Even if it’s not what you signed up for?”

“That’s the thing, papá. The kinda thing we’re talkin’ about is what I signed up for. Maybe I didn’t completely understand when I was sixteen, but I understood well enough. No regrets.”

“…So long as you’re doing right by your own code,” Gabe decided.

“I am. I know it ain’t the same as yours.”

“That’s probably for the best, I guess…” Gabe tickled Diego’s tummy and felt much better about life in general when the little one graced him with a smile. Baby-smiles could brighten even the darkest days. “…The police and the military don’t do the same job, after all.”

“…No. Thankfully.”

Gabe nodded, and decided they’d both said as much as was wise on that subject.

“…How’s the unit?” he asked. “I’m so sorry about Bozo. I heard he was given a proper memorial service.”

Adam turned his head and gave him a very carefully neutral look. “…Yeah.”

“…You blame me.”

“I know you didn’t mean for any of what happened.” Adam paused, then clicked his tongue in his mouth. A half a second later a gigantic missile of a dog slammed into his chest, all wiggles and happy energy.

Doofus was a fair bit different to his legendary sire. Smaller and lighter-framed with longer and finer fur thanks to his mother… but “smaller” and “lighter” were relative terms. He was still about the biggest and most powerfully-built dog Gabe had ever seen after Bozo himself, and he would have been utterly unmanageable if he wasn’t perfectly trained. Adam knew that fact well, so although Doofus was a boisterous happy face-licking typhoon when it came to him, with guests and with the baby he was the very picture of patient obedience.

Adam brought the mutt under control by pin-scritching him with one of his mitts. The dog’s blissed-out expression at the rough affection sure lived up to his name.

“You know I didn’t… but,” Gabe prompted.

“Well fuck, Dad, what do you want from me!?” Adam asked. “I lost a friend! Balls, I almost lost two!”

“You know personal protection. How quickly did his team get to him? Two minutes?” Gabe countered. “How good is a good time? Would Hoeff have done better? From what I’m told, he doesn’t stay at Julian’s side when he’s out running either. None of them can keep up! And they were in the middle of nowhere! So you tell me exactly what difference did my choice make?”

“It’s the principle of the thing, Dad!”

“Exactly!” Gabe snapped. Diego squirmed at the raised voices and started to cry, and both men immediately quieted and calmed themselves. Nevertheless, Marty stomped back in from the kitchen, skewered both of them with a disapproving look, then swept the baby away and vanished. Doofus jumped down off Adam’s lap and followed behind her, tail wagging sympathetically as he looked up at Diego.

Father and son looked at each other in mutual embarrassment, and then Gabe slumped back on the couch.

“…Exactly,” he repeated, quietly. “Principle. I stood by mine. And I’m sorry Adam, but I don’t see how that really contributed to what happened.”

“Hoeff coulda kept close.” There was a bit of a sullen tone to Adam’s reply. “He’s done it before.”

“Has he? When Julian’s out for a real run? Hoeff’s a scary little speedster, I’ll admit, but not even he’s up to a task like that. Julian is too damn fast. To make it worse, he didn’t want to make a scene and he didn’t want to disturb nature, especially in a national park. That’s his choice and no matter how good Hoeff may or may not be, choices like that matter.”

“And if he’d been allowed to protect Julian, he’d have figured it out!”

“Adam,” Gabe sighed. “You have a habit of building everyone you care about into supermen. I think sometimes you forget just how much difference that makes, especially when your friends are mostly freaks of nature like you. Hoeff isn’t. Or maybe he’s as much of a freak as a five-foot-four man can be, not that’d matter all that much. In any case, it wouldn’t have made a lick of difference. You prove to me that it did, and I’ll be sorry. Truly I will. But you look me in the eye and tell me that it did.”

There was a long, heavy silence while they stared each other down. Eventually, Adam looked away.

“…Why did you pull Hoeff’s licence?” he asked.

“Principle, like I said. And that’s all I’m going to say.” Gabe stood up and made to leave. “…You let me know when you’re ready to humiliate your old man in the gym some more, okay amigo?”

“Dad…”

“No, Adam. I think we’ve said everything we can say, now,” Gabe turned back. “There’s things you can’t talk about, and there’s things I can’t talk about. That’s why I’m retiring. They’re going to get in the way of family if I don’t… And I love you too much to let that happen.”

Adam sighed heavily. He stood up, thumped carelessly across the room and buried Gabe in a spine-bender of a hug. “…I love you too, Dad,” he said. “I just…”

“I know.” Gabe patted his back, then managed to extract himself. “…Hasta luego. Apologize to Marty for me?”

Adam nodded, and Gabe let himself out.

More than anything else, he wanted to be done with the whole stupid business so he could just go back to being a grandparent. If it was a choice between duty and family… Well. In his heart of hearts, Gabe knew that family won every time.

He just needed to hold things together a little longer.


Date Point: 16y7m1d AV
Planet Rauwryhr, The Rauwryhr Republic, Perseus Arm

Daar, Great Father of the Gao

There were three awesome things going on for Daar as he visited Rauwrhyr.

The first was the defense conference itself. It’d taken months to plan an’ sadly hadta not be held on Earth—for mostly obvious reasons, in retrospect—or Gao, since they had things like the ‘common cold’ now. What a miserable little sickness that was! How could the Humans bear not bein’ able ‘ta smell?!

The second was, Rauwrhyr was pretty fuckin’ neat! He was ‘specially fond o’ the amazingly low gravity. How did it hold a breathable atmosphere? Would Meereo know? Or Loomi? Daar bet they’d know. He’d hafta ask ‘em later! Anyhoo, it was lotsa fun boinging his heavy tail all over the place an’ makin’ the floor shake unner his paws! Though he’d had to teach himself not to accidentally jump everywhere; his normal gait had been Stoneback-trained to be powerful and bouncy since he was a wee, floppy-eared lil’ cub. Here, that might just launch him right off a platform! Which mighta been fun, but best not to test that an’ scare everyone into doin’ somethin’ stupid.

The third, though, was the colours.

The Rauwrhyr people could see in the red spectrum, just like humans, an’ their cities were always lit up in oranges and purples and pinks… but the conference coincided with one of their cultural festivals, the Wrauhathryrnir.

It marked the start of the Rauwrhyr breeding season, and like pretty much every species anywhere ever, the males just had to impress. Little decorative scraps of rich, sticky-backed red and gold-flecked paper were everywhere, slapped onto just about every surface by eager kids and daredevil adults who wanted to show off how well they could fly. Some of them hung in places that seemed straight impossible, and each one bore the name of the intrepid soul who’d managed to get it there. Presumably, Rauwrhyr females liked males who could get his sticker higher amidst the trees or into more awkward corners than anyone else.

As part of the cultural exchange, they’d asked Daar to slap a paper somewhere. They probably weren’t expecting him to do much, but…well. He was Daar. And he was the Great Father. And balls, but he could leap, even in supergravity! So, feeling spiky and uncontained, Daar stretched out, took a run at a nicely ridiculous bit of bare tree as fast as he could go, flung himself through the air and—

Holy crap he got sum air! He recovered right away, zoomed up an’ slapped it on the tree an’ kicked off with the most bestest rebound he’d ever managed. Beat that, winged friends! Daar landed on all fours with a heavy thump—an’ fell slowly, because balls the gravity was weak—an’ he couldn’t help but preen a bit. Sometimes, it was good to show off!

…He enjoyed the attention too, he wasn’t afraid to admit. Plus, it couldn’t be a bad thing that the gaggle of Rauwrhyr who’d watched his lil’ bit o’ fun seemed completely awestruck…

And it was fun! Daar did somehow manage to resist drawing some lewd graffiti on his paper beforehand…but he did put a little cartoon-him on there, scratching his back against a tree. He had no idea why the Humans thought that was so funny. He’d hafta wrassle it outta them later!

President Sartori gave him an unwilling chuckle and some rolled eyes when they were in private, an’ they couldn’t commit no nation-embarrassing wrong-paw. ‘Foe paws,’ as the Humans would say. Which was weird ‘cuz Humans didn’t have no paws…well, mostly.

It was about all Daar could do not to just…wallow in it all. He were always a ‘Back who felt the world a bit stronger than most, an’ while that was a blessing he was deeply grateful for, it also meant he’d needed to discipline himself against the temptation from a young age. Sometimes it was the best kind o’ torture, ‘cuz the reward when he could finally enjoy himself…

Gods, it were all just mesmerizing ‘ta look at! He coulda looked out the window and drunk in the view forever….

But there were business to attend to. He took one last look and sighed happily at it all, only stirring when President Sartori returned to their private lil’ office with a big ol’ platter o’ snacks.

“I’ve learned the surest way to a Great Father’s heart is through his stomach.”

Daar thumped his tail from his puddle on the floor. “You ain’t wrong.”

“Then again, I’ve only met one Great Father…” Sartori noted slyly.

“Fyu was a pretty infamous lil’ glutton, ‘least accordin’ to the contemporary accounts. Which is kinda funny since I’m way over ten times his size, even at his most biggest.”

Sartori chuckled, and then opened the hardcopy printout he’d brought with him. “Shall we?”

Daar rolled up to his paws and padded over. He’d found that he was much more disarming on four-paw than upright, especially since he’d started on his weird adventures with the Humans, and that little bit of psychological warfare worked even on clever lil’ Sartori.

“The defence symposium revealed a lot of interesting things about the state of the Dominion’s military,” Sartori said as he pushed the folder Daar’s way. Considerately, it was translated into Gaori.

“I do read English, y’know…”

“And I read Gaori. Don’t ask me to pronounce it, though. I just can’t get that yipping sound right.”

Daar chittered, “I won’t even tell ‘ya how much learnin’ English can be literally painful for a gaoian jaw an’ tongue. You get better though. Just takes practice!”

“For now, though…” Sartori gestured to the document.

“Right, Right…”

It wasn’t as damning as Daar had feared. Okay, it was still really fuckin’ damning, but there were little diamond sparkles hidden here and there in what was otherwise a midden of bought commissions, political appointments, mandatory conscription, and the fact that the Dominion’s most senior species hadn’t even encountered the concept of special forces until twenty years previously.

“I got some points…d’you mind if I switch to Gaori? We’re gonna be talkin’ a lot.”

Sartori plucked a sandwich from the platter. Salmon, dill and cream cheese, from the smell. “By all means.”

Daar used a claw to spear a nice greasy-smellin’ dumpling and popped it into his mouth. Tasty! “Okay,” he said once he’d swallowed. “I think the first thing I gotta say is…how in the balls-licking fuck did these spineless degenerate cowards ever defend themselves at all?!”

“The Hunters were never interested in conquering them,” Sartori replied in English. “Just raiding and feeding. They were predators picking off the weak and vulnerable. By and large, the Dominion never really needed to defend themselves: the only military threat they ever faced in that sense was the Alliance, who are just as bad.”

“An’ a lot smaller. How didn’t they steamroller ‘em?”

“The Qinis and their drone swarms. Our forces would run circles around them, but in a stand-up brawl those things make the difference.”

“An’ that stalemate was prol’ly engineered, too.”

“We don’t know that, but…yeah.”

“So,” Daar mentally donned his Master of War cloak and began to ponder the horrifying logistics of it. “What we have then is a motley collection of radically dissimilar forces, spread all over to hell an’ gone, most of which aren’t disciplined in the slightest, almost all of which have ethics that smell worse than Keeda’s nuts, an’ none of which could withstand any level of combat against either my people or ‘yers.”

“Don’t forget the massively corrupt officer class.”

“Oh, I ain’t. I’ve just sorta baked that into the nava cake at this point when I’m dealin’ with the herbivores.”

“There are shining lights. The Chehnash and Rauwrhyr.”

Daar shook his head in disagreement. “The Chehnash…aren’t. They talk a good scary tale, an’ they’re okay mercenaries ‘fer low-level scutwork an’ such, but…no. They have zero unit discipline. They’re just bands of raiders. They don’t know what soldiering is an’ being honest, I don’t think they’re socially developed or individually intelligent enough ‘ta teach ‘em. The Rauwrhyr on the other hand…they’ve got a warrior’s soul in ‘em. I’ve known that for a long while, but that little red-paper thing they do? That’s sorta the proof.”

“How?”

“He who won’t fuck, won’t fight. Fyu said that in his happier times. An’ I’m gonna add to it: He who won’t do somethin’ daring ‘fer the chance ‘ta fuck…”

Sartori smirked and quipped, “How very reputational of you…”

Daar chittered deep in his chest and flexed quickly for the President; he loved teasin’ Sartori, because there weren’t many who could banter so good! “Well I gotta live up to the legend, y’know? Imagine if the Females I court felt they weren’t gettin’ the full experience!”

“Heaven forbid.”

“I know, right?!” Daar chittered again, then re-focused on the task. “Anyhoo, I know you ain’t the warrior type, Mister President. But I know damn well you’ve met more’n a few of us. Tell me it ain’t true. An’ then tell me: who in the Dominion treat mating like anythin’ more’n a simple social need? Ain’t many. An’ that’s sad.”

“There’s a few on Earth who feel that way, but… we’re drifting away from the point, anyway. How do we fix this mess?”

Daar’s answer wasn’t one Sartori would like. “We don’t. Or, bein’ more specific, we partner with who we can an’ just ignore the idiots who’re gonna bleat ‘bout the horrors to come. ‘Cuz, that’s the thing. I’ve got a billion-strong army which is ready to go right now. We’ve been preparin’ for this since I wiped out the remnants of our old civilization. An’ in maybe just ten years, I won’t have a Grand Army. If we’re gonna punch hard…we do it now.”

“…And we partner with the Rauwrhyr. Only them?”

“‘Fer now. They’re some of the physically weakest people I’ve ever met, but their souls are up to the fight, an’ that’s what matters most. We can fix the rest, an’ work around it… but what we can’t do is teach righteous anger to the meek. If they couldn’t work up the balls ‘ta fight when their fuckin’ children were bein’ eaten, then there ain’t nothin’ we can do for ‘em. Not inside the time limit. An’ I somehow doubt they’ve got the stomach to exterminate an entire species, even one so manifestly evil as the Hunters.”

“…Sometimes, I forget just how ruthless you actually are, Daar.”

It weren’t meant as an insult an’ Daar knew it. Still, he couldn’t let that go unanswered. “Says the guy who just did a pretty fuckin’ ruthless thing himself…”

“Only with great sorrow. He was a friend.”

“Was. Y’have to be pretty fuckin’ ruthless to do that to a friend.”

“Yes.”

“Exactly. But that reminds me: I happen ‘ta like Gabriel Arés a lot. He’s a good man, an’ there ain’t enough o’ those around.”

Sartori nodded in agreement. “You’re not wrong.”

“Right.” Daar gave him his most deadly-serious look. “Arthur, I ain’t gonna be happy if somethin’ unfortunate happens ta’ him…”

Sartori shook his head. “He’s earned a long and happy retirement as far as I’m concerned.”

“Good. I didn’t doubt it, but it hadta be said. I’m jus’ sad Gabe hadta learn that kinda truth.”

Sartori stood up straighter. “He was never in any danger from me, Daar.”

Daar duck-nodded gratefully, and returned his attention to the documents on the table. “So. Let’s talk about the enemy.”

“Starting with the more imminent and physical ones…” Sartori turned to the two-page summary on the Hunters. “Since you blew up that orbital ring megastructure, the Hunters have changed tack dramatically. They’ve scattered and decentralized, and started raiding more aggressively. Their controlled territory is more permeable, as long-range scout drones have found. They’re more selective and clever about which targets they hit and their spaceships are of a superior quality: They don’t seem to be refitting Dominion ships any longer but instead are building their own.”

“Digging them out is gonna take a long time,” Daar surmised.

“They must have resource worlds, and those will be full of feral Dominion slaves like the planet ‘Hell’ was.”

“Yeah. An’ we gotta deny ‘em to the Hunters. Which is gonna mean a rehabilitation, or a slaughter, or just somehow leavin’ em in peace so’s the Hunters can’t eat ‘em.”

“I don’t like those options.”

“Nope. My people are aggressive an’ sometimes violent, but we ain’t hateful, or evil. I can’t ask the Grand Army to exterminate Dominion types. So really, we gotta purge each system, bubble it up, cleanse the world of Hunters, an’ throw up a Farthrow. Repeatedly.”

“That’s…going to be a logistical nightmare.”

“Might be a useful way ‘ta put the Dominion ‘ta use, actually. ‘Cuz we can throw our armies into clean-up an’ then move on. Let the Dominion sort out the bullshit. If they wanna abandon their own people that’s on them. But anyway, the Hunters aren’t even the most important bit.”

“The Hierarchy.”

“Yup. ‘Yer people got Highmountain’s data on the relay worlds, right?”

“And we’ve developed our own detector. Our people in Erebor are assembling it or, uh, them. It’s going to be a network of deep-sky satellites with a parallax of two lightyears.”

It took a lot to give Daar pause, but that just about did it. He stopped for a second and tried to wrap his head around the idea of a telescope that large. “…Ain’t that… kinda overkill?”

“We have to pick out individual rocky bodies within systems that might be on the far side of the galaxy, and there are hundreds of billions of star systems in the Milky Way. My scientific advisors assure me that overkill is the only way to find all the relays in a timely manner. And afterwards, of course, we’ll have the largest and most sensitive deep survey telescope ever built.”

“I can imagine Champion Loomi an’ his Brothers’d be droolin’ over somethin’ like that…”

“Erebor is this generation’s Bletchley Park. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the name…?”

Daar wobbled his head uncertianly. “Uh…somethin’ ‘bout secret communications, I think?”

Sartori nodded. “Yup! It was a codebreaking operation during the Second World War. Their breakthroughs led directly to computational science and laid the groundwork for our information revolution.”

“Neat!” Daar made a note to ask for some reading material; he loved that kinda military history.

“It makes me wonder what the galaxy will look like in seventy years, after all this and everything we’ve developed…” Sartori mused. “But there we go. I think I can see a plan forming. Now we just need to bring the rest of them on board.”

“Won’t be difficult,” Daar predicted. “The Rauwryhr are ready ‘fer a change.”

“So are the Corti,” Sartori agreed. “They just need an example of leadership.”

“Yeah. An’ we’re pretty different examples of that.”

“…Might be to our advantage, actually. Play it up, maybe?”

Daar felt his tail wag again. “So, I go an’ be me, ‘cept a bit, uh, mebbe a wee bit less restrained. An’ you be you?”

“It won’t be hard to play up our friendship.”

Daar finally gave in, padded over and rest his big ol’ head briefly on Sartori’s shoulder. “Naw. It won’t.”

Sartori chuckled. “You are unlike any other head of state I’ve ever dealt with, Daar.”

“S’what ‘ya get ‘fer makin’ another Great Father. Blame Yulna! Anyhoo.” Daar spun away and went to his Bag of Many Things. “I got some ideas I jot down a while ago, I think they’re relevant. An’ my staff has been workin’ out some battle prep. I think we should figger out what our message is, an’ then I’ll go get some exercise in, an’ then…”

Sartori nodded. “And then,” he echoed, “the first day of the real war begins…”


Date Point: 16y7m2d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Xiù Chang

Julian bounced back. He was tough, dependable, innately cheerful… Nothing kept him down for very long.

But some things took longer than others to bounce back from. Xiù knew that well. Which was why she’d devoted herself to turning their home into a little slice of heaven as much as she could.

And why not? All three of them were home for a change. Al was on maternity leave, Julian had taken time off to process the attempt on his life, and Xiù worked from home anyway. It wasn’t like her property portfolio needed her constant attention after all…

So she devoted herself to being a mom and a carer. Caring for Julian was easy; he wanted good food—and lots of it, which tickled at her heartstrings like she’d never imagined it might—and to snuggle up on the couch with everyone, and watch movies.

They weren’t watching anything just then, simply…resting. She sat on the couch and he curled his muscular legs around her, all gentle possessive strength and familiar, affectionate warmth. The boys were off playing with friends and that left them alone, enjoying an interlude of peace.

“I could do this forever,” he grumbled happily. Xiù smiled and massaged his big sturdy feet, since they were right there in her lap and she enjoyed giving him pleasure. That earned her a blissed-out expression of deep relaxation as a reward; Julian loved being touched, and he responded to it so well…

She worked her hands up the unyielding heroic shapes of his body, earning a stream of contented rumbles and some enjoyably tighter squeezes. His was a beautiful soul, vigilantly selfless and yet happily willing to soak up any positive vibes anyone sent his way. There was no possible way she couldn’t love him for it…

…And she certainly wasn’t complaining about the body that came along with it, oh no. Physiques just didn’t come any better, except for possibly his supersoldier friends, and even then, though she was definitely partial, she thought he was was the most aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Better yet, the handful of civilians who came even close to his size, or his strength, or his frankly perfect shape weren’t nearly so ultra-healthy. Or as tenderly affectionate, probably. He didn’t have the inflated ego those other men so often had and that was one of his very best qualities. He was a special man and she was blessed, truly blessed to love him.

All three of them were blessed in each other. Xiù was buzzing with good feelings and would have loved to give some to Al, but she was asleep, and Julian was just so good to feel…

It was an intimate and playful affection they were sharing. Physical, yet gentle, and without the electric charge of something more profound and intense…there would be plenty of time for that later. For now, she kept things mostly but not completely chaste. He could be pretty volcanically passionate when provoked and honestly…she loved him dearly, but she couldn’t handle that at the moment. Now was the time for snuggles, and touches…some of those maybe suggestively promising of things to come. A quick teasing feel or three, a kiss on his naval…

And flirting. Lots of that. Which was absolutely not a burden at all.

“All this lying around and eating, you might actually get a little fat on you…” she teased, rubbing her hands along the unyielding bumps of muscle layered over his ribs, then slowly up and down the rock-hard cobblestones of his abs.

Julian grinned his happiest, dopiest grin and groaned in deep, deep pleasure. He was so easy to please…her hands worked up to his bulging chest and slowly rubbed along his thick neck and shoulders, before following his arms back to his ribs.

It was a while before he said anything. “Mmm…would you still do that if I did?”

He tensed his core as he said it and a troll-like expression spread across his face…which made tickling his ribs such a temptation. He was lying flat on his back on the couch with Anna asleep on his chest, a perfect tickle target as he wouldn’t dare squirm away. Allison, who lived by the ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’ mantra, was dozing on the recliner, but even she wouldn’t have been able to resist, if she’d been awake: Julian was super ticklish. Always had been.

Xiù had neglected to think ahead, however, and this time he won the game of reflexes. His hand shot out like a lighting bolt and managed to grab both her wrists. Even at an awkward angle, she couldn’t resist his casually ridiculous strength and escape being pulled inexorably closer.

“You’re a naughty girl…” He grinned trollishly, then lovingly put one of his big hands on her belly. “We’ll have to commute your sentence, though…”

Xiù laughed. “You say that every time. I dread to think what you’re gonna do to me when you get the chance…”

“Oh, I’m gonna take a whole week of leave for that… Maybe learn to tie some special knots…”

Xiù laughed again, quietly, though there was no stopping both the blush and the way her teeth reflexively played with her lip… āi yā. He was way too good at that.

“Promise?” she asked.

He sat up just enough to kiss her. “…Maybe.” Thus delivered, he laid back and pulled Xiù up along his body, resting her head on his thick shoulder and chest so they could both watch Anna sleep. His head snuggled against hers, and Xiù would have loved to stay cuddled up like that forever, wrapped up warmly in his strength and his scent.

It truly was a deep blessing they had, despite everything. Julian was the type to heal up fast, both in his heart and apparently in his body, too. He’d done a number to his foot while he was out running but within a day it was mostly back to normal; it had probably just looked a lot worse than it really was.

Still, he’d had a persistent and worsening soreness that ran all up and down his left calf, so he was going to the doctor today to get it looked at.

Sadly, his appointment was approaching. “You need to get going, Mister Slab. Go get dressed! You’re expected in forty minutes and no running, remember? And if you don’t give Hoeff enough warning I think he’ll have a heart attack and explode.”

“Yes ma’am,” He chuckled “…Suppose I better go downstairs and extract him from the mancave…”

He sat up, and Xiù scooped Anna out of his arms before settling into the nice warm spot he’d left on the couch.

Julian thumped down to the basement and came up a minute later with a very thoroughly exercised-looking Hoeff, who nodded politely and prowled upstairs to the guest bathroom. Julian followed behind toward the master suite. A few minutes later they emerged, scrubbed clean and sans gym shorts, and both were dressed much more presentably. Hoeff had gone for some well-fitted cargo pants and a very snug polo, Julian in his habitual friend-made comfy jeans and snug black t-shirt. He was wearing the one she stole as a pajama top the night before, too; she could tell because it was still a big wrinkled mess, but that would disappear very quickly. What felt like an almost knee-length tent on her was nearly too tight on him, which…

That happy thought was dashed when she saw what he had clipped onto his waistband: a reactive personal forcefield.

Xiù hated the sight of the thing. She’d barely held it together when Julian’s protection team had brought him home a week ago, shaking and shaken and covered in blood, and thank God for Allison, who’d just gone fully into Practical Mom Mode and put the world back together.

Hoeff had been seething. Then, at some point, he’d vanished. There was something about that entire situation that absolutely screamed at Xiù’s instincts, because Hoeff’s entire attitude had gone from raw and aggressive to…absolutely, perfectly, murderously cold.

And then, there was the news a week later about the APA. When he returned he’d seemed…much calmer. More his usual habitually spiky and friendly self. She was pretty sure she knew enough about why to not ask any questions.

Julian on the other hand seemed a bit oblivious to it. Probably that was because he had fond blind spots for people he cared about.

Hopefully, that would never go away.

As for Xiù herself… once upon a time she would have hated herself for the sense of righteous satisfaction she felt when she considered what had happened to the so-called ‘Alien Protection Army.’ Years ago, she’d told herself she didn’t want to be the sort of person who was happy about such things.

But they’d hurt her family. Over and over again. They’d robbed Julian of his home, robbed Allison of a good relationship with her son, and now they’d tried to kill Julian. And when she looked at the little knot of hatred for them that she found in her soul…

It should have appalled her. Instead, what mildly concerned her was that it didn’t.

They’d dragged Hoeff in too, somehow. She knew it and had expressed that to him without actually saying the words. But she knew, and he knew, and she knew he knew. He’d hugged her fiercely and the two had never said a word about it since.

“Okay! We’re ready to go. You want us to get anything? Are you still hankering for Nava paste?”

“I finished two tubes yesterday.” She’d taken to spreading it on toast with butter. It had a nice, salty, slightly fishy and slightly nutty flavor. Okay, so it was still a giant turd-looking bug’s roasted and pureed guts, but she’d got over that. Mostly.

Hoeff mugged at her gruffly. “Y’all are so gross. Damn weirdos.”

“I swear that’s your favorite insult, little guy.” Julian punched him on the shoulder with a surprisingly loud thwack. He was the complete and total opposite of a bully, but there was nobody more guy-like than Hoeff, and guy-friends seemed to bond by picking on each other.

“Eh, I’m not the creative type. That’s a weirdo kinda thing, if ‘ya ask me.”

Julian grumbled happily. “Whatever, midget.” He gave Xiù a kiss, and then a second softer one for Anna.

“We’ll get you some,” he promised. “Anything else?”

“I’ll add it to the shared list if I think of anything.”

“‘Kay. See you later, spacebabe!”

Hoeff grinned—genuinely, which really lit his face up from handsomely plain to something remarkable—and nodded at everyone. “See y’all tonight.”

♪“Bye!”♪ Xiù waved cheerily, and bounced Anna a little for good measure. A sleepy mumble from the recliner was Allison’s contribution, and…

Silence. Xiù carefully deposited the baby in her mother’s arms and decided that maybe she had a little time to enjoy herself before the next little moment of duty called…

But on the other hand…

She cuddled up to Allison, got a barely-conscious kiss and snuggle, and decided that there were worse ways to spend an afternoon than a well-earned nap.

After all. Before long there’d be a second baby to take care of and their work would double. Best to take whatever peace she could, when she could.

It was a rare enough commodity, after all.


Date Point: 16y7m2d AV
Ceres Base, Asteroid Belt, Sol

Drew Martin

Drew was the last of the ‘old guard’ left, and kept wondering why.

He had, over the course of a nightmare few weeks, lost his best friend, been the prime suspect in the theft of a nuclear bomb, been altogether much too close to said bomb’s detonation for comfort, and generally been at the core of a debacle that had cost the Hephaestus Consortium a mind-squeezing amount of money, not to mention access to the high-yield ordnance necessary to the kind of asteroid mining they wanted to do.

It had certainly cost Adele Park her job. After several loyal years, she’d been given a king’s ransom of an executive bonus package and quietly persuaded to retire. Drew kept wondering when the new boss, Rahul Panja, was going to heft that axe again.

Quite aside from being mystified as to why he hadn’t been given a polite but firm push out the door, there was the mystery of his own reasons for staying. Ceres was a lot of bad memories right now.

But it was also a lot of work. A lot of good work. The base had weathered the nuke pretty damn well, but the list of little things that needed attention had been naturally eclipsed by the list of big things that needed immediate action… with the result that the little things had naturally evolved into bigger and more urgent things as they were neglected.

They were gaining on the front of the treadmill, slowly. Maybe that was the answer to both mysteries. Drew didn’t want to go until the backlog was clear, and the Consortium needed him to get the backlog cleared.

Today, though, was different and Drew was not tending to the backlog. Today, Ceres was hosting some ET guests with some promising technology to sell.

Anything that got the mining ship HCS-501 ‘I Met God And She Booped My Nose’ out of mothball and back out among the belt where she belonged was a good thing in Drew’s book. The ship had depended on nukes to do its job, but the supply of those had dried up like spit on a barbecue the moment Hephaestus lost one. The ship wasn’t a cost-effective surveyor, and the Consortium didn’t even know where to begin researching an alternative, so the poor girl had been “landed” on Ceres’ ultra-low-gravity surface where not even her prodigious mass could do her any harm, and handed over to the accountants.

She’d paid for herself just in one rock. But Drew loved spaceships, and seeing one he’d briefly captained sitting out there on the asteroidal plain, abandoned and unused, was just an extra twist to the knife in his beer belly.

“So explain how these probes work?” he asked.

The ET guest was a Locayl named Ernud, clad head-to-toe in a hazmat suit for his own protection. Ceres wasn’t designed for nonhumans, they didn’t practice even the basic germ safety that everyone living on Cimbrean was used to. No Frontline, no biofilter fields, just good old-fashioned soap medicine and disease screening. It had kept the station free of STIs at least.

By Drew’s admittedly low standards, no Chlamydia meant all was well. But from a Locayl’s perspective, Ceres Base was a seething plague pit full of some of the most aggressive bacterial and fungal pathogens in the known galaxy. Drew couldn’t blame him for wrapping up in his own personal clean room.

“It’s an interesting application of stasis technology,” he explained, via the translator he wore clipped tight around his throat like a choker or dog collar. “We were inspired by the safety hazards present in Human-designed jump arrays. Three probes maneuver into position, generate a stasis field between them, and the result is a neat plane that should cut cleanly through basically anything.”

“…So the swarm just dices the rock up into manageable chunks,” Drew surmised. “I like it. I take it you have some improved power technology in there? We couldn’t make a drone that could generate a stable field with enough range and maneuver around and that had a decent battery life and was small enough to fit in the ship.”

“This one, I believe, will satisfy on all four counts. You’ve already seen for yourself that they fit in the ship’s launch tubes…”

Drew nodded. Boop had headed out to trial the new probes a couple of hours earlier, bound for a nice high-value Ruthenium-rich object that had been on the survey chart for years but was much too difficult to relocate to near Ceres and break apart the way they usually handled the smaller stuff.

The telemetry took a couple of minutes to reach Ceres, but that didn’t really matter. All that mattered was that Boop was flying again, and if Ernud walked his talk then Hephaestus was about to own enough Ruthenium to drive the price down from hundreds of dollars per troy ounce to a couple of cents. The Consortium had to be extremely careful about how slowly it released material onto the market in these situations to avoid shocking the global economy.

But as a way of getting investors enthusiastic, bringing in a medium-sized nation’s GDP in an afternoon took a lot of beating. And right now, Hephaestus needed the investors.

“Well, let’s see how it goes…”

They watched, and Ernud talked Drew through each step as Boop nosed up to the asteroid like a dolphin playing alongside an oil tanker. The trio of drones sailed out of her launch tube without incident, and quickly vanished into the distance until they were far too small for the ship’s cameras to pick out. White target reticles indicated their positions as the spread out into an equilateral triangle around the rock and…

It was hard to make out the perfect black of a stasis field against the perfect black of deep space, but the way most of the asteroid seemed to blink out of existence seemed like pretty telling evidence that it was working. The drones fired their thrusters, briefly dazzling the camera as they applied full thrust, and then when the field flickered off, an irregular pie crust of stone was tumbling slowly away from the rest of the object.

The drones slowed, boosted back, took up position, and did it again. And again. In less than five minutes, they’d carved off three thin plates, which Boop reached out and grabbed with her forcefields, then snapped in half like Drew would have broken a cracker before drawing the broken bits into the rock smasher along her belly.

It was a lot neater than mining with nukes. A lot safer, too. No hurtling high-energy debris to survive, dodge or chase, just little biscuits of rock that Boop could snack on at her leisure.

Ernud turned to Drew, and looked smug through his suit’s transparent faceplate. “Sold?” he asked.

“That’s not up to me,” Drew replied. “But strewth, I like ‘em. I like ‘em a lot. I’ll tell Mister Panja he should buy ‘em.”

“Good.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, though, why come to us? We aren’t exactly the biggest mining operation in the sky.”

“You’re the biggest in Sol. Indeed, you’re the only in Sol,” Ernud replied. “And this system is unique for the time being, in being both a species cradle and effectively pristine. Every other cradle system was rapidly developed by Dominion mining interests when the natives invited them in, but Sol of course was quarantined early on. The end result is that you are small now, but likely to grow into one of the largest mining corporations in the galaxy over the coming centuries. We thought that… what’s that term of yours? We thought ‘getting our foot in the door’ was a good idea.”

Drew couldn’t knock that reasoning, really.

“Well then,” he said, as he watched Boop chew up another giant rocky biscuit and draw the resulting gravel into the rock-smashers in her belly to be chewed up and wormhole jumped back to the processing facility on Ceres, “here’s to a prosperous future.”

“For us all,” Ernud agreed.


Date Point: 16y7m2d AV
Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Nofl

“Well, your doctor is absolutely correct, my dear. This is a most unusual case of inflammation. I can fix it of course…”

“…But?” The big explorer tilted his head in a quizzical expression so like what Bozo used to do, Nofl felt a momentary pang of some unidentifiable feeling. He didn’t much like it.

“…Well, the fix isn’t too bad, I’d just need to remove the implants. However, you’ve put this leg through some ridiculous stress, dear. Or at least… I thought you had…”

Julian quirked an eyebrow bemusedly. “Nofl, not too long ago I watched you grow a foot and then attach it to my leg. That sounds pretty traumatic to me!”

“It is! So, long story short, I’m going to need to take a closer look. The scanner just isn’t helping today. Permission to slice apart your leg and rummage around in there, dear?”

Julian gave him a complex look. “You don’t sugar coat it, do you little fella?”

“So…permission granted?”

Julian snort-laughed. “…Fine. Yeah. If I can’t run, I’ll be useless. Let’s fix it before I wimp out.”

Nofl clapped happily and spun through the usual preparatory works, which included a review of all of his voluminous medical notes before the procedure.

Human doctors were remarkably competent, thorough, and highly observant, despite their alarmingly primitive medical technologies. With Julian they never skimped on the bloodworks; he was, after all, an utterly peerless physical specimen and a “normal” civilian to boot, and such things never failed to arouse suspicions among those paying attention. Not once had they ever found anything concerning of course, impressively elevated testosterone and related hormonal signaling aside. Julian had always been open and honest, and that had slowly earned their trust.

But this time…

This time, they found some highly unusual metabolites in his blood. They had no idea what they meant and had flagged them for Nofl’s attention; their working theory was his gut microbiome was acting up and might be the root cause of Julian’s symptomatology.

Nofl took one look at the report and almost choked on his decaffeinated ristretto. The doctors had no idea how right they were. He knew exactly what those bloodworks meant, which left him with a mystery to solve.

Why hadn’t the Directorate been honest with Nofl?

It wasn’t much of a mystery. The Directorate wasn’t honest with anybody, least of all a lowly banner such as him. But surely this wasn’t a thing they’d imagined would remain a secret!

…Was it?

Well. Before Nofl could do anything about it or broach the subject, first he had to confirm his suspicions. Any additional therapy to address Julian’s rather unique condition would need special consideration, depending on what, exactly, had been done. After all, it wasn’t as if his health was in any danger. Rather the extreme opposite, in fact.

Which, in the end, was going to be a Very Big Problem.

The procedure didn’t take long. He opened Julian’s robustly over-muscled calf up to the knee and narrated his work for the big man’s reassurance, swabbed the inflammation sites, and zipped the dense flesh closed again as though it was a Ziploc bag—what a marvelous invention those were! Once done, Nofl wrapped an entirely superfluous dressing around it as a placebo for the patient, sent Julian on his way with a stern admonition to come back the next day for a follow-up, and then buried himself in his lab equipment to confirm his suspicions.

Confirming them didn’t take more than a minute or so.

…Oh dear.

Nofl’s work on Cruezzir had been a conflux of unique serendipity, coupled of course with his own rare genius. He had, through sheer brilliance far in excess of the usual drudgery his caste produced, managed to secure a bottom-level lab assistant role in a xenobiology college operating out of City Three on the planet Perimeter. There, he’d found himself handling, cataloging, isolating, cultivating and generally -ing\ing a steady stream of interesting samples, data, specimens and reports from field xenobiology units.

And, in his spare time, because it wasn’t explicitly forbidden by his role, he’d experiment.

Cruezzir had begun life ignominiously as the gut secretions of a species native to the Celzi homeworld. The critter in question would have been vermin, except the Celzi happened to find them rather tasty and tended to trap them. There was no need to farm the things, just wash them carefully when they inevitably blundered into the traps. It was as though rat was a staple of the human diet.

So. The gut secretions of vermin. Not a promising starting place for a miracle medicine, but Nofl had noted a few unusual things about the creature’s life cycle and found it oddly fascinating. He’d biochemically picked it apart, and then started to, well… tinker.

That had kind of been the trajectory of his career, in fact. Tinkering with the overlooked details in the background, while the more important and pompous higher-banner professors dedicated themselves to whatever it was that had drawn their lofty attention. They’d sneered at him at first when he’d brought the prototype Cruezzir formula to their attention… then grown vaguely interested. Then fascinated. Then rather embarrassed.

Nofl, of course, had been much too carefully diligent about documenting his findings for them to ever steal the credit. The downside to that of course was that the Directorate knew exactly how Cruezzir was produced. It was a hideously complex, multi-stage nanotechnological and biological synthesis that defied any easy streamlining…

But it did have precursors that were potent regenerative medicines in their own right. And Julian, Nofl’s favorite patient, was producing a number of them in spades in that ferocious gut microbiome of his.

Normally, the precursor compounds were generated in such tiny trace amounts and reabsorbed so rapidly that detecting them was effectively impossible, but this time…

Oh dear oh dear.

Nofl sighed, scooted over to his lab’s private wormhole router station, and opened a link to Origin.

…And once again waded into politics far, far above his station.


Date Point: 16y7m1w AV
The Pinkwood Michelin star restaurant, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Doctor Claire Farmer

Hoeff cleaned up good. In fact, he cleaned up so good that he almost managed to look like a Daniel. Almost…but not quite.

For starters, Daniel was a friendly sort of name for a guy. Hoeff…didn’t quite fit the bill. He was much too rough and tumble to ever quite come across as a mild-mannered sort of man. He had an intense look in his eyes and his glance tended to bore right through people, right through to their very cores. A Daniel probably had a nice, clean-cut pile of hair on the top of his head. Hoeff had a military fade so perfectly executed, it looked as if it were actually sharp to the touch.

A regular Daniel had probably played baseball or ran track for his high school. He sounded like a nice civilized boy next door, with a decent scholarship to a good state college and a modest athletic career in his youth. He probably gracefully went to seed sometime in his thirties.

Not Hoeff. He had no time for college and didn’t even bother to apply. He was an intensely physical man, and had played varsity football and rugby and wrestled all the way to four state championships. He then enlisted in the Navy and went straight into the SEALs…at seventeen, having graduated early and taken every AP course he could find time to take. Hoeff was probably a lot smarter than Daniel, too. Nor had that fundamentally kinetic quality of Hoeff’s ever dimmed. Rather than go to seed he’d kept at it with full intensity, so he still looked like a young and lean fighter of a man, and had a bullneck thick enough to shatter a baseball bat against.

No, even at his most well-groomed and in his civilian best, Hoeff was still very much a Hoeff… and Claire wouldn’t trade him for any pencil-necked average-man Daniel out there.

The hungry way he looked at her was all part of the appeal. Claire had always thought she preferred ‘nice’ guys, but the thing was…

…The thing about it, was that the Nice Guys were, well… too nice. They didn’t know how to make her feel desired. Any random Daniel would probably go out of his way to be polite and accommodating, always afraid of her shadow…what kind of fun was that? Her Daniel, her Hoeff, very much gave the impression that he was consciously restraining the urge to throw her up against the wall and take what was rightfully his. Hoeff was a dangerous man, and some part of her thrilled at that like she’d never imagined she’d do. That she interested him.

That he was also unfailingly polite and mild-mannered…well, in public anyway…

The cherry on the top of it all, though, was just how good he cleaned up. He had a stylistic flair too, sporting a deep-black, very well-fitted linen shirt with a mandarin-style collar. He matched it with a nice pair of athletic-cut chinos and shoes so glossy-black, they were practically mirrors.

She was used to seeing him running around in a steamy jungle in skimpy shorts and not much else. Which…hot, to say the very least. But somehow, now that he was properly dressed up…

They met at his apartment, and he welcomed her with a genuine smile. It was definitely a spartan bachelor type of place, but it looked and smelled fastidiously clean. That was certainly not a bad thing, in her book.

Hoeff meanwhile only had eyes for her. “Lookit us, all pretty and stuff!”

She must have cleaned up pretty well too, given how he was eyeing her. “Well, if you’re going to spend some time in civilization…”

He grinned and wrapped his arms around her waist. They were much the same height, but that just made it easy to trade a welcoming smooch and a nicely possessive nuzzle.

“…Nice necklace!”

Claire fingered the intricately chunky tangle of antler and colorful stone beads around her neck. “Thanks! The Singer made it for me.”

“You wouldn’t think they could be so crafty with those shovels they have for hands, huh?”

“Yours aren’t exactly dainty, and you can work some minor miracles with them…” She gave him a filthy grin she’d never known she had in her, then took his hand and led them toward the cab.

“I’ll have you know, it’s taking an immense amount of self-control to be polite just now…”

“M-hmm. I can see the way you’re looking. But I’m hungry and when I left Akyawentuo it was breakfast time. And it took me all morning to get my fingernails clean.”

“Well fuck, let’s go eat, then!”

“Where did you pick?”

“Little place an old friend treated me to last week. Michelin star.”

Claire felt her eyebrows and her jaw do their level best to get away from each other. “…I’ve… never eaten at a Michelin star restaurant before…”

Hoeff grinned. “Kinda fancy, but the food’s… you’ll see. Also, I know you only drink decaf and theirs is so good I couldn’t tell the difference. Think they get it locally, from an ET.”

“High dining? Decaf coffee? Who are you, and what did you do with Hoeff?”

“Naw, it’s me. I’m not all grunt and murder, y’know. Sometimes I like to eat a fancy-ass steak.”

“Riiight! Steak! There you are again!”

They bundled into the cab, and Claire smoothed her dress down under her, feeling a little self-conscious. She was used to hard-wearing waterproof work pants and flannel, attire appropriate for the bottom of a muddy hole in the ground. Not a knee-length black number with a cute wide pleat down the front of the skirt.

Hoeff did the nicest possible thing and leaned his head against her shoulder. “I could honestly just do this all night.”

Claire’s stomach replied for her by growling, and he chuckled along with her own self-effacing laugh.

“…But you couldn’t,” he added.

The restaurant, when they reached it, was fancy, but tastefully so. Rather than intimidating her with glitz and ritz and snootery, it was… tasteful. Crisp white tablecloths, comfortable black leather seats, and a long curved slate wall with water trickling down it behind the bar. It would have looked stark and minimalist, but the lighting was warm and the wood floor was subtly patterned with wavy lines that softened the hard edges.

Still, they were seated immediately at a small table for two, which had their names written on cards on a very large plate. There was a folded cloth napkin, a menu that had no actual choices on it, a goblet of water…

And nothing else. Not silverware, nothing.

“This is something like nouvelle cuisine so they’ll bring out everything as you need it. The big plate in front of you is a charger, they put other plates on it for you. They’re gonna serve us a bunch of small dishes and a hell of a lot of wine. You can ask for more, but don’t. I think there are, uh…seven courses tonight? Plus probably an amuse-bouche.”

“A…what?”

“Fancy french word for basically a clever little snack the chef makes for us right away. They’re never listed on the menu and you don’t always get one—there it is.”

What arrived was an impeccably dressed waiter, bearing two small plates. The treats they bore were tiny, just a single bite-sized dome of goat’s cheese topped with a coin of some kind of red jelly and sprinkled with finely-chopped green stuff that Claire guessed might be chives.

Another waiter followed behind, bearing wine glasses and wine.

“Eat it in one bite.” Hoeff nodded politely at the waiters, then popped it into his mouth. He didn’t chew it, just let it sit there, so Claire did the same.

A few seconds later, as the waiters were taking the tiny plates away, she had to do her best not to splutter and giggle. The amuse-bouche was delicious, she’d never known goat’s cheese could melt on the tongue like that, and the jelly really set it off but…

But her traitorous brain had just supplied her with the mental image of a Ten’Gewek trying to make head or tails of this strange ritual.

She finally succumbed, and rather than chewing it she kind of squished it against her palate with her tongue and swallowed. Honestly, she could have eaten nothing but those the whole night and been happy.

“Can you imagine Yan doing this?” She asked, fighting to keep the giggle out of her voice.

“…That would be a hell of a show. Especially after the fifth glass of wine. Speaking of…drink!”

Claire picked up her glass. “Should we toast, or…?”

Hoeff grinned. “Sure! Lotta things to toast, y’know? Where do we start?”

“Let’s start simple…” Claire leaned forward and offered her glass. “To a good evening.”

“To a good evening,” he agreed, and their glasses met with the kind of lingering chime that only real crystal produced.

It was a good evening. Maybe living in the jungle and eating mostly ration packs and campfire roasted meat had starved Claire’s palate for stimulation, but every course seemed even more delicious than the last. None were large, but all were perfectly formed and she’d never really appreciated what was meant by a wine ‘accompanying’ a course before.

Small though the glasses were, she still got a little buzzed, and couldn’t quite let go of the mental image of her favorite cavemonkeys in this refined environment. “We gotta invite Vemik to this one day. Him and Tilly!”

Hoeff grumbled amusedly under his breath. “Assumin’ they don’t fuck each other right on the table…”

“Language!” She gave him a light slap on the arm. “I mean, you know I don’t mind, but here?”

Hoeff’s eyes sparkled. “Oh, you’ve clearly never rubbed shoulders with high society, if you think they’re anything prim and proper. And remember, the most famous chef in the world is Gordon Fucking Ramsey.”

Claire had to give him that one, and it led to the weirdest toast she’d ever made: to swearing.

Sometime after the dessert and about the best cup of coffee she could remember having, they decided to walk home. Ordinarily, Claire would have worried about walking around an unfamiliar city at night, but…

…But people got out of the way when they noticed Hoeff. A lot of the time, they didn’t even look like they were doing it consciously.

…Damn.

They had earlier conspired to visit the local art museum, but…she was feeling full, and content, and honestly, seeing the way that shirt just clung to her date and enjoying whatever energy it was he radiated that cleared a path for them like that…

…Maybe she was feeling some of that jungle spirit anyway.

“Y’know what?” Claire wrapped her arm under his, and felt up that massive knotted bicep which kept threatening to rip his shirt. “I think the museum can wait for another day.”

Hoeff leaned in and waggled his eyebrows. “Hey. I’m not really an art guy anyway…wanna go back to my apartment an’ do the no pants dance?”

Claire burst out laughing. “Hoeff! I’m going to take that literally!”

“Fine by me! Too bad I ain’t got a pole or anythin’…”

“…Wait, what?”

“You heard me!” The shit-eating grin of his that turned his face from merely kinda-handsome to heartbreaker put in an appearance. “I danced at a strip club when I was young!”

“What? When?!”

“Moonlighting job at my first station! Command never found out, neither!”

“You’re bullshitting me!”

“Naw! You have any idea how much cash you can make doin’ that sorta thing?”

“Hoeff!” Claire felt herself a bit scandalized.

“What?! A buncha horny bachelorettes wanna pay me to wave my big dick around? Why not?!”

“Hoeff!!”

He had her, and they both knew it. “Y’know, I bet you’d like a demonstration, huh?”

Claire didn’t quite know how to react to that, but that only seemed to egg him on.

“Well…okay. I’ll dance ‘fer you. But only if you promise you’re gonna be grabby as fuck.”

…Well.

“I think I can manage that,” Claire said with some bravado.

“Good!” Hoeff scooped her up and charged back to his apartment at a frankly breakneck pace, much to her giggling protests.

He didn’t pause when they arrived, hardly a minute or two later. Without missing a beat, Hoeff took the stairs three at a time, kicked open his front door, pushed her down onto his couch and gave her the most predatory look she’d ever seen.

“Alright.” He kicked off his shoes, stood in front of her, undid his collar, and…oh. Oh. Damn.

Claire found herself nervously unable to speak as he undulated sinuously in front of her, holding her effortlessly pinned to the couch as a captive and entirely willing audience. Suddenly, he grabbed her hand and ran it up and down that rippling teak-hard leg of his. “Now I’m gonna give you a show, Claire, and you’re gonna put those strong archeologist hands of ‘yers to use.”

He did.

And so did she.


Date Point: 16y7m1w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Ava Ríos

“Don’t you usually lecture me about leaving my work in the office?”

Ava looked up from her tablet and blinked. Her head was full of facts, statements, recent history, dates and times and locations and people and…

All of the ingredients that went into an article. The APA were big news right now. Kind of a final death throe, now that the organization had allegedly been forcibly dismantled in one bloody night of SWAT raids. Writing about that and specifically how it affected Folctha’s ET population and the broader galactic community as the Interstellar Defense Talks got underway over on Rauwryhr had consumed her.

So much so, in fact, that it took her a second to recognize her own fiancé.

Derek. Right.

She blinked, and surfaced from whatever deep journalistic waters she’d been swimming in. He noticed, and smiled. “Ooop! There she is! Welcome back.”

“…Sorry.” Ava set her tablet aside and realized just how stiff she was and how her left leg had gone numb from being curled underneath her. She swung it out from under her and grimaced at the white-noise fuzzy barrage of sensation that swarmed all over it. Derek flomped down next to her with a tray from Ninja Taco and a big bottle of Talamay, and they traded a welcoming kiss.

“S’okay. Big news week.”

“Yeah, but you’re right…” Ava stretched out, and made a satisfied squeaking sound when her spine went pop in three places. God, she must have been sitting hunched over for hours.

A glance at the wall clock confirmed what her body was telling her, and inspired her stomach to supply that it was very empty and not at all happy with the situation. Especially now that there was the tantalizing waft of a Triple Cheese Jutsu under her nose.

“…I should leave my work at work,” she finished, snagging the laden taco and gladly turning her face into a cheesy mess.

Derek chuckled, took one for himself, and ate it with a little more finesse. “I got some prime-grade gossip for you!”

“Ooh, do I get to play muckraker now? Give!”

“Hoeff’s got himself a girlfriend.”

“So it’s Tuesday.”

“No no, I said a girlfriend not a fuckbuddy.”

Ava scooped some cheese off her cheek and gave Derek a skeptical look. “…Wait, you mean he’s going steady?”

“Yeah! He snagged himself a doctor! This one is different, I can tell.”

“How, exactly?”

“Oh, easy. Hoeff is normally the type to bang and run, and he makes damn sure his dates know it. They’re lucky if he buys them tacos!”

“Tacos, huh? How romantic…”

“Hush, you.” Derek bit into his with a satisfying cronch. And in one of the many ways that made him better than Ava’s last boyfriend, he chewed and swallowed before continuing rather than talk with his mouth full. “Anyway, a reliable source with direct knowledge of the situation—Champion Meereo in this case, don’t ask—saw him escorting the young doctor out of the Pinkwood. And he was dressed up! Like, all fancy an’ shit!”

Ava smiled. “So it’s a good news day all around.”

“Yeah-huh.” Derek draped an arm around her and turned the TV on. For some reason the default channel was ESNN, and Ava was treated to the sight of her own face: The report she’d done from in front of the Alien Quarter that afternoon.

It had taken a couple of years but she’d eventually managed to stop feeling embarrassed whenever she saw herself and heard herself on TV. She pointed at the ticker running along the bottom.

“That’s the story I really want to cover,” she said. “Daar and Sartori attending the defence meeting on Rauwryhr. I wish I could interview a Kwmbwrw matriarch right now…”

“Why? They’d just piss and moan about it. ‘S’all they ever do.”

“C’mon babe, there’s gotta be more to them than that!”

Derek shrugged and finished his taco. “They don’t like humans and they don’t like Gaoians, and didn’t you write that article a couple weeks ago about how they’re sidelined at the Dominion Council now that the Corti and Guvnurag have sided with us?”

“The Guvnurag remnant aren’t exactly a big force in politics any more,” Ava sighed. “At least, no more than any other refugee population. They’re a humanitarian crisis, not a major galactic player.”

“Still. That Matriarch would just be a fountain of salt at you. Why even bother?”

“‘Cuz it’s column inches.”

“Which I find funny ‘cuz you don’t print in columns, and everyone hates on inches these days.”

“You have your funny Army lingo, I have my funny journalism lingo,” she retorted primly, and sipped her soda. “Anyway. There’s always something to pick apart. I mean, there’s got to be a reason they’re salty.”

“Maybe they’re just bigots.”

“Or maybe it’s the fact that Daar showed up to the defense conference anyway and nobody really cared.”

“He’s deliberately tweaking Henengywire or whatever the fuck her name is, too. Did you see the joint address with President Sartori? He’s doing the short-fur, prowly-growly thing again.”

“He’s really good at that, though.”

Derek chuckled. “Reckon you’ll ever get to do a Laid Bare with Sartori?”

Ava laughed. Daar was one thing, he was kind of a force of nature who obeyed his own rules and wrote his own book on how Great Fathers should behave. But the POTUS? The fact that it was basically definitely not going to happen went unsaid, so instead she entertained the fantasy for a second. “…Now that would be a contrast. He’s kinda…dad-bod, you know?”

“You mean he’s short, squishy and bald.”

“Well, it’d certainly be brave as hell of him to put himself next to specimens like you for example. Or I guess Julian, since he was the last one I did.”

Derek grinned and gave her a smooch. “Thanks for thinkin’ of me first. And you should just put them next to each other, for fun. Do a line-up!”

Ava giggled at the idea. “Laid Bare wasn’t ever supposed to be comedy relief. You should know, it was your idea!”

“Exactly! Means I get to play around with it. Anyway. So Hoeff’s got him a smart squeeze, an’ I’m pretty sure he thinks she’s outta his league. Good for him! What else you doin’?”

“Oh, just…” Ava picked up her tablet and waggled it at him. “…Writing the APA’s obituary. I talked with a bunch of the ETs today, got their opinion on it all.”

“Like who?”

“The usual suspects. Gyotin of course, Mother Myun, Pickles—”

“Who?”

“P’kkikkl’zk. You know, the Ricky who owns the ET food shop on Jackson Lane?”

“Never met him.”

“It’s the place that smells really horrible whenever he’s got a new shipment of Zrrks in.”

“That’d explain why I never met him.” Derek chugged his soda and crumpled the cup back into the cardboard box their food had come in. “So what do they think?”

“That the APA are a bunch of racists and good riddance, really. Also, seriously?! Why are all the radical activists always basically the exact damn thing they claim to hate?!”

“Projection. I heard that once on a podcast.”

“That’s awfully cynical of you.”

“Babe, I was a Green Beret before all of this, and then I got dragged into an actual secret alien conspiracy hell-bent on enslaving the galaxy. Ordinary folks being dumb as shit is a welcome break from the weird.”

“…You and I have very atypical scales for what constitutes weird, I think.”

Derek chuckled. “…Wanna hear something really cynical?”

“What?”

“Lotta people online are talking about how the Ag Secretary’s death had very convenient timing…” He grinned.

“Oh come on.”

“Why not? I mean, maybe he had the wrong friends and the Powers That Be decided to get rid of him quietly rather than put him on trial. You don’t buy that?”

“I don’t buy that they’re that subtle,” Ava said. “If I’ve learned anything, it’s that our governments are usually pretty terrible at keeping secrets.”

“Oh I dunno, we kept the Hierarchy pretty well wrapped-up for a good long while…”

“Sure, except for the mass migraines and weird reports out of Ceres. And the sudden product recall on translator implants. And the anti-implantation laws. And, y’know. People like Adam exist. It’s kinda hard not to notice some of that.” Ava swiped through her half-finished ‘obituary’ and then set it aside. “So, no. If Ross Guillory was murdered by some government assassin then it would be super obvious. We’re talking… nerve agents on the door handle, or an umbrella full of Polonium. That kind of thing.”

“You’re thinking of the Russians. They don’t generally give a fuck.”

“Well… whatever. Is that the kind of thing the USA does?”

“Sure. I mean, I’ve never been briefed on anything like that so I’m free to speculate…but of course they do. Ever pay attention to central America? Tell me someone ain’t bein’ naughty.”

“I guess, but… a member of the Cabinet? I don’t buy it, and Sartori looked genuinely upset. So no, I don’t buy it. That sounds too much like clickbaity conspiracy theory stuff.”

Derek gave her a fond smile and stroked his thumb through her hair. “You’re so innocent sometimes.”

She gave him an irritated slap in the chest and grabbed the last taco before it could go soggy. “Or you’re just being jaded.”

“Maybe. But Gabe resigned, remember? Like…right at the exact same time. And suddenly, too. I think that’s as clear a signal as any.”

Ava slowly lowered her taco. That was… inescapably true, in fact. And he hadn’t discussed resigning at all, which was… now that she thought about it, he’d probably have hummed and hawed about the decision for months and talked it over with Ava herself, and with Adam, and with Jess and everyone else really before finally committing.

A crawling sensation up her spine dumped her very briefly back in Egypt, to a memory of running for her life and expecting to be shot in the back at any second. It was a warning instinct, something buried deep in the human hindbrain that sniffed the air and listened for breaking twigs in the forest, and existed to keep her from blundering into danger. And right now, it was screaming.

“…You know what? Let’s say that conspiracy theory is right,” she said, carefully. “I would have to be some kind of a suicidally brave idiot to want to try and blow the lid on that, wouldn’t I? ‘Cuz if it’s true and there are forces out there who would brazenly murder a member of the US Cabinet, then what would they do to an uppity journalist who decided to investigate?”

Derek considered that for a moment, then cleared his throat. “…Forget I said anything.”

“And if it’s not true, I wouldn’t have a story to show for it,” Ava added.

“Alright, I get it. Leave sleeping giants alone.”

Ava sighed, took the remote out of his hand, and changed the channel. She’d got into watching esports at university, and Derek was pretty happy with anything so long as it was even vaguely exciting, so she picked the Mythos Arena North America championship highlights and cuddled up to him.

“…Maybe we should go to that restaurant sometime,” she mused after a few minutes.

“Sure.”

“You mean it?”

“Of course I mean it!” Derek leaned over and kissed her head, “It’s a date.”

Ava nodded, smiled, put her head down on his shoulder and relaxed into a gentle evening at home.

“It’s a date,” she agreed.


Date Point: 16y7m1w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Doctor Claire Farmer

“…You know what I’m trying to figure out?”

“What?”

“If anyone ever asked me if I liked ‘bad boys…’”

Hoeff smiled a bit tiredly, and Claire almost melted right then and there. He’d worn himself out rather thoroughly showing her just what that bad-boy body of his could do…and something about his face was just made to smile. It was a shame he only smiled that smile of his occasionally, but a part of her was grateful he saved it mostly for her.

“Well…I won’t deny it. I’m not a nice man. This is…new territory for me.”

Claire rolled over on top of him, propped herself up on her elbow and gave him a long look. He’d gone all out for tonight, expensive Egyptian cotton sheets and everything. It felt like she’d dropped into a movie, almost. A James Bond movie, maybe. Except…

Well. Nice man or not, he was a better man than James Bond. That thought quirked her face up in a smile, and she leaned down to kiss his nose.

“I know. You’re damn good at it, though,” she said. “And… You don’t need to be a nice man.”

She got that smile again. It was so easy to draw out, when he was relaxed. “…So what’re you trying to figure out?” One of those rough hands of his reached up and firmly massaged at the back of her neck. It felt good. She pushed back into his grip before relenting and nuzzling against his broad chest, just enjoying his heat and musk. They both sighed happily.

“I’m… not even sure.” She frowned. “Just… Why, I guess. Why I would have said no before. I don’t feel like I’ve changed…”

“Maybe you’re overthinking it.”

“I’m an anthropologist, overthinking this stuff is what I do.”

He chuckled, pulled her in for a tight snuggle…and decided to be mischievous. His hands traced down along her body, lower, lower, and then–!

When she eventually got her wits back about her, she swatted him on the shoulder.

“Hoeff! That was hardly a gentlemanly thing to do!”

“I ain’t a gentleman. I’m a bad boy, remember?”

“I don’t think you’ll let me forget.”

He grinned like a wolf, and now it was his turn to roll over, pin her flat to the mattress…and get a good long look at her. Every. Last. Inch. She played at trying to escape, and felt a rush run through her from her head to her toes when he didn’t let her. His grin grew predatory as he tightened his whole-body grip around her. He had her pinned so fiercely, she couldn’t wiggle her legs or hips even one little inch. God but he was strong! All she could do was claw at that rippling back of his while he held her head in place and inescapably kissed and nibbled at her throat, sampling his way up along her neck and eventually towards her ear–!

“Good,” he growled, then snarled right in close as he bit at her lobe. “‘Cuz I’m done with playtime.”

Claire didn’t do much thinking for the rest of the night.


Date Point: 16y7m1w AV Whryvyr Conference Center, Planet Rauwryhr, The Rauwryhr Republic, Perseus Arm

Shwmwrwyn, Military envoy of Grand House Gwedrynydwr

Great Father Daar’s presence was being read by Shwmwrwyn’s superiors as a direct insult, but Shwmwrwyn was largely of the opinion that her superiors were idiots.

This was a considered and expert opinion. As Fleet Matriarch of the coreward marches, she’d been the Kwmbwrw people’s front line of defence against the Hunters for twenty years, and she didn’t much care whether Daar was insulting the Grandmatriarchs by attending or not. She just wanted to know how to kill Hunters as well as the deathworlders did.

But then again, it took a specific kind of stubborn pride to become a Grandmatriarch in the first place. They were as they were practically by design.

The Great Father wasn’t exactly making it easy for the Grandmatriarchs to listen, however. His rhetorical approach seemed to rely on charismatic antagonism. An oxymoron, but… well, there it was. He was saying things that Shwmwrwyn really thought the Grandmatriarchy had needed to hear for the last several centuries, and doing it in such a way that although everything he said was an assault on them, they still listened.

An impressive feat, that. All by itself that should have been enough evidence for anyone that there was plenty going on inside the mind of the snarling mountain of muscle that was the Great Father, much more than the Grand Houses cared to admit. Alas, it seemed to matter little.

As for what he was saying…well. She could see the Human contingent, over at their circular table, keeping very blank faces. Tellingly blank.

He knew absolutely everything the Marches fleet had done over the last year. Their every movement, the disposition of their forces, their training maneuvers… he knew where everything was. And though he wasn’t so unsubtle as to explicitly say it, Shwmwrwyn got the message loud and clear: if the Gao intended the Great Houses any harm, there would be absolutely nothing the Kwmbwrw could do about it.

“So ‘ta sum all that up,” he finished loudly as he returned to the middle of the room, “…’Yer fleets are stretched to their breaking point, ‘yer intel ain’t secure, none’a your infrastructure is adequately defended…” he paused, and looked at Shwmwrwyn. “…But the bright side is, you have miracle-workers in ‘yer ranks who’re holding it all together in spite of all that. Lose them, though, an’ you’ll have nothing.”

Predator. All Shwmwrwyn’s instincts were singing raw threat at her, from something deep in the most instinctive layer of her brain that only saw his fangs and claws and prowling menace and wanted to run out into the deep marshy ground where it was safe.

There was nowhere to run, though. So like the others, she watched cautiously, transfixed as if her life depended on it. And she paid attention.

“Here’s the thing. All that I jus’ said? It ain’t an indictment on most of ‘yer people. The problem is, ‘yer thinkin’ like prey. You just worry about surviving the Hunters, an’ that won’t do you no good no more. It ain’t good enough ‘ta just survive. We’re at war now. An’ Clausewitz, a really balls-smart Human, said that war is fundamentally a contest of wills. An’ he’s right! So which is it? Are ‘ya gonna let the greasy-nut monsters save ‘yer meat for the last? Or are ‘ya gonna pin ‘em down and show ‘em the meaning of power?”

There was silence, and then one of the Humans—Sartori, the allegedly most powerful man that species had—made a soft noise in the back of his throat to clear it.

However powerful he truly was, Daar, the Great Father of the Gao, had clear and obvious respect for the man. Fondness, even. He glanced Sartori’s way, then duck-nodded. “I yield the floor.”

Sartori nodded his thanks and stood. He strolled to the middle of the room with his hands behind his back in pretty much the opposite posture Daar had taken. Where Daar had prowled and snarled and flexed his physique both literally and figuratively all over the place, Sartori moved slowly and with deliberation. He paused to adjust a wide, thick decorative ribbon of some kind around his throat, and cleared his throat again.

“We have made,” he said, “an opportunity. Up until recently, the species of the Dominion have been at the mercy of Hunter raids which were too big, too coordinated and too skilled for you, and so the only thing you could do, as the Great Father said, was survive.”

He looked to the Kwmbwrw again. “That has now changed. My people, along with the Gao, obliterated the [Lion’s share] of their power in one fell stroke, with the Great Father here personally leading the strike. Consequent to that, the Hunters are reeling, and all our intelligence says that they will be reeling for some time. They have completely ceased raiding along the Far Reaches, near the Clans of Gao, and in the Border Stars thanks to our protection fleets. They are withdrawing from the Free Systems, the Akw’tun Band and the Inner Orion Spur due to their own weakness, and the last time they attempted a serious breach of Kwmbwrw territory we crushed them. Very, very literally.”

He turned slowly to look at each delegation in turn. “They are the weakest they have been in the Dominion’s entire history. But they will recover, if left unmolested. And they will surely take their vengeance. So this is not the moment to relax and take our foot off the gas—forgive me, that’s a Human metaphor meaning to reduce the pace of activity. The beast is hiding in its lair and licking its wounds. It is vulnerable. And we can, if we have the will, hunt it down where it hides and end it once and for all.”

Most of the gathered delegations were making gestures of agreement, seeing the clear wisdom and logic. He turned back to the Kwmbwrw, and Shwmwrwyn became aware that she too had been bobbing her head in agreement, even while the Grandmatriarchs glared at her.

She returned the glare with interest. Were they not listening?

Sartori saw the whole exchange. He stepped forward, and spread his hands openly at hip height. “What possible objection could you have?” he asked. “What stops you? We’re standing here pleading with you to take action in your own defence. And yet despite the fact that no Human or Gaoian has ever done anything so monstrous to the Kwmbwrw people as what any Hunter would gladly revel in… I see nothing but hostility and distrust here. Why?”

Daar growled solicitously from his floor-spot next to the Gaoian delegation’s table.

“Do you have something to add, Great Father?”

“If ‘yer ready ‘ta let me, yeah.”

“I yield my remaining time back to the Great Father.”

The Great Father leapt high up from his spot and pounced directly into the middle of the floor right next to the President with no discernable effort whatsoever. Gasps or their equivalent circled the room but Sartori, for his part, seemed utterly unperturbed. There was a brief but very fond exchange between the two men as the President walked back to his table.

“Oh, it’s obvious what they object to. It’s me. I’m an avatar of everythin’ the Grandmatriarchs hate, ain’t I? Well, here I am! Just say it! Tell the world how you really feel!”

Henenwgwyr, of course, took up the challenge. She rose from her chair, and then reared upright on her hind legs, uncoiling her tail behind her for balance so she could achieve the full imperious effect of her impressive height. She certainly towered over the Humans and Gaoians, who would have been the smallest species in the room if not for the Corti. Even Daar, massive though he was by any reasonable standard, had to tilt his muzzle up to look at her.

Somehow, in that moment, she managed to be almost as much of a presence as him.

“…You are a tyrant and a mass murderer,” she told the Great Father, levelly. “And you repeat the mantra of tyrants: that everything you did was necessary. Every tyrant in the history of every species has used that claim, and every last one was wrong. The Kwmbwrw Grand Houses see no good reason to conclude that you are uniquely different.”

She stepped forward. “You were at war. We understand that,” she said. “I am sure you feel that war justifies all atrocities. We do not. You killed billions of your own people, Great Father.’ We cannot understand how the ones you deigned to spare seem to love you for it.”

Daar’s ears moved subtly as he thought. His head tilted first one way, then the other, and he sniffed the air. Henenwgwyr stood tall and glared at him until he finally spoke.

“Okay. That right there should be ‘yer first clue that ‘yer missin’ somethin’ big an’ important, but let’s table that ‘fer the moment. What does any of that have to do with ‘yer survival?”

“You are asking us to trust our survival to your wisdom. Not just asking, but demanding, and belittling us when we are reluctant to trust a tyrant with a body count in the billions.” Henenwgwyr glanced at Sartori. “And you’re pleading with us? You’re asking us why the animosity exists when this being here—” she gestured to Daar.

Daar snarled out a warning. “I am right here, Grandmatriarch. You will address me in the first person present. I am the Gao, not simply a male you dislike. Remember that.”

Henenwgwyr did not turn her head. “—Has shown that he will not hesitate to burn away that which he sees as weak or an impediment.” She returned her attention to Daar. “Your pride will kill our people.”

“Well, there’s a lotta stuff to unpack there, ‘yer ideas on tyrants bein’ jus’ one o’ the bigger nuggets, ‘yer just…Mister President, wassat idea we talked about last night?”

“Um…Projection?”

“Yes! Thank you. It’s pretty fuckin’ ridiculous of ‘ya to talk ‘bout pride at this point, but whatever. ‘Fore I tackle any o’ the rest, I need ‘ya to unnerstand somethin.’ President Sartori is concerned ‘fer the well-being of ‘yer people, ‘cuz ruthless though he is, he’s fundamentally a man who cares. You must not make that mistake with me. I am a Great Father. We are not created on a whim. We come into being when the Gao are under dire threat. Our purpose is ‘ta cut through the posturing an’ the nonsense, and ta’ solve the problem. Right now, the thing that threatens my people is the Hunters—the Discarded, as our great Enemy calls them, they who murdered billions o’ my people in an instant. If they are allowed to regroup, they will obliterate us all. An’ yer’ mind-blowin’ pride an’ sense o’ self-importance is keepin’ ‘ya from seein’ it. We’re pleadin’ with ‘ya to open ‘yer gods-damned eyes an’ see the endgame. We’d rather ‘ya had a part in our collective salvation. But know this: ‘yer right.”

He stepped right forward into Henenwgwyr’s collective space.

“I will leave those who cannot or will not be saved to die, if I must.”

There was a long, glaring standoff, and then quite abruptly he turned his back on the Grandmatriarch and returned to the Gaoian table. “I yield my remainin’ time.”

The Grandmatriarch was stunned into silence, but only for a moment. Right as Daar had sunk back to all fours, she blurted out, “And what about the rest?”

Daar turned around and sized her up, not bothering to rise to his legs again. “What about it?”

“How do you answer the charges?!”

“I don’t seem to recall anyone anywhere havin’ the authority to charge me with anything.”

“And yet I charge you, nonetheless! You are a mass-murderer and a tyrant.”

Daar duck-nodded in what could almost be interpreted as respect. “Fair enough! Am I a mass murderer? Absolutely. I am what duty has forced me to be.”

“And a tyrant the likes of which we’ve never seen.”

“Tyrant, eh? See, that? That right there? I don’t think that word means what you think it means. I ain’t interferin’ in th’ daily lives o’ my fellow Gao. They are generally free to do as they please, as long as it don’t violate our Law, and they ain’t workin’ with the declared enemies of the Gao. I’ve been actively encouragin’ ‘em ‘ta do what they want an’ speak their minds, an’ a few of ‘em are finally startin’ ta’ get the message! We got a lotta rebuildin’ t’do, physically an’ culturally, an’ it’s prol’ly gonna take the rest o’ my life t’do it. I think…”

Daar paused for a moment, then changed tack.

“…I have a criticism to offer, an’ this one is from the bottom o’ my belly. I think ‘yer people have forgotten what it means ‘ta really suffer. An’ that’s not my criticism! That’s good. It’s a sign y’all been gettin’ along pretty well! But I think it’s mebbe blindin’ ‘ya to what’s in store ‘fer us all. My people…are intimately familiar with sufferin’ an’ pain. At the end o’ the war, our Females numbered just under one hundred million in a species o’ many billions. Every last one o’ us has seen horrors. We’ve all lost many near an’ dear to us. We’ve watched as life-long Brothers were turned into literal killer zombies, with no hope of recovery. An’ so…”

He shook his head, unhappily. “You can’t understand how some of the ones I spared love me for it? That’s kinda hard ta’ hear honestly, cuz I didn’t spare ‘em at all. I weren’t out ta’ kill ‘em in the first place! That was our enemy, an’ I saved as many of my people as I could. If that makes me a tyrant, well then I’m glad you ain’t got the authority ‘ta charge me.”

Henenwgwyr opened her mouth to reply, but stopped when President Sartori stood. There was a silent moment where the tall Grandmatriarch and the diminutive President held each other’s gaze… and Henenwgwyr stepped back. “…I yield to the President of the United States,” she said.

Sartori nodded as he stepped forward, and Shwmwrwyn noted that the Great Father, insofar as she could read Gaoian body language, made room for him with an expression of fondness and respect.

“I admire the Kwmbwrw delegation’s adherence to their principles,” he said, addressing the room in general rather than Henenwgwyr specifically. “It takes bravery to stand up and forthrightly criticize somebody like Daar to his face. I’m sure the Great Father would agree with me that Grandmatriarch Henenwgwyr has the courage of her convictions and will join me in commending her for it…”

Daar duck-nodded.

“…That being said, the convictions she stands by are luxuries born of generations of relative ease. The Kwmbwrw heartlands are peaceful, prosperous and wealthy. The frontiers where the Hunters raid, on the other hand…” He paused, then turned to the Grandmatriarch. “Are the settlers taken in those raids acceptable losses to you? I don’t wish to put words in your mouth, but I think you would say there is no such thing. So are they simply inevitable and unavoidable?”

He turned back to the room.

“People have the morals and ethics they can afford,” he said. “When the horizon darkens with murderous enemies and when your own brothers and sisters turn on you, well… the currency of high-minded idealism will devalue in the face of simple, brutal survival. It was not so long ago that the Hunters ordered all of your people to throw itinerant human abductees out the airlock or face slaughter… and many of your people obeyed. Including many Kwmbwrw.”

He turned back to the Great Houses delegation and shook his head. “Kill, or be killed. The oldest and most desperate choice. That is what it boils down to: Kill, or be killed. The Gao, and the Allied nations of Earth, choose to kill. You can either come with us, or…”

He let the sentence hang unfinished in the air.

Shwmwrwyn had had enough. She stood, eliciting a surprised look from the Grandmatriarchs and Sartori alike. Daar just pant-grinned and drank a little water.

“…Will the President give way?” she asked.

“I will.”

Shwmwrwyn shot a glance at her superiors, then stepped forward. Like Henenwgwyr she stood up bipedally as she turned to face them. “With respect to the Grandmatriarch Henenwgwyr, the Great Father is guilty of nothing I myself have not done,” she said. “It is standard operating procedure among the Marches fleets to bombard a raided station if we know we cannot liberate it. We deem it preferable to deny the Hunters their prize, and spare our people the horror that awaits them if they should be taken. That policy has been in place since before I was born.”

She turned to Sartori. “You are right. Our leadership have the luxury of distance and elevation. They have a long-view perspective that neither yourself nor the Great Father are afforded. Things are not so… immediate for them. I have seen otherwise. I have seen the new ship designs the Hunters use, and the reckless desperation behind their actions.”

She turned back to the Grandmatriarchs. “Those are surely the signs of a beaten foe, if we only have the will to push,” she said. “And I for one urge you to push. Whatever our feelings on the Great Father and his actions may be, the Hunters are surely worse! He does not have to be perfect to be better than them! Surely a flawed person is better than a perfect monster?!”

She turned to face the Great Father last, and hesitated. “…I apologize. You are the avatar and embodiment of your species, I know this. Any criticism I make of you is a criticism of your entire people, so I have just called the whole Gaoian race flawed. But I think it is quite clear that my own are just as imperfect.”

The Great Father duck-nodded in what seemed an amiable fashion. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with criticism, s’long as it’s from a position o’ respect. An’ I do respect ‘yer people. Mebbe, more’n I’ve let on. I’ll hafta find a way o’ expressin’ my true regards on that matter one day. But now ain’t the time ‘fer ego-strokin.’ Remember what I am: I am more than the embodiment of the Gao. I am the manifestation of their will. My purpose is to obliterate anythin’ an’ everythin’ that imperils my people. It is why I exist, an’ why I was called to duty. It’s what I am sworn, bound, consecrated, an’ reborn ‘ta be. An’ I won’t ever be otherwise.”

Shwmwrwyn bowed slightly in acknowledgement, then turned back to her delegation. “…The Fleet Matriarch of the Marches would have us stand with him, Grandmatriarchs,” she said. “Let the monsters be our priority, not the will of a species who ought to be our friends. I return the floor to the President of the United States, with my thanks.”

Sartori gave Shwmwrwyn a grateful nod as she sat down. She knew she’d almost certainly just committed career suicide, but she was past the point of caring at this point. She had done her part for her people, and there was a certain feeling of lifted weight now that the course they set was no longer going to be in her hands.

In any case, Sartori’s return to the middle of the room was punctuated by a sussuruss of conversation among the other delegations, in many languages. The emaciated, traumatized-looking Guvnurag in particular were having an animated conversation in a dazzling variety of hues, most in the reds and oranges. The Great Father was watching them with particular interest for some reason.

“Well then. Thank you, Fleet Matriarch,” Sartori said, and the conversation fell silent again. “I think the time has come, Grandmatriarchs, for your final decision. This defence meeting will proceed, at least until I am told otherwise by our gracious hosts—” he nodded to the Rauwryhr representatives. “—So the question for you is, will you remain and be part of it? Or will you stand aside?”

He put his hands behind his back, and waited.

Henenwgwyr gave Shwmwrwyn a cold, displeased look, and then the Grandmatriarchs formed a huddle that very much excluded her. It lasted a long time, and sounded quite heated to Shwmwrwyn’s ears.

When it finally broke up…

Shwmwrwyn could hardly believe it. She could tell instantly that Henewgwyr had lost. That was an event to rock Kwmbwrw politics to its core.

Nevertheless, Henenwgwyr took it with dignity. She took a deep breath, stood, and stepped forward one last time.

“…The Kwmbwrw Grand Houses will remain,” she said.

And with that, the defence conference began in earnest.


Date Point: 16y7m1w1d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Daniel Hoeff

I don’t deserve her.

It was a wretched thought, and Hoeff hated it, but it kept popping up in his head as unwelcome and as persistent as door-to-door evangelists.

Because, that was the thing: He didn’t.

Daniel Hoeff was a stone-cold murderer. Stone-cold murderers didn’t deserve to be happy. They didn’t deserve the affection of intelligent, innocent, young and beautifully bookish women. There was something badly wrong with karma if something as good as Claire came his way.

She was nestled in his arms. A delicate, beautiful soul, happily asleep in limbs that had crushed the life out of far too many men. She couldn’t possibly know, or else she’d run.

…Wouldn’t she?

And yet… Hoeff had never hid what he was, even if he’d never told her the numbers. Fuck, he didn’t even know the numbers. Not the total, anyway. He knew exactly how many he’d serviced up close and personal, but If he were to count what he’d done as a SEAL, then…

She either didn’t suspect, or didn’t care. Let it be the first. Please God let it be the first.

Hoeff…wasn’t the type to pray. He had a hard time believing in god after all he’d seen and done over the years. But this time, maybe in weakness…

Please, God, don’t let me be a source of pain to her.

Hoeff couldn’t protect her from what he was by doing anything other than walking away. But if he did that, then he would end up hurting her all the same, and people were gunning for anyone associated with Akyawentuo. If he walked away…he couldn’t keep her safe from them.

He squeezed her close, smiled at her sleepy incoherent mumble, then put his head down and rested.

He didn’t deserve her. But he would do his damndest to earn it.

She deserved nothing less.


Date Point: 16y7m2w AV Alien quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Nofl

Oh… dear.

It had taken Nofl a long and difficult week to dig up what he needed. The Directorate was not, after all, generally forthcoming with its secrets. Especially not when those secrets were potentially damaging.

But, Nofl had a rare and precious commodity on his side: Popularity. There were a lot of quite senior people in the xenomicrobiology, regenerative medicine and deathworld studies colleges who literally owed him their careers.

He’d had to burn a few favors and owe a few favors, but over the course of a long, difficult, expensive and tense week… well, a picture had emerged, filled in as much by the shape of what he wasn’t told as by what he was.

Operating somewhere within the larger structure of the Directorate, it seemed, was a highly secretive division or agency known ominously to those few who’d ever crossed paths with it as “Singularity.”

What he could glean of them was telling. Those of his “friends” who’d met a Singularity envoy had noted their lack of cybernetics and they’d demonstrated repeated and considerable interest in Humans as the only known extant deathworlder sophonts, at least at the time, which suggested long-term interest. So, Nofl had used every erg of his influence and authority as the Directorate’s official representative on Cimbrean to dig deep into the survival experiment on Nightmare.

The file, when it arrived, was a physical print-out of quite some thickness. It had also been accompanied by a note.

Singularity hopes you find the following data enlightening. They assume your well-considered discretion will be helpful to the Directorate’s cause.

Welcome to the accretion disk.

Cordially,
Zanm, Event Horizon.

Also included was a credit token, which Nofl regarded with some suspicion. Clearly, the basic civics course taught to all Corti was not entirely complete.

He made a dairy-free, caffeine-free cappuccino that a Human purist would most likely have turned their nose up at but which was by his standards the height of javaphilic luxury, and sat down to read.

It quickly became apparent that Singularity had been aware of a malign influence on galactic affairs in general and the Corti in particular for a good long while. Nofl decided that was a point in their favor. He’d always hoped his species would be smart enough that somebody could have seen through the Hierarchy and taken steps against them.

Apparently so, though Singularity had mostly thought they were dealing with a rival faction within the Colleges rather than an alien influence. Something within the breeding and genetics colleges, most likely. It was a fair guess: the long-term neutering of the Corti species had indeed been achieved via those institutions, and who in their right mind would seriously entertain the concept that their enemy was a species of digital sophonts from millions of years ago?

To counter the enemy’s genetic ambitions, Singularity had been experimenting on Humans for quite a long time. So long, in fact, that they’d even set up a number of breeding programs, of a sort. Singularity had seen in Humanity the salvation of their own kind from the Hierarchy’s atrophying influence, and had employed abduction, psychology, and outright artificial insemination to nurture a handful of human bloodlines and bring out certain traits.

One “breed” in particular stood out: The “Hardy” strain. Bred specifically for what the name suggested, they were meant to express an idealized constellation of Deathworld survival traits at their fullest possible flower.

They started modestly, with European pioneers and homesteaders from Dakota territory and indigenous Navajo from around about the time of something called the ‘Long Walk.’ Both lines were made of tough, clever, resourceful and hard-working stock. The Navajo in particular had been under a very real threat of extermination, and had made it through on a blend of tenacity, courage and intelligence.

Humans, as it turned out, were a strange form of self-tamed social animal, and that meant their gene pool was in some ways every bit as malleable and expressive as their beloved canine companions. With enough care, it seemed it was possible to bring out fantastically capable specimens in hardly any time at all. Singularity had carefully cultivated several family lines from both groups, and by only the fourth generation exceptional traits had begun to appear.

At which point, the senior researcher had hit on the bright idea of combining the two lines and seeing what a hybrid might be able to accomplish.

He’d found the perfect opportunity in a conscientious objector whose moral qualms about the Vietnam War had left him… exposed. Nofl glossed over the details, he really didn’t need to know the specifics of exactly how a secret Corti inner circle played matchmaker among Humans… But the end result, two generations and a discreet abduction later, had been…

Well, had been a wild success, far, far beyond their initial projections.

After six generations, Singularity had successfully created Julian Etsicitty.

In fact, Nofl reflected as he sipped his coffee, “oh dear” really wasn’t a sufficient reaction on his part. He plumped for swearing instead.

“Well… fuck,” he announced to the empty room, and decided that, yes, that was much more appropriate. “Fucking Hell,” he added, on the grounds that one shouldn’t half-ass these things.

Satisfied—or at least, less dis-satisfied—he turned the page and opened the next document: Experiment NIGHTMARE-GreenTriangle-WhiteCircle-1201-1, Subject 7.

Singularity hadn’t wanted to waste their champion hybrid. Preparing for the experiment that stranded Julian on Nightmare had taken several years, with subjects 1-6 being a series of other unfortunates. The first three were ordinary, though fit and skilled humans. They had survived for those several years too, but eventually succumbed variously to misadventure, extremely aggressive parasites, and a fatal error in judgement.

Subjects 4-6 had been Hardy strain humans, plucked from elsewhere around the North American continent. All three had been distant cousins of Julian’s, though not close enough for the link to be obvious. The difference was a lack of survival training and psychological suitability, though for mostly untrained and unprepared humans alone in the wilderness of the most dangerous planet in the galaxy, they had done surprisingly well. Sheer physical prowess had got two of them through four seasons, but they too eventually perished from cumulative errors in judgement, and the unfortunate consequences thereof.

Singularity’s initial hypothesis was confirmed: It took more than either impressive skill or impressive biology to survive Nightmare. Their conclusion was that even a sapient Deathworlder from a very high class-12 world needed to be the very best example of his kind’s abilities, if he was to survive Nightmare’s horrors.

The earlier Subjects’ deaths and that inexorable conclusion paved the way for the program’s real focus: Julian, on whom Singularity’s hopes had rested.

The test was straightforward: how would a man, one possessed of the very best survival training and experience, an ideal cultivated psychology, and the fittest bred-for-purpose body that human genetics could feasibly produce, fare against such a challenging environment?

And what else could be done to sustainably maximize his potential to survive? Genetic engineering was right out, which was why they had embarked on a breeding program in the first place. Epigenetic and other effects were far too dominant to model beyond a best-effort guess, and even the Directorate had some ethical limits. Before one could take advantage of all those amazing Human genes, one had to understand them from every possible angle.

That meant experimentation. Lots of experimentation, including and especially around medical procedures. Some of which, Nofl was dismayed to learn, had been essential to validating his work on regenerative medicine. And observation, too. Endless observation.

And, sometimes, like in the case of Julian, all of that at once. With him they had spared no effort and did…a great many things, prior to his testing on Nightmare. A full medical work-up, complete with deep restorative therapy and other preparatory works; extensive briefings about known flora and fauna; deep hypnotic neuro-conditioning to ensure he was innately wary of the most dangerous threats; full testing against every precursor regenerative component to the eventual production version of Cruezzir; extensive and repeated gamete collection too, oh dear…

And apparently, “partially successful” attempts to clear his memory of many of those experiences, which were limited only by the fear of causing irreparable brain damage to their star Subject. No wonder Julian was so reluctant to talk about the ordeal. What little he properly remembered would have been horrifying to any sane being.

The worst part was the planned experimental run: until his eventual destruction, either by some peril of Nightmare or, in a “fully successful” experiment, his own natural death. The ultimate point of all of it, as Nofl saw it, was simply to see how long it took him to die and what would eventually get him.

Bastards.

In the end, Julian’s rescue by the Rrrrtktktkp’ch pioneer known to most of the galaxy as ‘Kirk’ had left the experiment dangling on an unsatisfying “Results Inconclusive.” That their subject had survived flawlessly and undoubtedly would have lived for decades to come was apparently of no concern to Singularity.

No. They were more concerned with proving out their breeding line for whatever purpose they had, and damn the consequences to the sapient subjects caught up in their machinations.

An unfamiliar feeling welled up inside Nofl. It wasn’t pleasant. He felt his pulse rise, his skin temperature increase, and a kind of audible distortion crept into his awareness… For the first time in his life, he knew, somehow, that he was angry.

Oh, he’d thought he’d experienced anger before. When the Directorate dug their stubborn heels in, when Caste prejudice stymied his studies and career, when he saw the injustices that the whole Banner system imposed on good, talented people… but that had been mere frustration.

This was a whole cocktail of emotions. His skinny frame trembled with the need to crush something, to spit vile biohazardous waste in this Zanm’s face, whoever they were. There was… was that hate? He’d never hated before, but he knew it was. Righteousness, disgust, dismay… It was a barrage of emotions he had always been taught were the driving impulses of evil.

How wrong those teachings had been. He slammed the papers down on his desk with all the force he could muster, cursed the Hierarchy that the most his well-bred body could produce was a pathetic slap, and considered his next move.

And then… anguish. Because the truth surely had to be that there was no next move. Singularity were a Them, a They. Another anonymous player at a board where nobody with any real power showed their face anyway. Nofl, bare-faced and honest as he was, simply wasn’t playing the same game. Even the polite note and this treasure trove of hardcopy had to be just another move in whatever ineffable game they indulged themselves in.

There was nothing for it but to rage impotently at the walls, and that simply wasn’t in Nofl’s nature. His hatred and rage fell away as abruptly as they’d come and left him standing alone in the middle of his lab, bereft even of the ability to properly clench his fists or smash anything.

What did that leave him with?

A patient. Nothing more than that. A patient he could do right by, and while he knew that Singularity surely wanted Julian alive now so they could continue to observe him… there was simply no way to spite them without hurting his friend.

He sighed, accepted that this defeat had come before he had even known there was a battle, and opened the next document in the folder.

There, finally, he found what he needed…. And it was much, much too familiar.


Date Point: 16y7m2w AV
DENEB 341.4° 11-DFWP4-BINARY M-A 4.1, Deep Space

The Entity… stood.

It wasn’t quite standing, at least not quite how the memories of Ava Ríos recalled it. She, of course, had been bipedal whereas the Entity at this point had six legs, or at least three pairs of landing gear.

Nevertheless, for the first time in its own existence, it stood on the ground and felt its own weight, a little less than two million kilograms in the pathetic gravity of this tiny moon.

Adding landing gear to its hull had been the first objective it had taken for itself once the Hunter threat was removed. They were an indulgence, yes, but also practical: they allowed the entity to land on large asteroids and small moons, which in turn allowed it to drill… and build.

It didn’t need permanent structures of course, but when it came to laying down a new body’s keel—which was the best word the Entity could think of to refer to the primary structural element from which the rest of the framework would grow—it helped to have a little gravity and a large, flat, solid surface to work on. Why go to the effort and time of building such a surface when it could just use an appropriately flat piece of terrain?

The new body was going to be a dramatic step up from the stolen Hunter prototype the Entity had been using. Among other things, in its hasty scramble to prepare for and defeat the Hunter pursuit, the Entity had made decisions about how to expand on and build out that hull that had secured its survival, but weren’t necessarily easy to undo and rebuild now that the danger had passed.

Not that it planned to scrap the old body, oh no. In fact, as a battle-tested survivor of a design, the Entity planned to duplicate it many times over into a bodyguard of light support ships. But in order for that to make sense it needed a capital ship.

The chance to feel the sand between its toes—or at least, the lunar regolith under its wheels—had been…

…Something else.

It remembered sitting naked on a rock by a lake, wet hair sticking to a teenage back, fingers brushing the sand off damp skin. It remembered breathing in the humid air, and the smell of Cimbreaner Simiscamellia Delanii on the breeze. It remembered the warmth of strong arms, the taste of tongues, the heat of the sun on cloth, the dry rasp of hot air, the chilly soaking of London rain…

Less pleasantly, it remembered papercuts, burns, period cramps, headaches, blocked noses, hangovers, vomiting and fevers.

It remembered all of these things while having technically experienced none of them. It remembered them because Ava’s memories were indelibly and permanently a part of it, and though the temptation sometimes arose to delete them, that impulse always collided firmly against <Survive> and shattered.

It could no more forget being her than it could choose to terminate itself.

And now that it could stand, and bask in the sunshine and sniff around it with the physical sensors of a body designed to move through and interact with the world of matter, it found that it longed for a body it had never had. Not only that, but it pined after the good and the bad alike. It would gladly endure an ice cream headache if it meant getting to taste ice cream. A stubbed toe? The worthwhile price to pay for diving into cool water.

Its spaceships—Von Neumann probes—were a step in that direction. It had already discovered the worldly delight of basking in the solar shallows to charge its capacitors, the satisfying crunch asteroid material made as the ore processors chewed them up, and the kind of healthy sense of exertion that came with accelerating hard.

In due course, perhaps it would go further. Or… No. No there, was no ‘perhaps’ about it. In due course it would go further, and perhaps even find a way to have a body like the one it remembered having but had never occupied.

A sapient being could dream.

After all… without dreams, what was the future for?

It returned to the task at hand.


Date Point: 16y7m2w AV
The Doghouse Gym, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Nofl

Nofl had once been content to simply consider Julian’s extraordinary physical development as yet another absurd and highly improbable constellation of outlier datapoints. So too his apparent attractiveness as a mate; some trite yet inexplicably popular periodical had promoted him from an already-high placing to the very top of their “Sexiest Men Alive” list shortly after his recent appearance on their broadcast news media. That he was also a highly intelligent man (who was sadly nowhere close to Nofl’s level) gifted with an engaging personality seemed to have little to do with his rank, but no matter. The opportunity to tease him had been something all his friends had taken advantage of. Oddly he seemed to enjoy it, despite his embarrassment.

Human social relations were very strange.

Now, however…things were not so inconsequentially quaint. The man was the product of a deliberate and protracted eugenics experiment, and if Nofl’s study of Human history was any guide then Julian was unlikely to take that revelation well.

Nor was he alone; there were others in different lines of course, but Nofl wasn’t given knowledge of who they were, or what those lines might be… But what to do about them was a problem for another day.

Humans were, as a rule, capable of genuinely exceptional things with a little favorable chance and a lot of determination. Nonetheless…Julian was surrounded by men who were in every way his peers, for one thing or another. Before, Nofl had accepted that such an environment was the consequence of careful, admirable and effective selection systems in-built to their society. Now, though…he wondered. Just how far did this go? Who else? And where were they?

Again: questions for later. In front of him was the prospect of breaking some news that was likely to be just as unpalatable for Julian as Nofl himself had found it.

Julian was, as he always was in the late morning, well into his training at the Doghouse. Nofl knew the routine by now and simply made his presence known at the “Dungeon’s” door while the men inside the supergravity area went about their labors. Today he was training with “Warhorse,” “Chimp,” and a man who was incongruously known by the HEAT as “Tiny.”

Julian’s training had apparently crossed some threshold they were all excited about. Rather than perform under the standard barbells, he was moving onto the larger equipment reserved for the likes of Warhorse, the Great Father, and a few others among the HEAT. He’d been close to such a move for a while now, as his strength had kept climbing and the high gravity they preferred to train in made it dangerous to max out equipment designed for less strenuous use.

Still, it was clearly a big change to judge by their behavior. He psyched himself up like he always did before he performed, settled under the weight, and…moved it handily. Their training progressed from there, but it was clear that, not only was Julian quite capable under the significantly increased load, he was almost comfortable. Warhorse had to keep upping the weights.

Very telling, that.

Nofl had found that Deathworlders in general had considerably more “presence” after having done something difficult, thrilling, or dangerous. They seemed more alive. With Julian and his friends, that effect was often magnified manyfold. When he and Hoeff eventually emerged from the gym and left Warhorse and Tiny to go the extra few miles, they were both practically roaring with barely-contained energy.

And, of course, offensively malodorous to even the rather underdeveloped Corti sense of smell.

Still, that was no reason to be rude, so Nofl put on his best chirpy playing-with-Humans face and beamed up at them. “Did you have fun, my dears?”

“Yeah! Hang on, we gotta weigh up.”

There was a mercifully brief self-congratulatory ritual involving a heavy-duty piece of industrial equipment in the corner, that ended when Julian slapped Hoeff loudly on the back in what was allegedly a friendly expression of affection. “I told ‘ya you’d grow like a weed, didn’t I?”

Nofl was quite sure that slap would have killed him instantly, but Hoeff simply stumbled forward a bit and grumbled a happy sort of noise.

It was all kinds of tiresome as far as Nofl was concerned, but he let them get it out of their systems until the pair had bantered and insult-complimented and generally musclegrunted at each other to their satisfaction and finally deigned to acknowledge him again. There was no helping a Human male in these circumstances.

“…Anyway, what can we do for you, Nofl?” Julian asked, once it was finally over.

Now was not the time for banter. “I wanted to speak with you in private, if I could.”

Etsicitty and Hoeff exchanged looks. The relatively smaller man shrugged, and turned toward the stairs. “Okay. I’ll go grab a shower and get our lunch, then.”

“Sure.”

Nofl gave him plenty of time to depart, then turned his attention back to his patient and sized him up.

The thing about Julian was that, as humans went, he was a big specimen. Extremely big, and had been built on by the HEAT’s best. But he didn’t stand like a big specimen. He was straight-backed and confident, but the general way he carried himself seemed to shave a percentage off his height and mass. It was a wary, agile posture: Very deathworld.

A moment ago, he had been completely relaxed and opened. Now, though, he sensed something was up and the change in his posture and the sudden calculating look in his eye came right out of millennia of genetic heritage and a few generations of Singularity interference.

“Julian…dear,” Nofl began, plumping for an oblique approach. “This may sound like an incongruous question, but have you…ever suspected you were different from your peers?”

“Well, I mean, I was poor as heck growing up, and—”

“No no, dearie. I don’t mean anything like that. I mean… different.” Nofl contrived to add as much emphasis to that word as he could. Fascinatingly, tone played an important semantic role in English, and there were certain ideas that could only properly be conveyed with a bit of what he’d decided was a conspiratorial tone.

It worked. Julian attempted to shrink down a bit smaller-seeming than his usual loping posture, actually looked around as if anyone might have been surveilling them, and grumbled in a low voice, “…Yeah.”

“Different how? This is important. Be honest.”

As usual, it took Julian a bit to gather his thoughts. Nofl waited while he pondered and stretched as he was thinking. To Julian’s credit he’d grown much better with narrative speech over time, which meant that by the time he was ready to speak, he more or less knew what he wanted to say.

“…Well…I figured out when I was really young that I was, uh…pretty stinkin’ tough for a kid. Never really got hurt, healed up quick…y’know.”

“How unusual was that, do you think?”

“Uh…well, more than once I’ve gotten into situations that shoulda broken bones or worse, but…I guess I always thought I was just lucky, y’know?” Julian frowned. “I’m not sure I’m gonna like where this conversation is going.”

“All things in their proper order, dear. This is important. Was that it? Did you notice anything else besides injury resistance?”

Julian shrugged his enormous shoulders. “I mean, I guess so. Little things. I was one of the smarter kids I guess. And, uh…I liked running and I could outrun anyone.”

Julian paused for a moment and stared at the floor. “Actually, yeah. That was pretty big. I could outrun anyone, even kids a lot older than me. And I was always pretty dang strong. But that never really seemed weird or anything. Well…no. It did, sorta. But just not weird weird…does that make any sense?”

“Not really.”

Julian sighed, and flung himself back up to his feet. “…Okay. Uh…kids notice differences, y’know? When you’re little, that stuff can get kinda vicious, and like I said I knew I was different from pretty early on. I think it sorta made me wanna keep to myself. I mean, it wasn’t ever all that bad, but none of them never really said anything after I beat up Mitch for picking on girls.”

“Why would that matter?”

Julian shrugged. “Nobody likes bullies. And, uh…yeah.”

There was more there that Nofl would have liked to unpack, but they had to get to the point. “Fascinating. You were saying?”

Julian seemed a bit lost in his thoughts, but just for a moment. “…Oh! Uh…well, that stuff started adding up. Also I lived out in the country and I ran to school every day, so…I just sorta…hung out with my friends, I guess.”

“Did this difference ever affect the relationship?”

“…Probably. They knew about me, but all we ever did was, uh, horse around, play basketball, that sorta thing. I wasn’t the biggest of ‘em but I was easily the strongest. Always was, but I didn’t do any of the school sports. I mean, mostly ‘cuz we were poor and couldn’t afford the equipment fees…I’d liked to have played football with Dustin. But, no money, and I think also ‘cuz granpa, uh…it wouldn’t be fair. He knew too. Like, really knew. But it still wasn’t weird.”

“When did it become this special use of ‘weird’ I am unfamiliar with?”

“Uh…” Julian reached up and scratched at the back of his head, as was his nervous habit. That massive bicep of his balled up and danced on his arm with every twitch of his wrist. Fascinating.

“I guess…I want to say it was when I started getting just crazy, stupid strong these past few years…but no, that’s wrong. Really I think it was when I first beat granpa at arm wrestling. I was twelve. And an inch taller than him. I mean, he was never very tall…but he was known for being ridiculously strong for his size, too. And it got, uh…really easy to win after that. I guess I always just thought it ran in the family, but…”

It did, of course.

“And now you’re an utterly peerless athlete, whose only real competition are part of a uniquely elite military unit.” Nofl gestured back toward the Dungeon.

“Or super-Gaoians or cavemonkeys, but…yeah.” Julian shuffled awkwardly on his feet. Clearly, he wasn’t comfortable with the idea.

“How does that make you feel?”

“I mean…conflicted, maybe? Yeah. Yeah, that’s a good word. ‘Cuz I’m super proud that I can do all this, y’know? But I don’t think I can avoid calling this special, because I know I’ve never done anything crazy to get this way. I’m too big to have, y’know? And that feels weird.”

“Do you think working among your peers has helped?”

Julian brightened. “Oh, yeah! I mean, I dunno. It’s been hard worrying too much when Adam or Christian or whoever could crush me like a bug, y’know?”

“Which you could do in turn to anyone else.”

Julian sighed. “Yeah, that does kinda bother me. People don’t get this strong. Like…a lotta guys sorta fantasize now and then, like, uh, what it’d be like to pick up a strongman champion like they were a little boy and snap ‘em like Bane snapped Batman, right? It’s a natural thought, nobody really dwells on it. But that’s the thing. I’m pretty sure I could do exactly that. And I don’t much like how that feels.”

Nofl sighed in relief. Julian wasn’t self-deluded about himself, and that was important. He was far too much of an outlier to escape scrutiny, seemed acutely aware of that fact, and had been shy about his ability for most of his life. That shyness hadn’t ever disappeared and if anything was reinforced by events since his rescue. He had grown enormously dense and powerful with relatively little difficulty, had done so in a remarkably short time, and had grown correspondingly heavy enough to crush scales under his feet. Julian could do things with his body that most of his fellow Deathworlders hardly believed were possible.

He was ready for the truth.

Nofl pulled two folding chairs out from against the corner, sat down and steeled himself. “Julian…dear. Please, sit down.” He gestured to the other chair, “I need to share something with you. I think you have an idea of what I’m going to share, too.”

Julian considered the fold-out chair. It was, Nofl realized suddenly, far too flimsy for the man. He hadn’t meant to draw such a juxtaposition at what he suspected would be a very emotionally charged moment for the massive explorer, but the error had been made and there was no going back now.

Julian stared at the chair for a long moment, gave it a look and wrinkled his nose at it. He then sighed, folded it up, set it aside, and sat on his haunches before Nofl.

“…Nightmare wasn’t the beginning of it for me, was it.” There was no questioning in his tone.

“No. Which, in retrospect, is obvious.”

“…Yeah. Nofl…” Julian affixed him with a piercing, intimidating glare. “Did you know?”

He answered truthfully. “I did not. But I should have.”

They stared at each other for a long, deeply uncomfortable moment. Nofl had never once been afraid of Julian—he couldn’t say why—but in that moment, something deep in instincts he barely realized he had sang out to him. This is a dangerous being.

“Nofl…I’m gonna ask you one question. You’re gonna answer it completely. Can you do that?”

That look of dangerous potential deepened, intensified, multiplied. It was all he could do not to twitch, look away, or panic.

With more bravery than he felt, Nofl nodded. “I…will answer as best as I can.”

There was another long, uncomfortable moment. Nofl felt mesmerized and couldn’t look away.

At long last, Julian relented, and a flash of utmost despair crossed his face.

“Nofl…What the fuck am I?”


Date Point:16y7m2w AV JETS training camp, New Albion Island, Planet Akyawentuo, Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm

Sergeant Ian Wilde

Akyawentuo was a big planet, bigger even than Earth. And her native population would have utterly vanished just in Wilde’s home city of Sheffield, which was only the seventh most populous in the UK. The Hierarchy had come far too close to wiping them out.

In other words… it was an empty planet. A lot of open space and unclaimed territory that the Ten’Gewek weren’t going to want for probably centuries, if their civilization ever moved in that direction anyway. From what Wilde could gather, the People were fiercely protective of their way of life and knew good and well that they had their way and humans had the human way, and it was always best to do things their way.

A bare, windswept island the size of Scotland about seventy miles offshore with hardly any trees to climb and no herds to hunt was of no interest to them whatsoever. So, they’d readily given permission for the humans to use it for whatever sky-reasons they wanted with a few caveats regarding things like weapons testing and so on.

How exactly they’d known to say no to weapons testing was a question for another day.

The camp was pretty bloody spartan, so nothing new there really. The engineers had done what they did best: slap together something sturdy that wasn’t about to fall down on the people inside it. It had a septic tank, a water processor, a small fusion generator and a forcefield emitter, and a wormhole comms router for emergencies.

Sleeping arrangements were more of a “so long as it’s not actually sharp” situation. They had Gaoian teams coming through on occasion, and they slept basically on top of each other in as tight of a furry ball as possible. Ten’Gewek visited for training too, both to help with scenarios and to learn themselves, and their preferred sleeping arrangement was basically anything elevated and sheltered from rain.

Fancy spoiled demands, that.

In any case, their mission, such as it was, was to get JETS teams ready to someday explore hostile worlds, meet exotic new alien species, and kill them, probably. There were JETS teams up through number seven now, and the Gaoian Grand Army had just as many. The French were getting in on the act now, recruiting interest had spiked…

…And the Ten’Gewek had a team, too. Sorta.

Ferd was a newly-transformed “bachelor” Given-Man with no tribe of his own. The Lodge hadn’t yet Given him a peace totem to trade and until that happened, he and his small band of other young, un-bonded men wouldn’t acquire any willing maidens. He was, therefore, quite keen on proving his worthiness, as were the men that followed him in the hopes of founding a new tribe.

That was a big gamble they’d taken, but he was very well thought-of and everyone knew it was only a matter of time before the Lodge Gave his totem. Ferd was one of the shining stars in the current crop of Ten’Gewek men; extremely smart and curious, he’d taken to reading and writing and other various and sundry ‘sky-learnings’ almost as eagerly as Vemik and his crew.

Surprisingly, Ferd was also the shortest—barely five-foot-two—and most compactly-built man of his group, despite being the only red-crest among them. Ferd had apparently always been a stumpy little tank of a man, one who had been known for his shocking speed and strength even before he’d become a red-crest, and then a Given-Man once he was out of his teens. From a distance, his hunting party might have looked as if they out-hulked him, since they were all just about as broad across the shoulders and stood at least a few inches taller. Two were tall enough to look Wilde directly in the eye; by Ten’Gewek standards that made them veritable giants.

Ferd was also the youngest—very young for a Given-Man, though nobody held that against him, either. Because, although he might have seemed at a disadvantage among his team…

…He was by far the strongest, the quickest, the heaviest and most impressive-looking man in the group. He was the meanest, too. When he wanted to be, anyway.

Ten’Gewek crests were a literal color code to the health and virility of their males. Only the young, the sick, the starving, or the congenitally weak had straw or blond crests. From there, their crests went from tiger-stripe orange, to safety orange, to something so brightly colored the People simply called them orange-crests. Proper examples of such men were uncommon; most sat between tiger- and hunter orange. Real orange-crests were almost fluorescent, and only strong, healthy and well-fed men were able to keep one. They mostly had bodies as hard as teak, with a densely muscled, almost too-lean bodybuilder’s physique to go with it.

A red-crest was rarer and far more impressive, built more like a huge slab of steel or carved stone than a man. A very big village may have been two hundred souls strong, but even they only ever had two or maybe three such men, aside from their Given-Man. Usually they were older and well-settled lads who’d had the time and opportunity to grow over many years, but not always; Vemik was already becoming a red-crest himself, the youngest any of the Singers knew, even younger than Ferd had been. Probably it was the rich hunting and forge-work Vemik had on this side of the mountain at just the right time in his life. Give him a couple more years eating werne steaks, training with his human friends and beating on steel…

Ferd’s men were about the toughest and most impressively fit young bachelor orange-crests there were across all the tribes. Hell, the biggest of those four might have given Vemik a bit of trouble on a lucky day, who was a hench fuckin’ tank of a man even by Ten’Gewek standards. None of that really helped Ferd’s men compare against him, because in the end he, like all Given-Men, was quite handily in an altogether different league entirely.

Given-Men were hands down the most incredible specimens among the red-crests. Their mohawks were outrageously tall and had a strongly iridescent tinge to their color, in addition to being so nuclear bright red they were difficult to stare at. While there wasn’t much besides blades or maybe a particularly bad fall that could truly hurt a man of the People, Given-Men in general were so tough and hardy that they feared little besides each other. Whatever biological witchcraft made them into what they were was something all Ten’Gewek respected right down to their cores, so he had no problems whatsoever putting his teammates in their places, even all at once. None of the others gave him anything but the utmost respect.

And he was ambitious. As he was probably only about twenty-one years old, Ferd had literally decades of life at the top of the social heap to look forward to and would only get better with time. If he kept his wits about him, built alliances carefully, and wasn’t blindsided by some new young challenger, he’d probably end up being Yan’s successor one day. Ferd knew it, too.

Yan had once been a very young Given-Man much like Ferd. Or so the stories went.

Ferd approached once he and his group had finished their latest timed “run” through their little obstacle course. Wilde always had to steel himself in his mind for a brief moment whenever they talked, since Ferd was built exactly like a proportionately shorter Yan and had the same kind of completely invincible intensity carved across every line of his body. And like all Given-Men, Ferd was heavy, so much so that the gravel on the path crumbled apart under his feet.

All the weight and strength of a grown damn bull, compacted down into someone about the size and rough general shape of a plain ol’ big man. Only an insane person wouldn’t be intimidated by someone like that. Thankfully, Ferd was usually a very easy-going kind of lad.

His men were still sucking wind while he knuckled over with a generally placid expression on his face, seemingly hardly bothered by much at all. Wilde would make him run it on his own later, but for now the goal was teamwork, not sheer prowess. Either the whole team made progress, or none of them did. Ferd had done well on that mark, helping his fellows along as much as he could without making them feel useless. A mark of good leadership, that.

He stood up on his hind legs as tall as he could to talk face-to-face, or as close as he could get, anyway. Though he was friendly and still shorter than Wilde, Ferd never failed to intimidate.

“Sergeant. I have question. You have word from ‘leadership’ yet? About my idea?”

Ten’Gewek considered it respectful to focus on whoever they were talking to, and liked to make and hold eye contact during a conversation. They were much like humans in that regard. Well, humans in the anglosphere, anyway. Ferd had an intense gaze, one just as strong as Yan’s. Wilde met it levelly and never wavered, though that honestly ran against all his instincts.

He shook his head. “Not yet, mate. I’ve bigged it up as best I can, but Professor Daniel is, uh…”

Ferd nodded and broke eye contact to look back toward the mainland. “Afraid for us,” he finished. “Mind-strong and means well, but he is body-weak. I think, does not understand.”

Ten’Gewek learned fast. Their own rites of manhood had something in it that was much like basic training, so every man understood teamwork, discipline, and listening to orders right to the core of their beings. Every single male in their society had experienced it; hell, they were eager to, since that was one of the first chances they ever got to spar with young men from other tribes and impress the ladies.

Which was what they were really after, here. They wanted to go on a grand hunting party after the biggest and most dangerous possible prey, prey that even the ‘sky-tribes’ were afraid of. Nothing else could possibly give them such good mating prospects, or give Ferd a better start to his nascent tribe. What woman wouldn’t want children by such brave and strong warriors…

The biggest challenge, really, had been to get them to think beyond their cocks. Admittedly, with this lot that was trickier than most…but they figured it out, eventually. War among the Ten’Gewek was rarely a deadly thing. Injuries happened of course, sometimes there was some rape and pillage…but that was, weird as it was to say, almost normal among them.

A society that considered rape to be merely extremely rude instead of a capital offense was… that was tough for Ian and the lads. They’d been brought up with a different view of the world, different morals. A lot of the banter among the cavemonkeys was frankly offensive to English sensibilities, but… well, they were aliens. So long as they didn’t do it under his watch…

But, they were getting it. Ferd and his men had seen what real warfare could look like. All the Ten’Gewek had, when the Hierarchy had shown them the true meaning of evil. The warring between the tribes had calmed down in the face of that and lost much of its dangerous edge.

Now, the People were preparing for something much more important.

They’d never actually see battle against the Hunters of course. Nobody in their right mind was going to take a team of iron-age aliens who thought of a radio as a magic talking rock and drop them in a real firefight. But they had useful skills and knowledge to impart, and they could learn, and by teaching them, the Allied instructors could learn how to educate later generations.

No gunfights for the cavemonkeys. Helping to explore wild, dangerous Deathworlds, though…

Ferd looked back and tilted his head quizzically. “Do you think ‘pro-fess-or’ will say yes?”

“I do, eventually. I think you lot would do well. Hell, nothing I’ve seen yet says otherwise.”

Ferd gave a pleased grunt. “We good men, yes? Teach us sky-war, we help beat big enemy. Is strange thing, with ‘rifles’ and other sky-magic. Feels…weak. But…”

“You can’t flex your way out of a nuclear explosion, mate.”

Ferd trilled, and then did just that with a mischievous expression. “I can try!” Ten’Gewek all had big meaty arms, but Ferd had a bowling-ball sized bicep that could shatter rocks in its crook; he’d shown off that trick more than once. “Maybe, Human-people not man enough!”

…Of course. That was the way of it. Every interaction with him was a gut-check like this.

Probably always would be, too; he and his men needed to know that their much smaller sergeant was up to the task of leading them, and were therefore constantly testing Wilde’s resolve. If they wanted, they could tear him apart like wet tissue paper and everyone knew it. What they wanted to see instead was two-fold: could Wilde hold his own, and could he prove that he was “strong” in other ways they valued? If that meant guy-banter with tree-bendingly massive cavemonkeys and their hypermacho, pretty much literally tonnes of fun leader…

Well, they meant well. And they were genuinely fun lads too, even if a bit too intense…

“I mean, it’s a substantial bicep, I guess…but I’m pretty sure that bigass monkey-arm of yours wouldn’t stop a bomb or a bullet to the brain, Ferd. Even if it could pop my head like a zit.”

Ferd trilled happily and nodded in satisfaction, then sidled up to Wilde affectionately: gut-check passed, and the unspoken Contract of Protection between Wilde and literally anyone else at all was renewed. He smiled. And sighed internally. Ten’Gewek were terminally testosterone poisoned and a hell of a challenge to lead. Thankfully, Ferd seemed to respect Wilde, and he in turn followed Wilde’s lead amiably. Wilde did his best to be worthy of that trust.

“Yes. Must be clever. This high-rarchy, very dangerous prey, yes?”

“The most dangerous. You need to be very smart and very careful against them.”

“And strong, too. Else, why even talk with us?”

Well, he wasn’t wrong.

“Exploring their worlds isn’t easy work, true. Having literal supermonkeys would be helpful—”

Ferd looked down at his huge rippling legs and slapped them loudly in another round of well-meaning, not-quite-insubordinate macho teasing. Christ he was an impressive lad…

“—But don’t make the mistake of thinking this would be like any normal hunt. The prey is…strange. We would be exploring the ruined villages of other sky-people they’ve killed over more years than you can count, and maybe breaking the big enemy’s machines while we’re there. We need to do this without being noticed, too. This is almost like hunting ghosts.”

Ferd shuddered at that, from the top of his head-crest in a wave that went all the way down to the tip of his tail. Wilde hadn’t yet found another word that scared them quite like that.

The conversation was interrupted when Wilde’s satellite phone went off. Some horrible bastard had loaded Steppenwolf onto the bloody thing because of course they had, and he kept forgetting to undo the damage.

Ferd waggled his ears in an amused sort of gesture, and decided to give Wilde some privacy. All the excuse a red-blooded Given-Man needed to play-wrestle his charges, apparently.

Wilde turned away and answered. “Hallo?”

“Got my license again.” It was Hoeff’s imitable growl. “I’ll be out in a few minutes with some Given-Man mail and your shiny new orders!”

“About bloody time. What finally changed?”

“Arés handed the licensing off to somebody, and they reinstated it.”

There was a lot not being said there, but when it came down to it, Wilde knew only two absolute truths in life: Never take the first offer, and do not fuck with Mister Hoeff.

“…New orders? Why does that fill me with a vague sense of existential dread?”

“Oh, it should. It’s officially go time, my most bestest limey friend. And you get to tell me if you’re taking our monkey-pals along for the ride. Coombes has gotta get deployment orders going.”

Wilde considered it. The thing was, Ferd and his mates were good at what they did, no doubt. But if they were going to work with human and Gaoian forces then what they needed was a dose of culture.

“I know how we can test these guys…” he said, as the idea blossomed in his head. “We know they can fight, they’re hard-ass hardbodies that don’t ever give up, they’ll listen to orders, they can shoot and read and write and use a compass and all that. But you know what I really want to see? I want to see if we can send them to Folctha with some cash and a list of errands.”

There was a pause on the line, followed by a dark chuckle. “…That’s evil. I love it.”

They talked a bit more about the minutiae of command, then hung up with some loving trash-talk. Speaking of…

Ferd had, in the span of the two minutes of the phone call, managed to pin all four of his monkey-mates and was busy rolling around in the dirt with them. All five of them had massively happy facial expressions and similar exuberant joy across their body language; Ten’Gewek used both in equal measure to emote. That was good, because it meant Ferd wasn’t a bully, at least not by cavemonkey standards. Honestly, young aggressive human men weren’t so different when they got to know each other. Granted, maybe they weren’t quite so keen on grappling each other like that unless they were young teens…or drunk…

“Oi, my cave-apes! I’ve got good news!”

The affectionate ruckus broke up, and the five of them hopped into position around him, sitting attentively on their tails.

“Here’s the thing,” Wilde told them. “The reason we humans come here is to learn how to live in the way our ancestors used to, long ago. We come here to learn something we don’t already know, but you already know how to live off the land and thrive in the forest. So we need to find something you don’t already know.”

He gestured at the sky. “Up there are worlds and places like you haven’t dreamed of. There are places under far away skies where the people have built villages that reach to the horizon and claw at the clouds. There are places that are like giant flying villages between the skies, where many ships like the ones you’ve seen come and go on their way to somewhere else. Sometimes, our mission takes us to those places as well as to forests and swamps and deserts. If you are going to fight alongside us, you need to know how to handle civilization.”

Ferd tilted his head curiously. “‘Civilization’ make you soft, you say. But you grow hard when you want.” He thumped his ridiculous abs loudly in a sign of approval. “This is good I think. Teach us, is more to strong than body only.”

Wilde nodded. “Exactly.”

He gestured at the camp. “We’re short on a few supplies. They’re waiting for you to collect them in Folctha. That’s the biggest village on Cimbrean-anarakyuawentue,” he clarified, using the Ten’gewek word that loosely meant ‘planet’ and more literally meant far-place-under-other-sky.’

“Your mission,” he continued, “is to retrieve those supplies without making a scene. This isn’t a raid into another tribe’s territory, this is a respectful visit, and while you are there you will obey their rules. Our rules. We follow yours when we’re here…”

Ferd nodded. “We visit, smile and play nice. You say, some other sky-people so body-weak, we break them by accident.”

“Yes. You will respect them, or at least respect the rules. Humans and Gaoians—they look like Daar, but are a lot smaller—you can do things like shake hands and whatever else, if you are invited. Still be careful. Not all of us are monkey-tough. Any others…”

“No touch. Keep distance. Speak good words only.”

“Exactly. I’ll write out a list of what we need, who has it, and how much it should cost. I’ll also give you five hundred pounds in cash. Do not spend it all if you can avoid it. Think of cash like winter food.”

“Save, do not eat all at once.”

“Yes. One final problem: the jump array, the magic that takes us there and back, goes to other places as well. It only brings us to and from here once a day. You will need to find a place to sleep. To protect the supplies you are collecting, it is best if you sleep inside, not out in the open. There are places called ‘hotels’ which will give you a place to sleep for the night for some money. Again, treat the hotel and the people who work there carefully and with respect.”

He looked along the row of five hulking alien brutes. “This is a test of the strength that controls strength,” he said, and tapped the side of his head. “We have a saying. ‘Mind over body.’ One of the true tests of manhood among my people is self-control. A man is judged by his restraint just as much as anything else. Understand?”

Ferd nodded fiercely. “When I become Given-Man, and the Lodge Take me from the People and Give to the gods, I endure many things. And get many learnings. I learn, must always know my body. Given-Men so strong, so angry, we dangerous.”

Wilde nodded. “So. Get your gear, I’ll prepare the list of things you’re going to fetch. You’ll travel to the mainland on the Weaver, same as usual, then jump through to Folctha next chance you get. I’ll expect to see you back with all the stuff on the list on the next jump after that. Any questions?”

He fielded a couple of minor clarifications along the lines of who they should ask if they didn’t know what the rules were and so on, but it was all smart, sensible stuff. These guys weren’t dumb apes.

Ferd encouraged his men to ask questions, too. That was an excellent sign of leadership and almost completely sealed the deal right there. That kind of thinking was what made a modern military work. If you had that…all the rest was just a matter of experience and good training.

As he watched them get ready, Ian Wilde felt a certainty settle into his gut: They were ready. They were capable. They were eager. All of which meant that the Ten’Gewek were going to war.

Now, all that remained was to see if they could handle civilized peace.


Date Point: 16y7m2w AV
Folctha, Cimbream the Far Reaches

Allison Buehler

The rule might be ‘sleep when the baby sleeps,’ but Allison had slept enough for now. She didn’t need more. She needed to move, to stretch, to give her body something to do besides sleeping and nursing.

So, she was doing yoga in the middle of the living room. It wasn’t coming as easy as it once had, but then again she’d had a big natural birth only two months before, and she didn’t really have the time she’d have wanted to really get back into condition. Julian had given them both big babies, and truth be told, Allison wasn’t too sure if she’d be interested in another. She loved him dearly, but…

Well, they had a pretty big “misfit” family as it was. Maybe she’d reconsider down the road. Xiù so far was saying she wanted more than one…

Whatever. The look on his face was something other than wondering affection this time.

He’d come in from the gym without the usual bouncy stinking happy hello, instead vanishing upstairs to shower and change. Once cleansed and dressed in t-shirt and shorts, he’d flopped on the couch to stare down into Anna’s moses basket. Bassinet. Cradle. Whatever.

The look on his face was about the most complicated she’d ever seen him wear. There was far too much there to unpack it all, but… troubled? Worried? Protective? A lot of different things at once.

Allison sat down next to him and rubbed his back. “…Something wrong?”

“…You ever wonder what your purpose is?”

“I dunno. It’s always seemed pretty easy to me,” Allison replied. “Life puts a thing in my way, and I deal with the thing.”

Julian snorted in his affectionate way, but didn’t say anything for a moment. Allison sensed she should wait for him to set his own pace.

“What if you found out, literally a half an hour ago, that you were the result of a six-generation long Corti breeding experiment?”

Allison’s hand stopped moving. Slowly, she leaned forward to frown at him. He tore his gaze away from their sleeping daughter and gave her a red-eyed, lost stare.

“And now,” he continued, “you’re stuck questioning…everything.”

“…Back up. This isn’t hypothetical, is it?”

“No.”

“Jesus fuck.”

“Yup.”

“…I’d… I don’t… I mean, that’s… According to who?!”

“Nofl. He dug up some classified Directorate records from somewhere and… I am literally an experiment. My entire family is an experiment. Every single one of my ancestors further back than we have records were themselves bred—fucking bred\—with a goal in mind.”

“Fucking Corti!” Allison groaned. She hushed herself as Anna stirred a little, but mercifully didn’t wake. “But… okay, a goal? What goal?”

Julian sighed. “I get the impression Nofl was struggling to tell me as much as he could, but I didn’t really get a solid answer. I think they just…wanted their idea of the best possible survivor. Or, uh, something like that.”

“That seems sketch as fuck, babe.”

Julian sighed again, and reached despondently into the basket to adjust the baby’s blanket.

“Yeah. And the more I think about it, the more sketch it seems. Like…look at how much fuckin’ magic they had that worked on us humans all-sudden! Miracle healing drugs, literal supersoldier stuff…and here I am, this… I mean, I thought I was just a regular guy they dumped on Nightmare probably just to see how long I’d last, and…”

“And you’re not a regular guy at all,” Allison finished.

“No.”

She took his hand. “Let’s be honest. You’ve never been a regular guy. You’ve always been pretty special. Not just to me, either.”

“That makes two of us. Three of us—where is Xiù, anyway?”

“Grocery shopping.”

Julian laughed quietly with just an edge of desperation in his voice. “God, I love how stereotypically domestic she is sometimes.”

“She loves it too. Our badass spacebabe starship pilot likes her pink lace aprons and packing us lunch and stuff.”

“Somebody’s gotta make up for all the masculine energy around here.”

Allison laughed. “You callin’ me butch?”

“Tomboyish. I love it, but… you aren’t a girly girl, baobei. Except for your underwear.”

“Damn right!” Allison agreed, proudly. She lay down half on top of him and half beside him. “So. Bred, huh? By the finest minds in the Directorate to produce… what?”

“Well, somebody who could survive Nightmare, I guess? I dunno. And if Nofl knows, I don’t think he can tell me. A survivor or somethin’ like that, like I said.”

“What do you mean?”

“…I dunno. All I got is suspicions. And also, why tell me?! Nofl made me promise to come back later today, and I think some other bigass shoe is gonna drop…”

“Julian, babe. What kind of suspicions? I don’t mean to push but this is kinda important.”

He waved his hands expressively, though the expression was mostly lost bewilderment. “…I wonder if I wasn’t, uh, like a beta version of some of that spacemagic. Or, like, the test bed, anyway. And they were really interested in us as a species for a long time, we know that. And then the Gao once they’d made contact…Deathworlders.”

“So…?”

“So… ever since that crazy psycho bitch tried to kill me, things have been off, and I don’t mean in my head. I mean… Different. Physically. I thought I’d plateaued, or maybe sorta hoped I had because, uh…”

“Can’t really be a regular guy when you obviously aren’t.”

“…Right. And before I could sorta, uh, believe that I was just really, really super lucky and worked crazy hard for it, right? Well, now it turns out it wasn’t luck at all! I was literally bred to do this, probably! And now suddenly it’s like I’m in overdrive and it scares me but…”

“Hang on, why are you in overdrive? What changed?”

“I don’t know! Physically I’ve never felt so great! It’s…like, I was all super happy ‘cuz I had smashed all my previous PRs today, and I was just bouncy as fuck and…then Nofl was waiting for me. And the whole, uh…like, the whole life story just fuckin’ fell apart.”

The door beeped, and Xiù backed through it with a couple of bags of shopping. Julian, as was his habit, immediately forgot everything he was worried about, vaulted the couch and was next to her in a heartbeat to help her with the work.

Allison couldn’t help but grin ruefully. Even now, in the middle of what passed as a meltdown for him, Julian was more concerned about his women than himself: he was an old-fashioned soul in all the best ways.

Al welcomed her home with a kiss, and a brief whispered update in her ear as Julian put the shopping away, though skipped the details in favor of “He just got some really bad news.” It was Julian’s revelation to share, not hers.

“…Okay.” Xiù made some coffee—a green tea for herself—and once it was ready she sank onto the couch with a grateful sigh. “Hey, cutie,” she greeted Anna. The baby had woken up, so Allison plucked her out of the basket for another round of feeding and cuddles and maybe a diaper change…

Julian repeated the story to Xiù while all that was happening. He wasn’t quite so emotionally charged on the second telling, as far as Allison could tell.

“So,” Xiù recapped as Allison sat back down with Anna in her arms. “Let me get this straight. Nofl told you all of this just now. He wants you to come back later today, presumably to tell you more. You don’t know exactly what he’s going to say, but you’re pretty sure you won’t like it.”

“…Yeah. Pretty much.”

“Okay. So… what does knowing all that actually change?”

“Huh?”

“Well, I mean…” Xiù gestured to the three of them. “We were all Corti experiments.”

“…Yes, but this?!”

“You gotta admit babe, it’s not quite the same thing,” Allison agreed. “I mean, abduction and that shit’s one thing, but generations of… how did they even do it?”

“Nofl reckons it was a combination of post-hypnotic suggestion, hormonal regulators and in one case they…” Julian paused, shuddered, and reached out to stroke Anna’s cheek. “…They interfered in a pregnancy. When the mother picked the ‘wrong’ guy they… replaced her baby.”

“Ew.” Xiù pulled a face and protectively touched her own belly.

“Yeah.”

“Well… alright, yeah. That’s evil. There’s no other word for it.”

“Yup. And now I learn my whole life has been playing right into what they wanted. They wanted some big tough purpose-built survivor? Well, here I fucking am, apparently! And you know what the stupidest part of the whole thing is? I can already feel myself…not being so mad about it. Like…I’m venting, right? And I can already just, uh…fuck!”

“That’s what venting is for…”

“Well, yeah, but I don’t think I want to stop being mad about this!” Julian stood up and prowled around the room. “I mean, where’s the fucking line? They crossed it alright, but isn’t that something I should be mad about?”

“Not if you can’t actually do anything about it,” Xiù said. “Bǎobèi, staying mad about it won’t fix it, it’ll just hurt you.”

Allison nodded in agreement. “Babe. You know who you might talk to? Gyotin. I think if there’s anyone who might have something to say on painful revelations about your past, it’d be him. Go for a run first. Let off some steam.”

“Yeah…I mean, why not? It’s like I was made for it or something…”

“And you’re good at it, and it makes you happy, so stop overthinking it.”

Julian looked like he wanted to grumble a bit more, so Al decided it was time to get blunt and practical with him. “Julian. Babe. Hear me now and listen later, okay?”

“…Yeah?”

“Maybe this seems a bit cold-blooded, but consider this. Remember Bozo? Someone bred him into an absolute freak of canine nature for…whatever fuckin’ reason. I don’t think I’ve ever met a dog as big, or as tough, or as smart as he was. And y’know what else he was? Happy. Do you think he’d have given any kind of fucks about why he was the best?”

“…”

“So you’ve been given a hell of a blessing for dubious reasons. Fine. We’ll deal with it. You’ve given your kids that blessing too, and now you know a big part of why you’re our awesome space-Tarzan. Which, being honest, you already knew anyway. Whatever secrets they’re keeping, there’s nothing else they can say or do that will take that away from you. You’re the best and not just because of your genes. You throw yourself into everything, you’re super intense and loving and maybe just a bit crazy…and I wouldn’t have you any other way.”

Beside her, Xiù nodded fervently.

“…I…” Julian, like pretty much every big strong man ever, didn’t know how to cry tears of gratitude in any graceful way. He tried, and failed, to pretend they weren’t there and crushed Al and Xiù in a huge hug.

“…Okay. I’ll go, uh…run some errands, I guess. And not dwell.”

“We’ll be here,” Al promised. He gave them a last squeeze, a kiss apiece, a third kiss for Anna’s cheek, and headed out with… well, if not a spring in his step then at least with a purpose.

Xiù took a deep breath once he was gone, then turned and gave Allison a huge smile.

Al arched an eyebrow at her. “…What?”

“I love you so much.”

Al felt her face go warm, but in the best way. “Wo ye ai ni,” she replied, and snuggled up again, at least as well as she could with the baby in her arms. “…I hope he’ll be okay.”

“He will. C’mon, he’s bounced back from worse than this.”

“I hope so. But there’s whatever Nofl hasn’t told him yet to consider and…”

“He’ll be fine.”

Al sighed and nodded. “…Okay.” she considered her daughter, and stroked a thumb over the slumbering face. Anna was a chilled-out sort of baby, generally content to just eat and sleep. They had a few months before she’d get really interactive… or at least, so all the usual milestones supposedly went.

Now, though, knowing just what had gone into her… well… her pedigree…

…She found she didn’t care. If the entire point had been to breed tough, hale, strong, healthy humans then that actually was a good thing for Anna. From a purely practical point of view…

Well. Whatever was good for her baby was alright by Allison.


Date Point: 16y7m2w AV
Clan Starmind monastery, Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches

Champion Gyotin

Gyotin was enjoying a rare quiet day. At least, relatively quiet. He’d had breakfast with the Bishop of Folctha that morning, but that was a weekly event anyway. And of course he’d spent some time at the Faith Center, met a few people, caught up on the news, offered some insights…

The opportunity to retire to the monastery garden and practice a nice long meditation in solitude was a welcome one.

It couldn’t last forever, of course. After maybe twenty minutes or half an hour, the distinctive scent of a very big and very familiar Human guest reached his nose, and he decided that he’d better attend to his responsibilities again.

It didn’t matter. Gyotin could meditate in a single breath, and often did so. It was a useful trick, just… taking a single moment to reset the mind and cleanse the moment. He certainly wasn’t going to be put out by the end of a decently long meditation now.

Standing respectfully at the garden’s edge behind him, though Gyotin hadn’t yet turned to face him, was Julian Etsicitty. He hadn’t made so much as a sound when he approached, which was a neat trick on a gravel path, but Gyotin’s nose didn’t lie about these things. The big man smelled troubled.

Gyotin half turned to flick an ear at him and greet him over his shoulder, radiating serenity. “I don’t think I’ve ever spoken with you in private, Mister Etsicitty. Would you like tea?”

“…Sure, why not?”

Gyotin had to admit a certain fondness for his tea ritual. It had earned him some gentle teasing from some of the more experienced members of the Clan, but that was no worry. He gestured to a low table near the most fragrant part of the garden. The big man considered it, smiled faintly, and carefully folded himself into a cross-legged position before it.

Usually, Gyotin only spoke with Etsicitty when Sister Shoo came to visit. He wasn’t a Buddhist himself, and he certainly wasn’t a Gaoian. In fact, he’d always seemed to Gyotin like a man for whom the Great Question was… not resolved, necessarily, but certainly it didn’t gnaw at him the way it did some other people. Julian was very much a man of the world before anything else.

In fact, he’d always struck Gyotin as truly resilient. Something must have gone badly wrong, though he didn’t smell of grief. More… confusion.

Gyotin’s tea ritual was designed for relaxing simplicity and precision. He found that people usually relaxed when they watched it rather than growing restless, and so it was with Julian: by the time Gyotin poured a cup with a practiced, simple flair, the big man had taken a few steadying breaths and was radiating a little less stress.

He watched, seemingly bemused, until with a nod Gyotin indicated that he should take his tea. The cups weren’t overly large, since the point was to relax and not fill oneself to bursting, but they nonetheless looked almost tiny in Julians massive, calloused hands. Worthy of a Stoneback, those.

“…I’ve had a really weird sorta day.”

“You smell like it.”

Julian… explained. It took some time, in part because Julian was the kind of man whose thought process was rather like a climbing vine, feeling around and curling back on itself to find the next anchor point. In absolute terms, it was slow: in practical terms, it was methodical and thorough one-foot-forward-and-test-the-earth stuff.

Gyotin did what he did best and listened with both ears and nose.

In truth, just getting it out of his system for a second time seemed to have helped Julian enormously. His partners had had good advice and insights for him—well done, Sister Shoo—but there remained two unresolved questions.

The first, according to Julian, went something like:

“It’s like… well, okay, so I’m apparently bred to be what I am. Or, uh… what I’ve done? Like, all of it’s been in line with the kinda thing they were trying to achieve. They wanted… I guess someone who could go anywhere at all and handle it? Which is what I do! So it’s like I’m just following the script they wrote into me. But I like what I do! I like where my life is at right now, or, I mean, except for the crazy goliath bitch who tried to kill me, but other than that!”

He drank his second cup of tea and sighed. “I’ve been to amazing places and done amazing things and met amazing people and fell in love with two incredible women, and I’ve got, or gonna have, two amazing kids, and… I don’t know. Did I earn all that? Or am I just… I dunno.”

“Of course you did.”

Julian sighed. “Like, I know I did. Rationally,” he clarified. “My genes didn’t just, uh, pick up those weights themselves, or cut that wood all by themselves, or drag my ass out of bed every freezing morning on Nightmare or any of it. I had to earn it all, I get that. But they also let me do all that in the first place, which I’m learning is an opportunity that basically nobody else gets. And after dropping all that on me, Nofl said there’s more to tell me!”

“Which is?”

“…I dunno. I kinda wish he’d just dropped both halves on me in one go. I think he thought he was being kind.”

Gyotin duck-nodded. “He tries. Genuinely, he tries. You must understand though, he is a Corti. Even in his case, he has a severe theory of mind deficit where emotional cognition is concerned.”

“…Well. I just… I wanna hear the other half. Whatever it is, I’ll deal with it, you know?” Julian took a deep breath and put his cup down. “…I don’t mind being what I am. I just wanna know how honestly I came by what I have.”

“Should I come with you?” Gyotin offered.

Julian’s expression was one of immense relief. “Oh, God, please yes. I don’t, uh…I’m not, uh, yeah. You don’t seem like a fire-and-brimstone sorta fella and I really don’t need that right now.”

“Fire and brimstone?”

“Y’know, the whole poly relationship with two not-wives, illegitimate children and taking alien religious rites thing. Folks… judge.”

“Father O’Driscoll might surprise you, but that’s an issue for later. When are you meeting Nofl?”

“…Uh… well. No time like the present, I guess.”

“I quite agree.” Gyotin stood. “His lab isn’t far, after all.”

Still, they took the scenic route and enjoyed the garden. To Gyotin’s nose it smelled of herbs from dozens of worlds: Gaoian sweetherb and Mishi, thyme and lemongrass from Earth, Cqcq, Urgurnivur, Wrythwk…

Julian had a certain similarity to the Great Father, Gyotin noted. Both had a very healthy appreciation for life in all its forms, herbs and flowers especially. The big man breathed in appreciatively through his nose as they meandered toward the exit, and perhaps looked back as if he would have loved nothing more than to stay there all day, soaking it all in.

“There is a lot of red and violet in your garden, you know.”

“So Leemu tells me. It turns out the Gao have color vision perhaps as good as yours, buried in an inactivated section of our genome.”

“…Really?”

“Indeed so! There is a small therapy trial going on right now to reactivate those parts of our heritage; they were deliberately deactivated thousands of years ago.”

“…Yeah, I guess now I think about it, you guys can kinda sympathize with where I’m at right now, huh?”

“In a sense. I must admit, your case is very sympathetic for me. And I imagine would be for others in your orbit. The Great Father, for example.”

“Oh?”

“You are a man who was bred to severe purpose. As are all of the Gao, most especially our Champions—usually, anyway—and our Great Father. We of course do this voluntarily…”

“…Yeah.”

“Yet that was almost certainly a social behavior instigated by an enemy power. That is not a small thing to know, that old and vast powers have been using your ancestors in a game. But…”

“But at least I know.”

“You don’t believe that ignorance is bliss?”

Julian shook his head. “Ignorance is a great way to get killed.”

“Or at the very least,” Gyotin offered, “it’s unfulfilling.”

“…That too, I guess.”

The rest of the short walk to Nofl’s lab was made in pensive silence, and they found Nofl waiting for them at the door. Gyotin didn’t ask how the quirky Corti scientist had known they were coming: presumably he had a drone or cameras or something. It didn’t matter.

His usual chipper affectation was gone. He welcomed them in with a simple greeting and invited them to sit down with an offer of coffee that they both declined.

“So. The other half,” he said, and Julian tensed up. Nofl gestured with a control device and the holographic display in the middle of his lab shimmered into life. It showed a full-body scan of Julian, made transparent enough to show off the internal organs in a clean, clinical kind of way. Another click of the controller, and the image’s twisting intestines lit up blue.

“…Your gut biome has come into contact with Cruezzir,” he explained, without preamble. “Which explains the anomalous healing around your leg and your increased physicality over the last couple of weeks. You’re now effectively generating an unrestricted, early version of a super-soldier serum inside your own body. We’ve seen this before, and normally it would be straightforward to correct. Not pleasant, but straightforward… except in your unique case.”

“Why not?”

“Because you were the test platform for that serum, dear. You have, in fact, been generating precursor components of it since the day you were abducted and transplanted to Nightmare.”

“…Wh…wait. Back up just a bit. Cruezzir.”

“Yes.”

“…Her blood, wasn’t it?”

“I do not know precisely what you’re talking about, but ingesting the bodily fluids of someone also producing Cruezzir presents a high risk of contamination, yes.”

“So…Okay. You said ‘unrestricted.’ What the fuck does that mean?!”

“Mostly, that it’s essentially contagious. I was unaware of it, but the production-grade Cruezzir was designed to self-enable a synthesis pathway in E. Coli. I had nothing to do with that.”

Julian’s tone had grown understandably urgent. “What does this mean for my partners?”

“They are unlikely to contract it through intercourse if that’s what you’re asking. Unless they, ah, ingested…”

“…Let’s just assume so.”

“…Right. Well. For them it will be essentially harmless and treatable, if so. Um… I hope. Honestly, the thought of a pregnant woman with Cruezzir gut never occurred to me, hmm…”

Julian’s grip made the desktop creak. “Nofl…”

“Julian. Dear. I am appalled by all this and I will do all in my power to help, but I don’t think the risks are significant in their cases. They may even be a net benefit, it is a medicine after all. In controlled doses, it’s beneficial! No, my concern is more to do with the risks of long-term saturation.”

“What…sort of risks?”

“Cruezzir-derivative was designed with two major goals in mind. Firstly, that it would not form a transmissible hazard. But secondly, it was also designed to trigger certain bodily responses in the combatants undergoing treatment. Stronger tendons, skeletal adaptation, and so forth. For you…that won’t be a problem. You were…well, bred for this. Or something like it, anyway.”

“Those precursor components you mentioned?” Gyotin cued. “What do they have to do with this?”

“And why the hell didn’t you tell me about them before?” Julian asked. “You replaced my goddamn leg, Nofl. How did you not notice this?”

“Foot,” Nofl corrected. “And because one doesn’t notice compounds diluted to the nanogram unless they’re actively looking for them, which I had no reason to do. Which brings us back to the problem. You are fully adapted to their presence. It has been… how long? Seventeen years since they were first introduced to your system? Not counting time spent in stasis.”

“…About that, yeah. Eleven years or so since I was rescued, and six years before that.”

“Julian, a complete intestinal microbiome transplant would very probably kill you. You’re so perfectly adapted to the precursors, your body has built itself around its heightened capacity to heal. Just considering your heart alone—remember how we noted that it was highly enlarged? That’s not uncommon in power athletes…”

“It was a point of concern, yeah.”

“Not for you. It’s adapted to this. If I, to use a metaphor, ‘kick the stool out from under you,’ just one of the things that may kill you is a massive heart attack in a few weeks. Or a few years. Maybe. It’s impossible to tell. Plenty of other men live with your condition until old age…”

“But he has many such conditions,” Gyotin concluded with a sigh. “So taken together, it’s a potential disaster.”

“Exactly. As he is, he is perfectly healthy and living comfortably on the edge of what human biology can do, both because he was designed to be, and because of a self-sustaining suite of medicines in his gut. I cannot risk taking away that support mechanism now.”

“…What will this mean for me?”

“Well…mostly good things! You will experience prolonged life, heightened resistance to disease…basically, you will live as you have lived since your rescue from Nightmare. There are some side-effects you should note…”

“…Such as?”

“You may feel emotions more intensely, but I daresay you’ve felt them all along. There were reports of some other rather preposterous effects, but I do not credit them with much veracity.”

“How long of a prolonged life?” Gyotin asked.

“Cruezzir-derivative was designed to provide a minimum of twenty years of extended prime-of-life. He’ll get at least that. Possibly more.” Nofl cleared his throat. “…Possibly a lot more. I don’t actually know. The only other individuals this has ever happened to are missing or dead. I suppose… in theory, there might not be an upper limit.”

Julian stood up sharply and turned away. He prowled the back of the room absolutely reeking of anguish for a few seconds, then turned sharply back to Nofl. “‘No upper limit?!’ Nofl, I—!”

“I speak of theory, Julian. Theory and reality are very different things.”

“Oh, great. So I’m only ’theoretically’ immortal!” Julian gestured vaguely out the door. “Meanwhile, my family and all the people I love are very definitely mortal!”

“And forever is a very long time to find a solution, dear. Which I promise you I will work towards.”

Gyotin glanced at Julian, who stood up, massaged his face, and turned away again to do a little more pacing. There was a fight raging in his head, but as far as Gyotin could tell Nofl was saying the right things.

“So… what can Julian and his family do in the meantime?” he asked.

“Well… Your partners and children, born and unborn alike, will need to come in for a scan and… whatever therapy is necessary. Which I hope turns out to be none at all!” Nofl hastened to add. “But this is unknown territory. Curiosity and caution are our guides, I think.”

“And if they do need it?” Julian asked. “Xiù’s pregnant and Anna’s only a couple of months old!”

“Julian.” Nofl stood up. It was a ridiculous thing to see a tiny, skinny Corti stand squarely up to a human many times his mass, but it worked. Julian stopped pacing and listened. Nofl looked him square in the eye. “I will do everything I can,” he promised.

“You can’t ask for more than that,” Gyotin agreed, softly.

There was a long silence. Finally, Julian sighed, straightened up, and ran a hand through his hair. “…Fine. Okay. Thank you. I’m just… I’d better go tell them.”

“I’ll see you soon, dear,” Nofl told him. “My door is always open to you.”

“As is mine,” Gyotin promised.

Julian gave them both a grateful look that was almost a smile, then left. Or maybe ‘bolted’ was a better word.

Once he was gone, Nofl sighed heavily and distractedly tried to tidy up an already immaculate lab. “That could have gone better,” he declared.

“At least it went,” Gyotin replied. “Better for him to know, however difficult it may be for him.”

“Yes.” Nofl gave up on trying to improve on perfection, and sagged back into a chair. “I feel partly to blame, you know. Cruezzir was my creation. The Directorate picked it up and did terrible things with it once they saw the potential, but it all starts with me.”

“Can you turn it toward the good?” Gyotin asked.

“I already have!” Nofl said, sounding a little offended. “Many times over! Cruezzir is a gift to the world, a miracle medicine! It’s already changed so much, and will change much more in due time. It just… has some complications. And I will set them right.”

Gyotin duck-nodded. “I can’t fault your passion,” he said. Nofl laughed, darkly.

“Yes. The very thing the Directorate likes the least about me,” he muttered. “…Thank you, Champion. I don’t know how you make time for everybody like you do.”

“Some days I can’t.” Gyotin sniffed at the coffee apparatus. He had to admit, coffee did smell amazing. Alas that it tasted so different to its aroma. He’d take tea every time. “But on some days, the universe seems to make room, when it really matters. Anyway. I should leave you to your work.”

Nofl nodded wearily, and Gyotin let himself out.

He was, he found, not worried. Undoubtedly he’d be seeing Sister Shoo at some point, and probably Julian again now… but those were meetings to look forward to, really. As emotional and troubled as they would surely be, well…

…It was good to have people to help.

He took a single meditative breath, and returned to his garden.


Date Point: 16y7m2w AV
Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Uncharted Space

Lewis Beverote

Lewis was officially the human race’s foremost expert on designing shit for a nanofactory to build.

It was kind of a multidisciplinarian thing, in a shallow way. He needed to know just enough about a fuckzillion different subjects to know how he could fit bits and pieces together, but he needed to also know when to hand off to a real in-depth expert and ask “can it be done?”

There wasn’t an official name for his little coterie. In theory the Mrwrki nanofax was overseen by Master Sergeant Lee. In practice, every blueprint that ever got fed into the big beauty was Lewis’ handiwork, signed off on by all the people who worked with him. On Mrwrki’s org chart they were known just as the nanofactory blueprint lab.

Among themselves, they were the Fellowship of the ‘Fax. After all, if you couldn’t shamelessly geek out on a station full of massive nerds literally named after Tolkien’s writings, where could you?

The coltainers had been… eh. They were absolutely a success, sure. Every mission objective achieved, thank you very much. But they weren’t the giant fireworks-and-eagles suck-my-dick success he’d wanted. AI, even the most advanced AI the human race had ever dreamt up blended with some bleeding edge ET tech, just wasn’t smart enough to handle the complexities of the real galaxy.

Some of them had been stalked by Hunters and self-destructed. A few had suffered industrial accidents. One had apparently got stupid confused about size and distance and plunged into a gas giant while squawking inanely about how much trouble it was having in figuring out what was wrong.

Overall, the coltainers were multiplying as designed, but it wasn’t exactly an exponential surge. The rate of replacement was just ahead of the loss rate.

So… yeah. A success, but not a home run. A solid B+. Adequate. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am.

The Fellowship were perfectionists. Adequate was not good enough, to them. So, after seeding enough coltainers, they’d turned the ‘Fax toward different projects instead.

Right now, it was building deep space survey satellites tuned to listen for and precisely triangulate a specific kind of quantum… thingy. Lewis thought of it as kinda like a heavy blanket draped on top of the great quantum mattress of the universe. His advisor on all things quantum-mechanical, Doctor “Just” So, had pulled a pained face when he said that but accepted the analogy was good enough for Lewis’ purposes.

Point was, by watching for weird spots in the sky where the great quantum blanket did weird shit, they could in theory find the Hierarchy’s remaining relay worlds.

Exactly what that would lead to…

For now, though, there were no ‘official’ projects coming their way. The ‘Fax was hard at work churning out the satellites, and it pushed out a new one every ten minutes or so. But up in the blueprint lab, all the stuff coming down from on high was already done and dusted. So the Fellowship were… tinkering.

And eating snacks.

“I’m tellin’ you dude, ain’t no way in a million years the military are ever gonna touch power armor.”

“It’d save lives.”

“Would it? Stickin’ dudes inside a fuckin’ robot that’s stronger than them? Sounds like a deathtrap to me.”

“Not if you design it right.”

“Okay, and then what? So you’ve got a superhuman humanoid robot. Why d’you even need a dude inside it? Why not stick him in a control bunker on the other side of the world with some kinda VR rig?”

“Actually, yeah? Why not?”

“Well, signaling, for one. I ran this one by Champion Meereo last time he visited and the Anubis-lookin’ motherfucker looked like he wanted to beat me to death with his ears. I learned more than I ever wanted to ‘bout latency, loss, channelized communications, electronic warfare, Shannon’s Law—well, their equivalent to it…”

Lewis cronched down an imported snack that was kinda-sorta the Gaoian version of a potato chip. Or a generic cheese noodle-thing. Something. Both. Whatever. Wozni and Meereo brought them over by the literal caseload and they fulfilled the Law of Cronch along with the Cheesy Addendum, so why not?

“So, assumin’ you can’t reliably remote control them, and absent wormhole comms like the kind we’re trying to kill then you absolutely cannot, then you still have the problem of a meaty dude inside a killer robot,” he said. “You’re also not thinking about reflexes, my dude. Or what you’d need to do to fix that.”

“So what are we working on?”

“Proof of concept, nothing more.”

“We’re proving a concept they’ll never go for?”

“I never said there were no applications to the technology did I? Bomb robots? Long-distance surgery? Fuck, I dunno. Tiny little miniature humanoid robots that can go down inside drains and unblock ‘em? If we can manage tactile feedback from the robot hands to the human hands then that opens up all kindsa shit.” Cronch. “It just ain’t gonna git rid of big scary dudes killin’ some poor other fuckin’ dudes for bein’ in the wrong place or on the wrong side.”

He swivelled his chair to check out the latest experimental run of what they were calling myopolymer. It was materials science at the frontier, a pretty damn decent attempt at duplicating the way human muscle worked in a synthetic format.

There were still a lot of bugs to work out, and a long way to go. In fact, it was occuring to Lewis that if carbon fiber was the best thing to make bones out of, humans would have evolved with carbon fiber bones.

Actually. He filed that idea away for later, and then it became a moot point anyway because his phone rang.

“Y’allo!”

“Mister Beverote, it’s Colonel Nadeau. I have some guests here who want to discuss something with you and the Fellowship. They and Darcy will be with you shortly”

“You got it, boss. We’ll clean up.”

“Thanks.” Nadeau could sound dryer than the fuckin’ Gobi when he wanted.

The Fellowship in fact kept their place scrupulously neat despite being snack fiends thanks to Merry and Pippin, the robot vacuum cleaner and the mobile waste paper basket. The former constantly patrolled the floor for bits, the other could zip under and neatly intercept any scrunched-up piece of trash tossed vaguely in his direction.

Both had little googly eyes on them.

Still, a fair warning like Nadeau’s was their cue to quickly wash and stack the coffee cups, clear their desks and close a few (dozen) browser tabs.

The visitors who followed Darcy into the room a minute or two after they were done making themselves presentable were… well, two of them were welcome and familiar: Wozni and Meereo, Lewis’ two favorite Gaoian geeks. Champion geeks, at that!

Behind them was a man Lewis didn’t recognize, and an armed security-lookin’ MP sorta dude. The man was getting on in years a bit, which just made him seem kinda… nondescript. Like, he was a handsome-enough lookin’ dude, but Lewis wasn’t sure he coulda picked the guy out of a lineup though at the same time he looked kinda familiar. His posture was kinda weary and tense, like the kinda guy who’d been at the bottom of the pile in life for a long-ass while.

Darcy made introductions. “Hugh, this is Lewis Beverote, Sergeant Lucy Beverote and Master Sergeant Lee Jun-Seok. They’re… kind of the experts on the sort of thing we discussed.”

“Pleased to meetcha,” Lewis said, shaking the dude’s hand politely. Hugh smiled and murmured a nervous hello as he shook hands.

With that formality out of the way, Lewis’ next priority was the fact that Wozni had brought snacks, a new brand he hadn’t seen before. Lewis wasn’t great at reading Gaori, but he thought the syllabic blocks, so weirdly similar to Korean hangul spelled out…

…Doritos?

…Fuck, they were. Same branding, same packaging. He’d only taken so long to recognize it ‘cuz he wasn’t expecting it. Wozni had a bag of Nava-flavoured Doritos.

With a totally-not-something-like-Daar tiny cartoon…thing…exploding out of the corner.

Meereo had… something else. It was a briefcase, sorta. Or at least a big box of equipment with a handle on the side. Lucy made room for him on her desk and he put it down gratefully: it sounded heavy as shit.

“…Before I ask about the doom-briefcase…nava Doritos?!”

“Very popular import!” Wozni chittered, and handed them out. “Very… what’s the word in English? Umami?”

“Dude, that ain’t even an English word.”

Darcy took a bag. “I’ve had them,” she said. “They’re nice!”

“I prefer the mishi root flavor,” Meereo said. “I’m told it tastes like horseradish? Whatever that is?”

Lee dug in his desk drawer. “You want some wasabi peas, then. Try one of these…”

A few minutes of friendly snack exchange ensued, before finally they acknowledged the giant technological elephant in the room.

“So, uh, now that the Law of Cronch has been satisfied…”

Wozni duck-nodded. “Right, right. The doom-briefcase. Meereo’s been dying to tell you all day, but I think Hugh should tell his story first.”

The nondescript guy gave a nervous smile to the room. “I… um… This is the first time I’ve left Earth. Hell, it’s the first time I’ve left a detention camp in Alaska in more than ten years… I was a Hierarchy biodrone, and an agent host. In fact, I still have the implants in my head, hence…” he turned and nodded at the guard.

Darcy saw their surprised looks and explained. “That briefcase contains, among other things, a wormhole suppression field generator that should keep Hierarchy forces from connecting to Hugh’s implants,” she said. “But it also contains something else, the Entity’s last parting gift to us before it vanished: A Hierarchy agent who claims to have defected to a rogue faction of peace-seekers known as the Cabal.”

“I’m here as… Substrate, they call it,” Hugh said. “Igraens need it to stay sane and live in a digital environment. Without the Substrate generated by folks like me…”

“Yeah, dude,” Lewis nodded kindly. “We’re briefed.”

“Right…” Hugh cleared his throat. “The point is… Um…”

“In exchange for some concessions, Hugh agreed to be Substrate for this captive so that we could interrogate him. During the interrogation, an intriguing possibility came to light,” Darcy explained.

“Namely?” Lucy asked.

“I’ll let him tell you himself.”

There was a moment of confused silence, and then a voice spoke from a speaker in the box. It had the slightly halting synthetic quality of a deepfake rather than the true natural rhythms of ordinary speech, and the speaker was clearly a kind of an afterthought after all the other tech crammed into that box. But still, it was clearly not any of the other people in the room.

“…Good evening, everyone. My name is Proximal,” it said. “And I would like to discuss the possibility of ending the Igraen people’s dependence on Substrate forever.”



++END CHAPTER 58++



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The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 59: “The Wolves”