Chapter 59: New Life
Date Point:16y7m2w AV
Folctha General Hospital, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Xiù had a Caesarian, in the end.
She needed it. Harrison just didn’t want to come out, and he was so overdue that when the obstetrician came to consider whether it was time to induce she took one look at the ultrasound and decided that surgery was the safer option.
Xiù hadn’t been terribly happy about the idea but, well…Harrison was a big baby. Bigger than Diego, even. And Xiù being small and narrow-hipped and punchy didn’t help at all…
So, Al and Julian held her hands and dried her tears, and were there with her while the surgeons worked their magic on the far side of a cloth screen.
The Singer had been completely awed by it all. She’d come over from Akyawentuo in anticipation of the birth and for the chance see human medicine again… though she’d got rather more than she bargained for.
When it all went wrong, she’d gone from barely-restrained frantic fear and grief, to confusion at how calm the healers were, to dawning delight, to… Well. She looked like she’d just seen a miracle. And she had, really.
So did Julian. So afterwards, in the recovery room, while Xiù slept fitfully through the drugs and the trauma and the sheer exhausting weight of transitioning from woman to mother… He sat by her side, stroking his thumb through her hair and watching her with a guilty look. It wasn’t often a woman got to see a man’s protective instincts so fiercely at war in his head.
He talked softly to the Singer while Al took care of her new stepson. “In years past…she would have died in childbirth. My son woulda killed her.”
“It’s not your fault,” Al reassured him. Harrison had announced his birth loud and clear at least, once he was out. In fact he’d hollered like he was trying to rattle the windows. He was a really healthy baby: Healthy color, nice and fat, all of a newborn’s instincts in place and working as intended. Okay, so Xiù was gonna have yet another scar to add to her collection, but Xiù had come to terms with her scars over the years. They were stories. She’d show it off with pride, once it healed.
“This is why motherhood is holy,” the Singer agreed. “Sometimes, it Takes everything. She is lucky: many others don’t live. One of my sisters, she died this way. I told her man then, I tell you now: You didn’t do this to her.”
“Feels like I did.” Julian sighed.
“Men. Always want to be responsible for everything.” The Singer trilled a soft laugh. “Just give thanks for your people’s medicine, steelbringer.”
“Absolutely. Fuck, they’re getting as big a donation as I can afford to give.”
Xiù woke with a groan. Al was honestly kinda impressed, and a little worried: she’d needed a big dose of painkillers during the operation, and shoulda been comatose. Instead, she was just… dozing. Lightly, too.
“Y’okay, Baobei?” Al asked her.
Xiù gave her a bleary look. “…Is it too early to ask for more meds? I don’t think these ones are working…”
“You already had the maximum dose, babe.”
“…Tā mā de…”
“God, I really hope Nofl’s wrong about the Cruezzir…” Julian agonized.
“Not like we coulda done anything about it anyway, babe,” Allison pointed out.
“Oh, that’d be just great…” Xiù grumbled. “…I am never swallowing ever again.”
The singer hooted and laughed, Allison giggled, and Julian went red in the face, though Allison felt a little relieved: The drugs were definitely having some effect on Xiù, as that was the kind of comment she’d usually be too embarrassed to make.
Allison, of course, prided herself on being nowhere near as inhibited. “Well, it’s kinda hard to avoid it when he’s all the way down your throat—”
“Al!” Julian objected, half laughing, half mortified.
“Humans fuck in strange ways,” The Singer opined. “Just use tongue!”
“This conversation took a wrong turn and I want off!”
The three women looked at each other and decided as one to accept their victory magnanimously. Laughing was plainly much too painful for Xiù right now in any case. Though as it happened, Julian would have been spared too many further blushes anyway thanks to the timely arrival of a nurse who knocked on the door to inform them that they had another nonhuman visitor.
Sure enough, it was Nofl.
“I believe the phrase is ‘burning the midnight oil,’” he chirped without any lead-in. “I’ve been up for days, dears, whole days investigating this! Fascinating! But on the whole, good news!”
“Nofl…” Julian said wearily, “I understand your enthusiasm and I genuinely appreciate everything you’ve done, but…”
“Fine, fine, I’ll tone it down. Because it’s you, my dear.” Nofl flashed his tight little smile, then as promised he dialled back the camp sass a few notches. “Anyway. Bad news first: All of you, Julian, Allison, Xiù, and both the babies, are indeed generating Cruezzir in your gut. Not surprising, considering how intimate you are. The good news is, you’ll all be fine. Even the babies. We ran simulations on the xenobiology college’s Prime Analytic engines–dear me we’re getting some novel use out of those lately–and long-term forecasting comes back with high confidence. As long as you do not undergo repeated psychological trauma or extreme physical stress, there should be no insurmountable complications.”
The three of them all breathed a huge sigh of relief all at once. Julian’s was perhaps the deepest and most relieved. “…Okay. That’s good. Yeah. Good. That’s… good to hear.”
“Yes. Unusual and unique, but you have unusual and unique friends with their own unusual and unique children, so that won’t be so bad now will it dears? But there are some long-term considerations you may not enjoy.”
“Here it comes…” Allison said, bracing herself.
“The first is that, unfortunately, Julian’s dependency on regenerative medicine appears to be incurable for now. There are some promising options we’re exploring, but right now… depriving you of the Cruezzir would be disruptive. Risky. And with that in mind, although we certainly can safely perform a microbiome transplant on you two—” he gestured to Allison and Xiù “—you’d just get infected again. There really isn’t a practical way to avoid that, or at least not one that you’d find remotely acceptable.”
He looked at Anna and Harrison. “…The babies—oh, where are my manners? Congratulations to you all!—The babies are very likely to be at the extreme ends of the probability curves I’m afraid, both due to the Cruezzir and their pedigree. That’s mostly a good thing. Your offspring are virtually guaranteed to be top specimens of your kind. But…”
“Well, things might get interesting during their growth spurts. They will probably be very, very hungry little children, to the point we should monitor it closely. That isn’t a serious problem and it’s absolutely manageable, but you should understand the likely consequences. I imagine nursing them will prove a serious immediate challenge, for example.”
The three of them shared a concerned look, before Julian spoke up. “Right, so…can they be cured?”
Nofl sighed. “I’m afraid not. For one it’s not a disease that can be cured so much as it is an adaptive reliance. There will almost certainly be lifelong dependency. It simply isn’t safe to perform a microbiome transplant on them right now, and by the time it would be, they’ll have completely adapted to its presence just as Julian did to its precursors…”
He saw their expressions, and switched into reassurance mode. “But that’s okay! Julian was healthy and happy for years and totally none the wiser, remember? The medicine itself isn’t the risk. It’s what you do with it that matters!”
“So… what?” Allison said. “What do we avoid? What do we stick to? Give us something to work with here, Nofl.”
“I would say… raise them normally. Both will inevitably turn out to be exceptional human specimens, I’m sure. And of course, if any of you repeatedly push yourselves beyond your physical or mental limits, you will find yourself adapting much faster in response. But that’s fine! Just don’t go, oh… splicing blue fur all over their bodies or anything insane like that.”
“Why on Earth would we–?” Xiù began with a bleary, confused frown.
“Don’t ask. It’s a complicated story.”
Julian raised an eyebrow in something approaching amusement. “…I think I kinda gotta ask. Fur?!”
“Yes. That’s all you’re getting from me, dear. The point is… The worst danger you face looks to be inconvenience and dependency, should you push yourselves too hard. Rather an improvement on your worst-case scenario, wouldn’t you say?”
“I would,” Xiù agreed. “Nofl… I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m in quite a lot of pain right now and I just want some peace and quiet, so–”
“I quite understand,” Nofl replied. “My warmest congratulations to all of you. I’ll forward a more thorough write-up of what to expect later. Good night, dears.”
He headed toward the door, but Allison felt compelled to add one last thing.
“Hey. Short stuff.”
Nofl turned. “Yes?”
He bowed slightly. “You’re very welcome.”
And then he was gone.
Xiù sighed, shut her eyes, and tried to sleep some more. “So. That’s why the painkillers don’t work so well?”
“‘Fraid so, babe.”
“Great. Just… great.”
“Guess that explains why they didn’t work so well on me either…” Julian stood up. “I’ll talk to the doctors. Maybe there’s something else they can do…”
That left Allison and Xiù alone. Al bent down and kissed her girlfriend’s rather sweaty forehead. “Hey.”
“Welcome to the club. Try to do it the easier way next time, dummy.”
Xiù laughed, then groaned and put her hand to her side. “…Please don’t do that.”
“‘Kay. But… please don’t ever scare me like that again?”
Xiù nodded, and closed her eyes. “…I’ll try,” she promised.
By the time Julian got back, she’d fallen asleep again.
Date Point:16y7m2w AV
Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Uncharted Space
Substrate could be thought of like vitamins, if vitamins were a free-floating gas in the air. Its absence wouldn’t immediately harm or kill a datasophont… but prolonged deprivation had some truly devastating effects on their mental health.
It provided them with the very will to live. Without it, Igraens rapidly slipped into ennui and depression and ultimately self-terminated. Or occasionally they went the other way, flying into a manic, desperate frenzy, feverish to try and accomplish something, anything meaningful until they eventually suffered a total psychotic breakdown.
Understanding Substrate explained a lot about the Hierarchy.
Understanding it also made the Entity a lot weirder than it already was. The Entity lurked in the far corners of dataspace, or even in ordinary networks and storage devices. It seemed to have no need for Substrate at all. If the Igraens could copy that trick then they could in theory withdraw almost completely from the world of matter. They could build their infrastructure deep in interstellar space, out of the way, and withdraw into their so-called ‘Hegemony’ almost indefinitely.
Darcy wasn’t sure she liked the idea of just letting them do that after millions of years of genocide. Her sense of justice called out on behalf of trillions of murdered souls. But on the other hand, it also rescued the Allied nations—Allied species, even—from the specter of having to commit genocide themselves.
If, that was, the so-called Fellowship could figure out how the Entity pulled off that apparently unprecedented trick.
The problem was… the Entity had vanished.
That left only past observation to go on, at least until it showed up again. And Darcy, having been present for the act of neurological piracy that ultimately led to its creation, and having interviewed it and established a rapport over some time, was the human race’s best and only expert on the Entity.
The Igraen known as Proximal had insights she lacked. Indeed, he had insights that the Entity itself had lacked, or been unable to articulate.
“You obviously can’t simulate all the processes of an organic brain neuron-by-neuron,” he was explaining. “It would require vast processing resources, and be far too susceptible to latency, signal loss, far too bound up in sensory processing and a host of other things. It all has to be approximated, and not along the lines of different brain structures, but along the lines of… English doesn’t seem to have a word for it. The smallest practical components of a personality. If a mind was a language, then we calculate on the phoneme level.”
“Makes sense,” Lewis nodded. “We figured it was somethin’ like that, dude. I’m gonna go ahead and call ‘em an ‘egoneme.’”
“So there isn’t an… egoneme… for the will to live? That seems weird,” Lucy commented. Her specialty was metallurgy and materials science, Darcy knew, but honestly the people in this room knew a little bit about practically everything.
“Apparently there is. The Entity has it.”
“Nah, dude. Can’t possibly be that simple or y’all’d’ve figured it out by now. I mean, you’ve had millions of years! Give yourselves some credit,” Lewis said.
“One cannot deny observational reality. The Entity exists, independent of Substrate. Ergo, it has the thing we lack. Ergo, it exists.”
“Logical, but maybe that’s the problem right there,” Lee mused.
“Don’t go all Captain Kirk on me now, dude,” Lewis replied.
“Alright well… what makes the Entity so unique? Besides its freedom from Substrate?”
“Many things,” Proximal declared, morosely.
“It was originally formed from a human,” Darcy offered. She was mostly squicked out by that, not to mention appalled at what had happened to a young woman whose safety had been her responsibility… but at the same time, she was a little proud.
“Many datasophonts have been compiled from non-Igraen sources, most of them deathworlders. Your species may be exceptional, but I refuse to believe that you are unique.”
“And yet, as you said, here we are. You have a digital life-form that self-assembled out of the debris of a digitized human mind.”
“Maybe that’s it!” Lee chirped up. “Maybe the way you… compile? Is that the right word? Do you compile new Igraens?”
“We are generated by dynamically combining the… I suppose you would call it genetic, or a seed. Fundamental information that informs the growth and final outcome of the process. Two donors combine that information into a new “seed” which then flourishes into a sapient mind. The exact mechanics are… I don’t know them, any more than you know how your own nucleic acid resulted in you.”
“…Life as a dynamic terrain generator, God…”
“Well, maybe that process is flawed somehow?” Lee pressed. “Like… I dunno. Like, I know of genetic disorders in humans that do things like result in blindness because the retina can’t produce a vital protein.”
“Or a type one diabetic!” Lucy agreed.
“So we’re looking for a genetic flaw in the compiling process, then,” Lee concluded.
“Makes sense, if the Entity jerry-rigged itself together all haphazard-like,” Lewis agreed.
“There… may be a precedent,” Proximal said, slowly. Darcy looked down at the briefcase-sized box of hardware the Igraen was currently running and imprisoned in. He was deriving his Substrate from a voluntary human donor named Hugh Johnson, a man who’d had the misfortune to be a biodrone for a good third of his life to date.
He was hanging out in the corner, keeping to himself. But his presence meant that Proximal could be kept on a short leash. He was still a Hierarchy agent after all: not to be trusted.
“Precedent?” she asked.
“You’re aware of course that the Discarded—the Hunters—are Igraens themselves. The physical remains thereof, anyway. Specifically, they’re the bioengineered bodies we developed for warfare with an ancient species known as the V’Straki…”
“Who in turn evolved on Earth,” Lewis finished. “We know all this, dude. What’s this precedent?”
“Has it ever occurred to you to wonder why the Hunters are as they are? No empathy, no moral compass, just endless slavering hunger?”
“You’re suggesting… what? That the genetic flaw is related somehow?”
“Our ancient historical files suggest that when my species were still corporeal, we depended on a bacterium that we got from our food rather than growing naturally in our gut. Without it, we became psychotic. If what you are suggesting is accurate, then our dependence on Substrate may be that same deficiency but translated into our dataforms.”
“Sounds about as plausible as all the other dataspace weirdness…” Lee muttered.
“Well, it’s a place to start looking,” Lucy said. “But creating a datasophont is… I mean, that’s a few rungs up the tech ladder from where we are now. This is like asking the Wright Brothers to troubleshoot the design flaws in a Firebird.”
“Right now, this is just a proof of concept anyway,” Darcy informed them. “Senior figures in AEC are… squeamish… about the idea of a war to extinction.”
“How senior?” Lewis asked.
“I’m not at liberty to say. But they want to make an informed decision: Can we, or can we not, at least in theory permanently resolve the Igraen need for Substrate?”
Lewis, Lee and Lucy looked at each other and the kind of unspoken conversation that only happened between people who knew each other well and had worked together for a long time bounced back and forth across the room in a flurry of raised eyebrows, little shrugs and quizzical sets of eye and mouth.
Lewis brought the exchange to an end when he threw his hands up in surrender. “…I guess? I mean, it’s gotta be possible somehow. We just… like, there’s no way we could put a timetable on that, dude.”
“I’ll pass that along,” Darcy said. “Satisfied, Proximal?”
“Yes. Thank you. All of you.”
“Back to Alaska, then. Sorry, Hugh.”
The put-upon Substrate donor just shrugged ruefully and stood up. “Thanks for the vacation, I guess.”
“Dude, anytime,” Lewis promised him. “Guess this is gonna be a whole project, huh?”
“Hope so. It was… nice… to see something new.”
Darcy watched him go with helpless sympathy, but Lewis made a disgusted noise as soon as he was gone.
“Darcy. Dude. Why the fuck can’t we do something for that poor bastard? The Corti fuckin’ brought a woman back from the dead, can’t they do something for him?”
“His implant literally replaced part of his brain stem,” Darcy said, softly. Lewis went very still, and very quiet.
“Yeah.” Darcy breathed heavily, then turned a weak smile on the Fellowship. “So, let’s make it matter. Yes?”
“Dude. You got it.”
Darcy left their workshop in a mixed mood.
Date Point: 16y7m2w4d AV
Coreward Marches, Kwmbwrw Great Houses
“Yes, Matriarch. The One-Fang capital ship Blazing Rage and the Stoneback assault transport Sword of a Poet, accompanied by four Voidripper strike fighters.”
“‘Sword of a poet?’ That seems strangely… well, poetic, compared to the others.”
“I gather it’s a Clan thing, Matriarch. Half their ships are like that. The others are…”
Wrythwynw considered the other ships in her squadron. The Coreward Marches fleet operated in groups of seven ships of identical class and loadout. The shewmei-class was designed for rapid response: they were fast, quite capable of warping to any of the hundreds of outposts, stations, mines and colonies in the Marches as soon as Fleet Command received a distress call…. And when they arrived, they said hello with a torrent of rapid-fire kinetic weapons that could chew the target’s shields down in moments and pulverize the ship underneath.
Never let it be said that the Kwmbwrw hadn’t watched and learned from the way Deathworlders had changed space combat. No matter the Grandmatriarch’s opinions on the matter, the Fleet knew a good thing when they saw it.
Now, the problem was that the Hunters adapted too. They struck, they raided, they took their slaves, and they fled at the first sign of incoming Fleet assets. Fleet losses were down dramatically on where they’d been just a few years before, which the Grandmatriarchs took as a win… but while civilian losses had dipped, they hadn’t dipped nearly enough.
Oh, yes, the Marches were big enough that the average facility could reasonably expect to never be raided. Most hadn’t. But the ones that did were…
Wrythwynw had seen the blood and bodies herself. And so far, she’d been powerless to avenge the dead. The Gao claimed to have a counter, but until just a few days ago the Grandmatriarchs had forbidden them from entering the Kwmbwrw Great Houses’ territory.
They did anyway, but only occasionally, in service to their own goals. Except, something had finally changed at the highest political level. And now…
Now they had two Deathworlder ships alongside them.
Rather than being intimidated by that label, Wrythwynw found she was eager to see them in action.
They were responding to a distress call from a mining operation in a nameless Minor-3000 system, a small and relatively cool fully convective star known only by its coordinates within a catalog volume. The system had only two planetoids, neither very large, both airless, and relevant only thanks to their high metallicity. They were both dotted with dozens of automated mining stations, and a control station with a population of a thousand or so orbited the inner planetoid: it was from this that the latest cry of alarm had come.
The Gaoian ships were marginally slower than the Shewmeis, but apparently equipped with something called megalight drones: Probes with a top speed in excess of a million times the speed of light. The plan, therefore, was for them to encircle the distressed system. If the Hunters did what they usually did and bolted away from the incoming response force, then the Gaoians would intercept them, the megalight probe would drop a gravity spike, and from there the combined Kwmbwrw and Gao fleet would swoop in…
…And, insanely, board the Hunters.
That was the part Wrythwynw’s fleet just wasn’t equipped for. In fact, the very notion was simply crazy. But the Stoneback “First Fang” warriors had done it before, they claimed.
Wrythwynw was hopefully about to see them back that claim in person.
Sure enough, the Hunters scared up as soon as the fleet came within long-distance sensor range of the target system. The leading edge of their collective warp disruption washed through the area, and the Hunters went to warp an impressively quick interval later. A half-dozen Ri’ at most.
Swift as the Shewmei-class was, the Hunters were just a little faster. Always just a little faster, suggesting their true top speed far outstripped the Kwmbwrw ships but that they preferred to keep the exact limits unknown.
They were not, however, faster than the megalight probes.
The probes weren’t subtle. They slammed through the substance of spacetime with a kind of straining ferocity, raising the equivalent of a shockwave. Time and distance in the light-seconds around them splashed and churned in strange ways, as though a whole fleet of much larger ships was coming through.
The Hunters promptly doubled their speed, easily outstripping what the Shewmei were capable of, but it was a futile effort. The gap narrowed, vanished, and then the probes caught them and spiked them.
The intense superluminal pursuit immediately dropped back into the world of normal inertia. The Shewmei caught up in minutes, blinked down to sublight and arrived within the immediate volume with their weapons already firing a hail of kinetic rounds ahead of them.
This part had been carefully coordinated with the Gao. There was only the one broodship, and its weapon emplacements sublimed into flashes of plasma, its kinetic drives became clouds of torn shrapnel, and its sensor clusters were ripped off the hull… but the core of the ship, the reactors and pressure vessels, remained intact.
The five swarmships escorting it were slapped into vengeful oblivion. Crippled, unescorted and vulnerable, the Broodship drifted and tumbled in the void. Ordinarily, Wrythwynw would have ordered it destroyed as a mercy to the poor Kwmbwrw trapped on board.
The Blazing Rage and Sword of a Poet dropped into sublight right on top of it. Together they wove a forcefield cage around the stricken Broodship, peeled it open, held it still… and the Sword pushed its sharp shovel nose into the Broodship’s underbelly.
Wrythwynw listened to the Gaoian communications as the boarding action proceeded. She expected to hear shouting, yelling, war cries and frantic violence.
What she heard was tersely professional at worst, and mostly… playful? The Stonebacks sounded almost like they were having fun.
A bare handful of Ri’ after the boarding action begun, the Sword hailed Wrythwynw’s flagship with a certain degree of well-earned smug humor. Shipfather Orno, missing half an ear and with four gold-plated titanium fangs flashing in his mouth, panted happily at her with a copious splash of blood covering his armor.
“Fleetmatriarch, we’re done wrasslin’ with our playmates here. Mosta them broke pretty easy.”
“The miners?” Wrythnwynw asked, taking refuge in professional concern for the mission.
“We got to ‘em right before the greasy fucks started up their, uh, abattoir operations. We’re checkin’ em for injuries or any nasty surprises. Uh…might need some help calmin’ ‘em down.”
“I’m a pretty scary ‘Back at the best’a times, Fleetmatriarch. Lotta my Brothers’re the same. A lotta these guys are convinced we’re gonna eat ‘em instead.”
“We’ll send over medical shuttles immediately,” Wrythwynw said, and gestured to put her words into action. Her junior officers were gratifyingly swift to make it happen.
When the footage from the medics came back a while later, she needed a moment to compose herself. There were bits of Hunter everywhere. Crumpled, torn piles of sickly white flesh, diseased cybernetics and off-color blood and organs lined the deck, walls, and even ceiling in places. It was…
She’d been fighting the Hunters her whole career, and to see them humiliated so totally almost gave her a maniacal fit of the giggles.
She contacted Orno again to congratulate him, keeping a strained lid on her jubilation. Somewhere in the back of her mind was the mild concern that she should be disturbed by the violence, but the truth was that it was just so sweet to see the old enemy dealt with like this.
Father Orno flashed a truly fearsome tooth-laden grin when she said as much. “Oh, we ain’t even close to th’ bestest First Fang’s got to offer. Mosta the ‘Backs here are reservists. When Alpha company an’ those HEAT Brothers git together an’ play…it’s fuckin’ beautiful.”
“I’m a bouncer ‘fer my normal job!”
So. That was the nature of their allies. For a moment, Wrythwynw entertained the troubled thought that maybe Henenwgwyr had been right about the Gao after all. There was simply no way the Hunters would stand in the face of this for long, and once they were gone… what then?
She shrugged the thought off. The Gao were notoriously loyal. Win their friendship, and it was yours for life. However terrible the carnage they could wreak—and revel in—might be, these Gao were no threat to Wrythwynw and her people.
“What drives you to fight so fiercely?” she asked.
She had to turn on the translation cues to get a sense of what the array of little facial emotes that flashed across his face meant. There was a healthy dose of honest confusion in there, among others. As though the answer was as obvious as the scarred nose on the end of his snout. “…Same reason you do, prol’ly,” he replied. “I got folks ‘ta protect. S’why I’m a bouncer, too.”
Their conversation was suspended while the transfer of survivors and extraction of intelligence concluded. Finally, the Blazing Rage put an end to the whole interlude by pulverizing the Broodship and consigning it and the remains of its Hunters to the endless vacuum.
Wrythwynw and Orno traded one last set of pleasantries before they parted ways. The Gaoians remained in their home territory and had used jump drives to the Marches Fleet’s aid. Once the two ships and their voidripper escort were gone, Wrythwynw retired to her ready room to consider the future. What would life look like for the Kwmbwrw if the Hunters became nothing more than a scary story from the history books?
…Bright. Hopeful. Clean.
She composed a message to her superiors to report how successful the operation had been. And above all she fervently hoped that this new streak of actually listening would last.
They were long overdue a change.
Date Point: 16y7m3w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
The Cruezzir thing was turning out to have a silver lining. In fact… Xiù had to admit, right at the moment, she was grateful for it.
First, the surgical wound from her C-section was gone. It had sealed itself overnight, and by the end of the second day it had healed leaving hardly any scar to speak of.
She felt a little mixed about that. Her scars were her story; to lose the one that marked the birth of her son was… it felt uncomfortably like erasing a chapter. Except, of course, that there was no erasing Harrison himself.
Nor would she ever want to.
Harrison Li Chang Etsicitty. It rolled off the tongue. Anna Belle Buehler Etsicitty was a nice name too, but… oh, she was allowed to have a favorite.
Even if he was nowhere near as, uh, cooperative a baby as his half-sister. But to be fair, Anna did have a two-month head start and they’d figured out what made her tick.
The second silver lining was that with two infants to look after, and with Xiù recovering from surgery, things should have been tough. Instead, the surgical recovery had happened almost overnight, Xiù was finding she got plenty of rest from cat-naps, and she had two fit, healthy and loving partners to help her. All three of them were strong, full of energy, eager…
So, give another tick to the Cruezzir.
There was an ethical problem with regard to feeding. So Xiù’s body was now flooded with an alien regenerative medicine. That meant probably her milk was, too. Which would have precluded breastfeeding, except Harrison’s tiny frame was even more pickled in Cruezzir than his parents’, and Anna had got a healthy dose from Allison as well before Nofl’s diagnosis.
So. They were raising two babies with chronic Cruezzir Gut. That being the case, the best guess Nofl, the paediatricians or anybody else could go with was that breastfeeding probably wouldn’t do them any harm, while switching to formula might deprive them with unknowable consequences.
So, that just left worrying about what it would do to the pair. So far, they seemed normal. Big, strong, healthy and energetic to be sure, but not abnormally so. But long term? Throughout their lives? If they couldn’t one day have it cured for whatever reason, then that raised questions about their own ability to raise a family and lead a normal life.
It was… a bit early maybe to start worrying about grandchildren. But Al and Xiù had got their cases of Cruezzir Gut off Julian pretty easily, and if Harrison was stuck with the condition for life, then…
…Well. There was no sense in worrying about what couldn’t be dealt with. Worry about it when it could be.
For now, Xiù got to appreciate the look in her father’s eyes as he rocked his grandson gently and cooed happily to him in Mandarin… And chatted to Julian in Mandarin, too.
It wasn’t even completely terrible Mandarin, either. Julian learned pretty fast. Apparently he’d been doing audiobooks and Pimsleur tracks on his lighter Slab days. Whatever worked! Xiù doubted he’d ever get the tones exactly right, but that was okay, and it made her parents happy.
They’d even started bragging up their “big strong handsome son-in-law” to their varied and numerous social circles. In those groups, there was no higher form of acceptance. And in the kitchen, Allison was getting an actual conversation from Meili Chang as they made lunch, rather than tuition. Which didn’t sound like a breakthrough, but it really was.
All in all, life was good. So for now, the Cruezzir was not a problem. Xiù was just enjoying being made a fuss of and basking in being a mother now.
Besides, watching her mom try to wrap her head around the Singer was interesting. Watching the Singer try to wrap her head around her mom, doubly so. They were… Different.
Take one elderly first-generation Chinese-Canadian woman with strongly traditional values, and put her in the same room as her daughter’s girlfriend and an inquisitive, friendly iron-age alien gorilla whose idea of modesty didn’t extend further than a clean loincloth. It was maybe a little unfair to enjoy how out of her depth she was… but Xiù wasn’t above enjoying it, even though she loved her parents dearly.
And the Singer was having a blast, learning about human cooking. Ten’Gewek really just cooked over an open fire or on hot rocks. The height of their haute cuisine was a stew cooked in an earthenware pot.
Steamed buns were fascinating. And nobody anywhere on any world could make them like Xiù’s mom.
It was food that gave the two something to connect over. Meili loved to cook, and the Singer, being Ten’Gewek, loved to eat. In the face of that happy convergence, mutual affection became practically inevitable. Xiù knew acceptance had been achieved when her mom decided it was time to comb out the Singer’s blaze-orange-red crest. The Singer wasn’t complaining.
Of course it was too good to last. Julian’s phone pinged shortly after midday, and his shoulders sagged heavily when he thumbed it into life.
“Dammit. I’ve been summoned to the ambassador,” he grumbled.
“Oh, what? Come on!” Allison objected. “I thought you had parental leave?”
“Subject to the demands of the office,” Julian sighed. He shrugged helplessly, sprang to his feet and vanished upstairs to change into his business clothes.
“That’s just not fair…” Al lamented.
“He’s a Federal officeholder, confirmed by the Senate and everything, remember? He doesn’t get to say no,” Xiù reminded her, though her heart wasn’t in it. She felt the same way.
“I know, I know…” Allison stood too, and slipped through into the kitchen where Xiù heard her explain where he was going and asking if some lunch could be set aside in the stasis fridge.
Xiù stood too, and waited at the bottom of the stairs. Julian didn’t need long to change and to briefly place his hair and a comb near one another: She made sure they got properly acquainted, and straightened his tie.
“Bǎobèi…” she fussed at him as she cleaned him up. “You’re such a handsome man, and you’re so much better-looking when you actually bother to clean up. You could, you know… make an effort?”
“Yeah, but then I wouldn’t get this little farewell.”
Despite herself, Xiù smiled. “…Okay. That’s devious. I approve.”
He chuckled, kissed her, kissed Allison, shook Papa’s hand, got a hug from Mama, and headed for the door. “I’ll pick the boys up from school on the way home, if I can,” he promised, then stopped dead in the doorway as he opened it.
“…Uh… I think this one might be for you, Baobei.”
Date Point: 16y7m3w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Ambassador Chris Rockefeller
Rockefeller had a game he liked to play with himself when thinking about the people he encountered. He tried to summarize their personalities as a simple object.
Some people were slippery and twisty, like an oiled rope. Others were as solid and straightforward as a concrete block, as transparent and brittle as glass, or as forceful as a wrecking ball. It was all a gross oversimplification, but it worked as a handy mnemonic for approaching his job.
In that sense, he thought of Julian Etsicitty as a rubber ball. A well-used racquetball maybe: still tough and resilient, despite some scuffs and marks on the surface, and capable of bouncing back no matter how hard he got clobbered.
The analogy’s shortcoming was that racquetballs were mass-produced: any one was just like any other. There wasn’t really a type of racquetball that stood head and shoulders above its peers like Julian did.
And that was a problem, because Julian was not a prideful man. He didn’t have the swaggering ego to really be comfortable with his singular status, let alone the recent rude introduction to just how unique he truly was. So far, he seemed to be handling it all okay… But for the first time since they’d first met, Rockefeller was beginning to wonder if there might not be a fragile core somewhere deep inside that ball.
“It’s just…fuck man, how does a guy even process something like that?”
“I couldn’t say,” Rockefeller replied honestly. “Personally, my work has always been my foundation. But for you, your foundation is your being, I’d daresay. Body and soul.”
“Yeah, and now I find out that it’s not all even really mine.”
Rockefeller stopped that train of thought dead in its tracks. “Julian? Bullshit. I don’t care about any of the rest. I have never seen anyone work harder for their goals than you or your own. That matters more than any leg up you might have got. Even if it’s a hell of an advantage.”
“Julian. I don’t care what hand a man is dealt. I care how he plays his hand.”
He let that thought do its work for a second, and sat back in his chair to cross one leg comfortably over the other. He wasn’t at his desk, this wasn’t the time for desks. Instead they were using the couch and armchair in his office to talk.
“A bad hand played well will get you much further than a good hand played badly. You were dealt about the best hand that a man can get, but you are playing it like the precious gift that it is. That’s important. And it’s all you. Most men given half the advantage you were given squander it before they’re even properly men. They never grow out of being the high school quarterback, and end up dying at fifty from lung cancer and chronic injuries. You’re playing the game better than them all, and it isn’t because you were born with the winning hand. There’s no such thing.”
Julian thought on that, and eventually nodded. There was a very grateful look in those almost beetle-black eyes of his. “I…thank you. I’m… learning that I’m lucky in the people in my life, too.”
“Karma. We’re lucky to know you as well. Anyway. I know this, ah, ‘revelation’ we’ll say, it won’t be done with you for a while. I know all of that will take a while to process…but I really need the Superman version of you right now, the one who can earn the respect of superhuman cavemonkeys and teach them the fundaments of civilization. I don’t much need the uncertain Clark Kent who is questioning his own shadow. Can you do something for me?”
“I don’t mean any disrespect, but with Xiù just had a C-section and everything, I…”
“Julian, I wouldn’t pull you away from that unless something of literally galactic importance demanded it,” Rockefeller assured him. “…Which it does. The talks with the Kwmbwrw finally got past the impasse. The war council is going ahead.”
“Yeah. We might actually be in the final quarter of the game now.”
Some of Julian’s usual humor crept back in. “Rugby? Can we use a rugby analogy this time?”
“No! Football, like God intended it!” Rockefeller snorted. “Honestly, I think living in an ostensibly British colony is rubbing off on you.”
“You ever play rugby? It’s a rough sport…but anyway. War council.”
“Yes. A major strategic planning session involving heads of state from all over the Dominion and related species, factions… The guest list is a little complicated, but Yan Given-Man and his niece are invited. As are yourself and Professor Hurt.”
“…Yan. As in, Yan Given-Man, Chief of the Lodge.”
“I told you, the talks with the Kwmbwrw made real progress. They’re even prepared to accept the Ten’Gewek’s status as sapient life.”
“What the hell changed?”
“One of their respected Fleet Matriarchs stood up and told the Grandmatriarchs to pull their heads out of their… well. The point is, Henenwegir, or… oh, Hell, I can never pronounce her name. She finally had a vote go against her. I think a lot of the other Houses were starting to get fed up with her intransigence.” Rockefeller smiled slightly. “So, now the Protectorate status of the Ten’Gewek looks set to go ahead and be formally recognized by the Dominion Security Council. Which means they get a seat at the war council.”
“That’s good…though, who exactly is protecting the Protectorate? Did that ever get resolved?”
“The Clans of the Gao have taken primary responsibility. We’re doing the operational work. It’s complicated, but it was felt that the Great Father was in the best position to protect them from the vagaries of representative governments. He…really likes them, and he’s probably going to be the Great Father for a very, very long time, so… Anyway. You, my friend, may one day find yourself in the Great Father’s employ instead of mine. But that’s for later. For now, the point is they’re safe.”
“And they’re attending. As a Protectorate. Ambassador, that means…”
“Daar and Yan talked, and Yan insisted they not be left aside like children. So the SOR are trialling their first Ten’Gewek JETS candidates.”
“…Oh God. That’s why Ferd’s been so excited, isn’t it? When did this all happen?!”
“The last couple of weeks. You’ve been otherwise preoccupied.”
“…Thanks. I guess that woulda been a lot to drop on me on top of everything else. So… when is this happening?”
“Soon. I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to jump over to Akyawentuo on the morning cycle. And of course, that means you’ll be there for as long as you’re there. If Yan’s away at the Lodge…”
Julian bore the bad news with good grace, at least. “Well…Okay. It has to be done. I get it.”
“I appreciate it.” Rockefeller glanced up at the wall clock. “And I won’t keep you. I’m sure you want to spend as much time as possible with your family.”
“Thanks.” Julian stood up. “I’ll keep in touch.”
Rockefeller nodded, and with that the big man was gone: understandably eager to get back to his newborn son, his two-month old daughter, his partners, his foster sons and his own worries.
Still. He’d probably be grateful for having something to do, in time. Rockefeller was a big believer in the healing power of honest work. In Julian’s case? Well. Honest work didn’t come much more honest than living with the Ten’Gewek. And he was only a text message and a quick jump away, making the lightyears feel like a quick jaunt down to the corner drug store.
Yes. Get him back in the mud and the sweat of his work, let his partners recover. Let them find their routine again. That, more than anything, was what the big woodsman really needed.
He was a racquetball: he needed a wall to bounce back against.
Date Point: 16y7m3w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Maybe it was hormones. Maybe it was the Cruezzir… Maybe it was learning that one of her oldest friends was dying. Either way, try as she might, Xiù couldn’t quite pull herself together.
Her parents had taken Allison and the babies to the park to give her some time alone with Yulna, but really she would have preferred to have Allison there at her side. Or Julian. Or preferably both. Dealing with this without either of them was…
“Shoo, it’s okay.” Yulna cooed gently. They were cuddled up affectionately, Gaoian-style, two Females—two Sisters—sharing each other’s company. But Yulna was not in a good way at all.
Apparently her tumors had been held back for years by Gaoian medical science, suppressed to the point where nobody had even been able to smell them until fairly recently. Now though, the dam had burst. They were spreading and growing at an accelerating pace, and she had weeks at most.
Already, one eye was silvery and blind, and her left ear was lumpy and misshapen. She had dressings on the side of her neck, her elbow, and covering her right paw, and even to Xiù’s comparatively numb human nose she smelled… wrong. Sick.
“It’s not okay! How can you say it’s okay? It’s…” Xiù didn’t even know how to finish the sentence. Yulna just keened softly and stroked her hair.
“I’m sorry to hurt you like this. Now of all times…” she sighed. “You should be celebrating. You’re Mother Shoo, now. And what a baby! I’m glad cubs aren’t that big!”
Despite herself, Xiù smiled. “He’s…demanding. Always hungry.”
“That’s a newborn for you,” Yulna chittered, then coughed and her ears tweaked sideways painfully for a second. The concerned noise that dragged itself out of Xiù’s chest was almost a keen in its own right. Certainly the human equivalent. Yulna waved it off.
“…You know… it’s funny,” she said, and cleared her throat to get some of the gravel out. “The last twenty years have been a gift. I was convinced I’d die in that damn lab. You’d think I’d be able to accept this with wisdom and grace and look at the time I’ve had as a blessing… But all I can think is, I wish I had another twenty… or at least that it didn’t hurt so much.”
Raw grief laid its weight on every inch of Xiù’s body. She hugged as tight as she dared.
“…I wish I could do something…” she complained bitterly.
“You did, my dear Sister. You really did,” Yulna stroked her back reassuringly. “You gave me a lifetime. I know what I just said, but… but what I had was all thanks to you. And I am grateful for it.”
Xiù sat up and wiped her tears. Finally, at least, she felt like she’d shed them all for now. There’d be more, but…
“You deserve more,” she said.
“You know better than most that life doesn’t give us what we deserve,” Yulna replied. “You just have to cherish what it does give you.”
“Yeah.” Xiù sighed heavily, then reached over for a tissue from the box behind the couch, sniffled into it, and tucked it away before rubbing on some hand sanitizer. The last thing she wanted to do right now was add to Yulna’s health woes with some random Earthling microbe.
And for all she knew, the whole Cruezzir thing could just make the Mother-Supreme’s tumors worse, not better.
“So…this feels wrong even asking, but…”
“Who comes after me?”
“No. Well… I mean, I can kinda guess.” Xiù shook her head “…I was gonna ask… How many of us are left? From that lab, I mean.”
“…Just you and Myun, soon.” Yulna keened softly. “The war took so many of them.”
That same feeling of weight dropped on Xiù again. She sagged heavily into the couch and curled up a little. They’d been a dozen, once. She hadn’t learned half her cellmates’ names before they scattered to the winds back on Gao, but she’d always thought she’d get to meet them again.
She set the thought aside. “So you’re passing the reins to Naydra?”
“Let’s just say I doubt the election will be close-fought.” Yulna chittered again, without the cough this time. At least her sense of humor was intact. “She’s ready. She doesn’t think she is, but she is. More so than I ever was, at least.”
“Is it something you can be ready for?”
“She’s been doing it for years anyway, really. The titles will feel heavier than they really are.”
Yulna duck-nodded. “Mother-Supreme, Mother-Consort, and in all likelihood, Great Mother… I imagine you can understand the weight of that word a little more, now.”
“…Yeah.” Xiù admitted. “Sort of. Harrison needed a C-section.”
“Surgical delivery? You’re no less of a mother for that, Shoo. You bore and made a life, and he’s yours to nurture. You’re carrying the future now. Gyotin calls it ’sacred‘ and… well, he’s right.”
“…She’ll need a friend, you know. It’s… lonely. And I think you and she have a lot in common.” Yulna sighed, rested her forehead against Xiù’s, and then disentangled herself from their hug and rose to her feet with a pained noise. “I’ll be announcing my retirement tomorrow morning. I’d rather shed some burdens than try to bear them to the end. And then I’m going home.”
“Wi Kao. The gift of knowing the manner of your death is that you may choose the details. I intend to die where I was born, where I became a Sister, a Mother… Where I learned to cook…”
Her ear flicked mischievously, because there was nothing that could ever quite dampen the mischief in the Gaoian soul. Especially not where food was involved. Xiù giggled, stood up too, and angled her head toward the kitchen. “…Well, now you mention it… I do have dinner to prepare…”
“I imagine you must cook a lot, with so many mouths to feed! Especially that big strapping male you’ve snagged!”
“Yeah, but you wouldn’t believe how much Allison puts away. I don’t know how she does it!” Xiù replied. Quite naturally and comfortably they fell into a routine they’d done many times before, in another kitchen, at another time. Together they managed to cook up a storm. Yulna had perfected the Gaoian version of pàomó—Xiù thought of it with a mental giggle as ‘Gàomó’—some years ago, and Xiù made a damn decent pork peshorky. A porkshorky.
Little word games like that had been the source of a lot of amusement as she struggled to learn Gaori during her abduction and stay on Gao. Bouncing the puns back and forth between them, just for a while, they managed to capture a slice of Old Times that Yulna clearly and desperately needed.
It got even better when Julian, Tristan and Ramsey showed up. Xiù was learning that there was nothing quite as weirdly fulfilling as happy boys who couldn’t talk because they were too busy eating.
For Yulna, clearly, it was a pleasure she’d needed to revisit, even just the once. She revelled in it, and settled happily into an evening of just being… well… a mother.
And at long last, Xiù understood why that was so precious.
Date Point: 16y7m3w1d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
The stories Yan, The Singer, and Vemik Sky-Thinker had shared really hadn’t been big enough. At the time, Ferd had thought they were telling the tale bigger. But now he saw they’d actually left out a lot. Maybe they thought nobody would believe them.
Ferd wouldn’t have.
The ‘jump array’ had been, almost disappointingly, exactly like he’d imagined. In some tiny snap of time, they were gone from their home-world, and in someplace…
Bright, too bright. Tasted too clean. And the ‘gravity’ was weaker.
The first trial in their mission was meeting a small, furry creature with lively ears. He looked a bit like Daar…different fur, though. This was some soft and shiny black-and-white coat he had instead of Daar’s heavy shaggy pelt. Definitely a he, too; the air around him had the right sharp taste, but it was only barely there. Not like Daar, who tasted at least as strong as Yan.
The small man was wearing clothes like a human’s, too. One of those funny “shirt” things, and a wide blue strap tied around his neck. And a shiny steel thing on his chest with writing on it.
Ferd wasn’t so good at sky-people writing yet, but he was learning fast and he at least recognized those as Engwish signs. They said…well, ‘officer’ was there and he knew that was an important word. He wasn’t sure what “cus-toms and im-mig-ration” were though.
The Singer had come with them. She went on ahead, showed the little furry Gao one of those paper things. He read it, banged a thing down on it, and waved her through with friendly words like they’d done this before. The Singer had come to this other-world a few times, Ferd knew.
He dug in his bag for the papers Wild had given him. They were busy with pictures and words, and Ferd and his party had inked their thumbs and left a mark on the paper for some reason.
“Hello, welcome to Folctha. Documents, please.”
“Thank you!” The Gao took them, sniffed the four men in front of him, then read the papers. “This is your first visit?”
“Reason for your visit?” The small Gaoian busied himself doing…something…with the folded paper-thing, and peppered them with questions.
Ferd wasn’t sure exactly what was going on, but he thought an honest answer was best. “We are here to fetch things for ‘Sarge-ent’ Wild.”
“Ah, business, then. Is Folctha your final destination?” More flicking through documents, and pressing strange buttons on the ‘plas-tic’ board in front of him.
The Gao tilted his ears. “…Will you be going somewhere else? Or just here, then home?”
“Just here, then home.”
“And how long will you be here?”
“Plan is, we go back next time ar-ray thing, um… jumps.”
“Late afternoon tomorrow, then.” The Gaoian tilted his head briefly. “Here, that means you should be back when the sun is halfway between noon and sunset.”
“Thank you,” Ferd said politely. He could read his watch just fine, but the Gaoian was trying to be Helpful, so…
“No problem.” the officer handed the papers back. They had new marks on them. “Enjoy your stay! Next please…”
Ferd squeezed between the clear-walled barriers and found himself waiting on the other side for his men to do…whatever it was they were doing.
It was then that he noticed something. There were sky-people above them, not making much sound…and he could only just see them now that he was on the other side of the clear wall.
It was actually a very well-planned trap, Ferd could see. One or two of the men had beasts beside them, fast-looking things with big teeth. They looked at him with passing interest… then looked away, watching everybody and everything.
Ferd relaxed. Not a trap for him, then. A trap for anyone who made trouble. This was the edge of a sky-tribe’s land, and they were protecting it. Smart. Strong.
They eventually followed the big colored signs towards the way out. There were a lot of very strange sky-people. Most were Humans, tall and short, big and small, fair and dark. Some had steel in their face, or marks in their skin, or hair in strange colors. Some were pathetically weak, some respectably strong, if still too small. Most were…
A tall blue thing that Ferd first thought was a beast stopped and talked with one of the humans. It had a magic speaking-stone around its neck, Ferd could see. A ways down the smooth stone path he saw a sky-person like a very big fat human with four arms and no ears waving and calling to the crowd, trying to get their attention. Most ignored him, but one stopped and spoke with him, then hopped up in a nearby chair. The big four-armed one took up brushes and rags and started to clean the human’s shoes.
It was too much to take in. Ferd was used to forests, and listening to the tiny details. He was used to licking the air for the subtle taste of Werne, watching the shadows for the small things out of place. Here, everything was loud, and big, and everywhere!
No wonder Wild had sent them here.
“What do we do, Ferd?” That was Oki, from Meb Given-Man’s tribe. He was always one to focus on the task at hand.
Ferd considered. A part of him wanted suddenly to explore everything despite his nerves, but the other part thought it would be bad if he failed this mission; how would he ever fuck beautiful maidens again if he couldn’t do something little like this? How could he earn a tribe?!
Well. First things first. They needed a safe place to come back to as they…well, not raided exactly. Explored. Yes. Much better sounding.
“…We should find this ‘hotel’ thing.”
The problem was, he had no idea where he was, or where anything else was. He had a map, but…
No matter which way up he turned it, it didn’t make a lot of sense. Everything was straight lines. There was only one thing for a man to do when he was lost like that: get up high, and find the sun.
Fortunately, everything looked pretty easy to climb. Maybe that big steel pole? No. It looked small and bendy.
A nearby… hut? A big stone hut. It got his attention by having plenty of handholds and interesting bits a man could grab. There were square baked red stones on the outside: “bricks,” he vaguely remembered. They were nicely rough and grippy, but his fingers were much too big to fit between the little gaps where the hard white mud had joined them.
No matter, he had a strong grip and could break through if he had to…but if he used all four hands carefully, he could probably avoid doing that. Mostly.
Well, that and the gravity was lighter here. Maybe if he jumped—
He nearly missed and fell. The gravity was much lighter, and he went a tail-length higher than he’d aimed for. Down below, humans scattered and shouted as he hit the wall with an “oof!” and just about managed to grab onto a wide stone slab under some glass.
Once he’d stuck himself to the side of the hut, he couldn’t help but grin and trill stupidly. That was fun! And now that he was off the ground, the rest of the way up was easy!
Pretty soon he was at the top, standing on a pointy roof made of thin grey stones. There was another metal pole, this one with a colorful hide in blue, white and red flapping in the breeze at the top, and he wrapped his tail around it for balance.
Cloth, actually. He remembered that word. It was pretty though! He wondered if he might have enough ‘mun-ee’ after all this to trade for one himself!
…No, he couldn’t do that. It wasn’t his money to Give.
Nomuk shouted at him from below. “Can you see where we are?”
Ferd found the sun easily enough. It was… different. Bigger in the sky, and a different color.
“We really are on a different world…” he muttered, looking around and comparing what he saw to the map.
There was a green area the shape of a werne haunch over there… and the river was that way… and the sun was over there… which meant…
Good. He knew where the top of the world was now. And so if they went that way between the huts, then turned left and went to that spiky hut over there with the green space around it…
He had a plan. Satisfied, he rolled the map back up and put it in his pouch just as a Human appeared out of a door in the front of the hut he’d climbed, and looked up at him seeming more amused than mad. [“You know, if you wanted to go up to the roof you could have just asked!”]
Ferd grinned sheepishly, and decided to do something a little daring and jumped down. Several nearby people were watching now, and many of them took a step back when he slammed into the ground and bounced on his toes. That was fun, he could jump from such a height here!
[“That not so fun though!”] he explained.
The Human man played like he wasn’t too impressed, and crossed his thin arms across his chest. [“Uh-huh. And who is going to pay for it if you damaged anything up there?”]
…Yes. Right. They were supposed to be careful here.
[“…Sorry. I was looking for ‘hotel.’”]
[“Ah! Spending the night? …Well, there are a few good ones, but for you chaps I think the youth hostel out by Scrapyard Lake might be better. “]
Tumik spoke up. [“…Hoss-tell?”]
[“Yes. Same idea, you pay them for a place to sleep, but… well, they’re less expensive and the furniture’s more sturdy for a start. And if you don’t mind my saying so, I assume you’re quite young…and the other guests will be about your age.”]
Ferd looked to his men, who all seemed to like that idea better. [“Yes, good idea! We save mun-ee, meet more sky-people!”]
[“Yes yes, well…next time, don’t go climbing people’s buildings without permission! Uh, please.”]
…Ferd was scaring the man. Well, that would normally feel good but right now…not so much.
[“You’re right. Was bad guest of me,”] Ferd apologized. [“Where is this hoss-tell?”]
The man gave them directions and they said their goodbyes, then set off along the strange stone and straight paths the sky-people built everywhere. They learned a few things very quickly. Firstly, the very big path in the middle was not for people. It was instead for sky-magical steel…not beasts exactly, but more like the ‘Weaver.’ Machines. Machines that did what the stories said the city-People once did with small, tame werne. ‘Cars,’ Ferd thought. And something that was like a very big car but they used a different word he couldn’t remember.
Walking on the raised path to the side was easier. Everyone got out of their way, and Ferd wasn’t quite sure if it was because they were very wide-shouldered compared to the other sky-people, or…well, if they were being scary again. Again, for some reason he didn’t enjoy the idea as much as he normally might have. Not with these strange sky-people.
Some weren’t afraid. A tiny creature who must have been a Gaoian child ran right up to them on all fours and started to rain questions with no sign of fear. [“Are you Ten’Gewek?! Did you come through the jump array?! Have you met the Great Father?! I heard he spends a lot of time on your planet, do you know him?! You look really strong, can you pick up a car?!”]
There was no gap between questions for Ferd to answer any of them. Standing nearby, both protective and fearful, was what must have been the child’s mother. Like most sky-people she was very small, but…
There were claws on her paws. Hands. And she had a hunter’s teeth. And her ears were back.
Only a fool came between a mother and her children.
There was only one thing to do. Ferd squat down and sat on his tail, and his men did the same.
[“Let’s see… Yes, yes, yes, yes, and… I never try but not good idea to now, I think. Look expensive.”]
[“Oh, yeah, cars are super expensive, mama Myun said they cost way more than her sword and she has the most biggest sword she’s so cool you should see it—”]
“Feeko!” the Gaoian woman yipped, and Ferd had to try hard not to trill his amusement. Irritated mothers sounded the same no matter what sky-tribe they came from.
[“Go, little one. No man last long against angry mother!”]
Reluctantly, little Feeko peeled away and was ushered away by the Gao woman. Her ears were up when she glanced back at them, though. Ferd didn’t know what that meant, but she seemed less… dangerous, now.
The magic of villages worked in mysterious ways. Somehow after meeting the little Gaoian girl, the rest of their hike toward the ‘hoss-tel’ was much less knife-edge.
The chief of the hoss-tel was an unbelievably tall blue sky-person, whose words sounded too much like very many rocks falling down a mountain. Something about him tickled Ferd’s instincts completely the wrong way; the blue person seemed much too much like prey to be happy about. But, prey didn’t have words, and words were the first strength that seperated people from prey, so…
“The five of you, then? How many nights?”
“One night,” Ferd explained. “And we go get things. Buy things. Bring them back here, then take them with us when we go.”
“I don’t need to know all that, but very well. Identification, please?”
“We have… these?” Ferd handed over the same papers he’d given to the Gao at the array.
“Those will work. That will be fifty-six pounds, please.”
“Uh…” Ferd twitched his tail as he looked at the funny colorful little slips of mun-ee. He could read numbers just fine, so he needed a ten, and two of twenty… no, two of the ten. The blue man could Give the extra back, he remembered.
It seemed to work. He got little round bits of metal back with very tiny art made all over every part of it, even the edge. Not even Vemik could do such a thing, Ferd bet.
The blue man did some…uh, something behind the table. Ferd wasn’t sure what. When he was done he handed them each a small toothy bit of metal.
“Your room keys. All of you are in room fifteen, which is down the hall and to the left. Breakfast is served at sunrise until noon. There is a shower at the other end of the hall, towels are in the closet right next to it. Please be considerate of the other guests. Thank you.”
Easy enough, Ferd thought. He checked his watch and saw they still had plenty of time until sunset. Time to go out and get some of the things on the list of supplies they’d been sent for.
“Uh…” Ferd rummaged through his bag. “Wild gave me some fones. Like we used before. It’s just a better kind of talking-stone.” He handed one to each of his men. “He said the magic should work for two days before it needs to rest, as long as we don’t use them too much.”
Genn asked, “What do we do first?”
Ferd dug through his bag again looked at the list. It wasn’t too long…
“I think… Okay. Tumik, you and Oki go find ‘War-horse,’ give him the thing from Wild. He’s supposed to have things for us to take back, too. Nomuk, Genn, you two go find ‘bat-er-ees’ and chock-lat, and all the camping things. Wild says we can get it all from one person. I will go get the ‘ammo cart’ to bring back to Heff. Did we forget anything?”
His men thought for a moment and shook their heads.
“Okay. We meet back here when we’re done, use fone to call each other if we need to.”
The all nodded, and part ways.
Wild had devised a devious test. For one, simply finding everything was a surprisingly tricky puzzle. Folctha was too big to just walk up every path and peer into every hut. They had to ask people where to go and read their maps very carefully, until a very nice truly ancient Human had showed Tumik how to use his fone to find things. It had taken him three excited attempts to explain it with the far-voice button on his fone, but that discovery was strong magic! A man could ask it a direct question, and the machine, uh…spirit? Was that right? It felt right. The fone’s machine-spirit could answer! It could then draw a map on its flat surface that moved with the man holding it!
Well, usually. Apparently the machine-spirit in fones was very picky about how you asked questions of it, which seemed a fair trade to Ferd. He wouldn’t want his time wasted either. But with the machine’s help, getting up to the ’base’ got much easier. It was a long hike but that was okay, Ferd liked exploring, especially when they hit the edge of the ‘gravity field’ and now it was so weak, it felt like they might fly away into the sky if they weren’t careful! It grew pleasingly strong again when they got close to the base…Ferd liked that. Weak gravity was strange.
Explaining who he was to the human guards took a little longer.
The guards were the type of small-strong that Ferd had gained a deep respect for in his learnings with Wild. For one, they were probably quick like him, and they had knives. Wild had shown them he was plenty quick enough to sink a knife into a man’s throat before they knew they were in a fight, and Heff had shown that he was strong enough to actually throw Ferd across the ground somehow. His own men couldn’t do that! There was clever wrestle-play there, he knew. And until he learned it all, it didn’t much matter that he could crush them to paste without trying, not when they knew how to wrestle men much bigger than themselves, or use their own talking-stones to bring much misery down upon anyone’s head. And they had guns. And, Ferd had learned, much, much worse than that hidden away.
He had a long not-arguing sort of encounter with the guards until one of them suggested they just ‘call up’ the people they were there to meet.
Ferd almost punched himself in the head, it was so obvious. They had these magic fones for talking to people far away, so why not use them before going somewhere? That way the person you were going to see could be ready for you!
[“Who are you here to see anyway?”] one of the guards asked.
[“Master sergeant Coombes? Alright. I’ll call him.”]
The guard vanished into the small hut, leaving Ferd to wait under his friend’s watching eye. To his surprise, before the human returned, Ferd heard his own name being called, and he turned around to see Tumik and Oki coming up the path towards the gate.
“You are supposed to be looking for War-horse!” he said.
“We found him! He lives in a tall brick hut down the path maybe a half-finger away at a trot, but he does his work up here every day.”
Another thing that could have been known if they’d used the fones. Ferd really felt like he was learning. He wasn’t quite sure what he was learning, but maybe that was the point. He was definitely learning that he didn’t know very much at all outside the tribes.
He got the tribe-guard’s attention. [“Also, we need to see ‘War-horse.’”] For some reason that made the guard smile, but he promised they’d send for him too.
Coombes came down the long path not long after and waved them through, all happiness and jolly good humor. He greeted them in the People’s words, “Hello! Are you the cavemonkeys I was told to expect?”
Ferd trilled and tasted at the air. Yes, he knew exactly why Coombes was in a good mood. “Yes! I am supposed to pull the ‘ammo cart’ down to the array. And you taste like you just fucked someone nice not too long ago!”
Ferd took way too much joy in making Humans squirm about that sort of thing. He had no idea why they were so…shy? Embarrassed? Something. Anyway, they were mostly very private about their bodies. Why?! They were a beautiful people! And he’d met Jooyun, seen him with his women. Seen Claire and Heff!! He knew Humans loved fucking as much as the People, but why were they so shy about it?! Always, they waited until they thought nobody was looking. That was strange. Oh sure, it was nice to fuck a pretty woman in one’s own hut where nobody could bother them, but sometimes it was fun to sit around the village fire with friends too, sharing the Give and Take of life’s pleasures, the magic of man and woman, of renewing the tribe, of making friends with other tribes and bringing them all together. Humans though…
Coombes was wise to their ways. “Yup,” he agreed with a smug look. “Just so you know though, a lotta folks wouldn’t take too kindly to talk like that.”
“…Oh. I’m sorry.”
Ferd just accepted they were a strange people in some ways he’d never understand.
Some things he could understand, though. Visit another tribe, live by their ways. Human ways might be strange, but he was on their lands, so for now they were his ways too.
They were met at the largest building in the camp by the biggest Human man he’d ever even imagined, whose long bouncy stride was heavy enough to make the ground thump underfoot like a charging bull Werne. Human he might be, but this Human made Jooyun seem like a puny underfed boy. No. Stronger than that. He looked like he could snap Yan in half!
Ferd felt himself instinctively crouching back a bit just from the man’s obvious strength. He must have been this ‘War-horse’ Yan was always talking about.
He seemed friendly. [“Hey, monkey-bros! I’m s’posed to give y’all a once-over in the gym! Did Wilde give you a sheet?”]
Ferd nodded, and pulled out the paper. [“Wild say much about you. Said, best man anywhere at strength-games. Teach us, yes?”]
War-horse laughed in that strange way Humans did when they weren’t feeling strictly jolly. [“Eh, best teacher anyway. Daar’s kicking my ass bad right now.”] He grumbled to himself for a bit but then immediately cheered. [“But where are the rest? Weren’t there s’posed to be five?”]
Ferd looked back toward the gate. [“Nomuk, Genn, they go to camping people to buy big long list of things. Cold weather, bags to carry…”]
[“Oh! Well, they’ll need all y’all to measure up for coats and stuff. Why don’t we go there now? We can get the rest of it later.”]
The rest of the morning was a confusing rush of activity. War-horse jogged over with them as they knuckled along at a nice trot. The Humans had trained them hard on covering long trails. Before, they would all be out of breath and in heart-pain but now they were just happily warmed up. Still had to breathe heavy, though. War-horse and Coombes didn’t look tired at all.
The Human at the place they went to was called an ‘outfitter’ and he piled them high with many, many things. Then there was a thin strap with numbers and lines on it—measuring length, Ferd guessed. He was right, it was called a ‘tape measure’ and the outfitter and War-horse talked much about…cloth-making? Something. Either way, the little Human measured Ferd and his men every which way, asked them to walk around, swing their arms, pull their muscles tight like they were working hard, all sorts of things. He asked them to step down on a smooth glass machine that was supposed to measure their feet too, but Ferd broke it when he stepped up, so instead they stepped on some strange crumbly bricks that took a perfect shape of their feet. Then they left, with a promise of clothing later that day.
They ran back to the base carrying bags stuffed to bursting with many things, to which Coombes added a heavy wheeled cart laden with boxes full of boolets and guns. They showed everything—Coombes said they had to see, to know what they were getting—then closed the boxes up and ‘locked’ them so that only somebody who knew the right number could open them again.
Smart magic, that. Though, Ferd or any of his men could easily have pulled the metal boxes apart anyway. He thought it best to keep that thought to himself for now.
They pushed the loaded cart back down to the jump array, talked to some more little Gao-People who sniffed at everything very carefully, along with some of those beasts he’d seen earlier. ’Dogs.’ Some of the dogs around town seemed friendly, but these were busy guarding the village. Good dogs.
Once everyone was happy, they put the cart into a strong box of some kind, one that the Gao could keep safe for them until they jumped back tomorrow, and ran back to the base. They were doing a lot of that today. But that was okay. What did not kill a man only made him stronger. Wisdom he would share with his Human friends, the next time it made sense.
There was much food and a nice greeting feast! Some of it was very strange but he liked it all. They met many people, all on the ‘heat’ team while Ferd and his men would be ‘jets.’ Those were something called ‘ack-ro-nims’ that he’d learned from Professor Daniel but he didn’t quite understand them yet. Seemed a strange way to invent a new name for something. The ‘heat’ had Gao-People too, but these were big Gao, hard and strong even though they all had black and white fur. Apparently fur color wasn’t like crest color, didn’t mean the same thing.
He learned a lot just listening to them. He wasn’t sure exactly what he was learning, but sometimes learnings were like that. When Taking a new tribe’s words, a man just had to wallow in it, listen to everything, and trust the gods would reward patience. Eventually the words Gave their magic, if a man Took every one he heard.
Finally… well, there was nothing left to do. But when Ferd checked the watch on his wrist, he found that not even half the day was gone. They’d done all that before the small finger on the watch had gone a quarter way round.
Another Human difference to the People. Life at home followed slower beats, there was more time between doing things, and the things took longer to do. If Ferd wanted to sharpen his knife, he needed to put aside lots of time. The women spent all day cooking, or preparing to cook. The men were either away on hunts for maybe days at a time, or were making and mending their tools.
To pack so many things into a morning and not even notice was… it felt like a strange kind of magic itself.
They had two big things left to do. First was War-horse’s cart. That one was built very sturdy and was much, much heavier than the boolet cart, because it was filled with things to play strength-games with, just like Yan’s tribe had. That was a good thing in Ferd’s view; if he could one day set them up in his own tribe like Yan did, then many young men would visit all the time, bringing news and making friends, just so they could play strength-games too. And it was no bad thing for friends to play!
But he and his men were very, very tired after pushing that to the jump array. And then running back. Again. He felt like he’d carried a good Werne home from a whole day away, one no orange-crest could Take.
War-horse seemed happy though. He lined the five of them up and gave them a broad smile.
[“You cavemonkeys are straight naturals at this stuff. That’s good! Any of you lift before?”]
Ferd knew what War-horse was saying. [“Yes. We play with ‘weights’ at Yan’s village sometimes, and do much other strength-play with Wild. But, we not use weights every day like Yan or Vemik. Too far away.”]
War-horse grinned then. It wasn’t exactly friendly…
[“Well! What I gave you is yours to keep, Ferd. So let’s go downstairs! I’ll show you what to do, write out a training program…”]
Ferd learned the true meaning of strength and weakness, then.
All his men knew they were weak and slow next to him. That was the way of things, how the gods had blessed the red-crests of the People, and he was grateful for his men’s loyalty in return; no Given-Man was a village by himself. But War-horse was at least as far above Ferd as Yan was. Probably, even more. His fists could blur through the air so fast that Ferd couldn’t see them, like a lightning bolt hitting a tree. Gods, he could move his whole body like that, as fast as Yan could! And he could use that unbelievable strength of his in a room where gravity itself could be made to feel so strong, even Ferd felt weak and useless. And in that gravity…
War-horse hardly seemed to notice. He teased Ferd while he somehow pushed that gods-heavy bar over his head again, and again, and again. [“Yan can handle this weight just fine, y’know…”] He grunted while he pushed the bar up many more times. [“Daar can lift a lot heavier these days, too…”] More grunting, [“Hnngh, more than I can!”] War-horse finally slammed the bar back into the rack and made a satisfied sort of panting noise. [“And y’know, Vemik isn’t all that far behind you, either…”]
War-horse somehow bounced lightly on his toes, suddenly all manic energy not unlike the Sky-Thinker himself. [“Okay! Your turn again, Ferd! Let’s see how far we can push you…”]
Pretty far, it turned out, but it wasn’t long before Ferd had to admit defeat. Complete defeat, and that was before War-horse showed Ferd how little he knew about wrestling, too. The huge Human knew exactly what he was doing and had Ferd tied into knots almost as soon as they started. Not that he could have done anything against War-horse even if he knew how: War-horse was heavier than Yan, harder than Yan, and definitely stronger, too. Yan had not lied, the Human Given-Man could have broken Ferd like dry Forestfather bark underfoot, and done so easily. That was humbling. Ferd had very much growing left to do if he was to be a proper man of the People and stand up against sky-people like War-horse and Daar. But now he knew how. Or at least knew who to get learnings from, since War-horse and Daar were both happy to share their strength-knowings, just like Yan. Ferd swore an oath to the gods that wouldn’t be weak next to them for very long.
But it was still fun! And even though he and his men were exhausted, sore, growing hungry like never before…somehow, the little hand on his watch wasn’t quite pointing down yet.
Ferd found himself feeling a bit foot-itchy. He wanted to explore Folctha.
Genn looked over from his spot on the big, soft ‘couch’ they were resting on, obviously feeling the same ideas. “What should we do now, Ferd?”
The answer to that was easy. Ferd and his men said their goodbyes, then set out on an adventure.
Date Point: 16y7m3w1d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
“The guy’s a ghost. Identity unknown, whereabouts unknown… about the only thing we have to work with is some unidentified DNA from Briggs’ safehouse in New York City, and even then that could belong to almost anyone. Interrogated APA personnel call him ‘The Handler’ but their accounts are contradictory. Even his description is useless.”
Gabe was sitting down with his replacement, going over the things he thought were especially important that the small library of documentation the man had already read might not have stressed enough. Whatever few dregs were left of the APA were at the top of that list for a few reasons.
The Handler, however? High-priority though he may be, Gabe doubted they’d ever catch him.
The incoming Director of Colonial Security was English, and previously well-positioned at GCHQ. A solid choice, and frankly more of a comfortable fit for the Folcthan government’s foibles. Gabe had always prided himself on bringing a little America to the table: Eric Knowles on the other hand was tipped for a knighthood in the forthcoming New Year Honours List.
“What’s your take on him?” he asked Gabe, reviewing the Handler’s dismayingly slim file.
“Hostile foreign intelligence, I suspect.”
“A double agent,” Knowles summarized.
“Exactly.” Gabe sighed. “Couldn’t say who, though I doubt it’s one of the usual suspects.”
“You’re probably right. I usually know more about what’s going on in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran than in Westminster or DC.”
Gabe chuckled. “Yeah, it’s even worse here. All the news arrives at the same time with the communications cycle. If there was ever another San Diego, you wouldn’t know about it for three hours.
Gabe shrugged. “Small exaggeration. In a real emergency, NORAD would jump over a Firebird with updates for us. But you definitely do need to prepare for this weird position we’re in of being the front line gateway to the rest of the galaxy, but the last to know what’s happening on Earth… which reminds me. You picked an excellent day to take over from me.”
“Because right now we have a team of nonhuman JETS candidates on a training operation in the city.”
“What’s so excellent about—?”
Knowles’ expression was masterfully restrained. He blinked, sat back in his chair, and sniffed.
“…Well, bugger me with a fork,” he said, gently. “Whose idea of a merry prank was that?”
“The SOR’s of course.”
“Will they be a problem, do you think?”
“Probably only an amusing one. They’re friendly and mean well, but they’re a species of testosterone-poisoned supermonkeys who are still on a crash course introduction to the iron age. Modern civilization is likely to, uh…”
“Confound them,” Knowles finished. “Bloody hell.”
Gabe gave him a smile that was equal parts sympathetic and gleefully mischievous. “Welcome to the job. This isn’t Britain, Eric, this is Folctha. The town’s foremost spiritual leader is a noodly six foot Buddhist raccoon, one of our most prominent citizens is a Roswell Grey who must never be allowed to learn about drag, the military presence are the very best of the very best across two different species, the most popular takeout in town once hit on the bright idea of putting broccoli in tacos, the dogs are the next best thing to sapient and a rambunctious space emperor-slash-bear spends many weekends here, trying and mostly failing to have a ‘normal’ day… Folctha is, uh, weird.”
Knowles chuckled. “I met Gyotin already. He reminds me of a vicar I once knew: Tall, slim, dapper, neat beard, soothing voice, calm aura…”
“Noodly…” Gabe grinned mischievously.
“Folctha’s strangeness was part of the appeal,” Knowles explained. “A unique challenge, which hopefully means uniquely rewarding.”
Gabe smiled, “I’m glad. You’ll want to cultivate that attitude. And you’re absolutely right: Folctha is special.”
Knowles smiled. “…You obviously love this place. And the job! I almost feel bad, taking it over.”
Gabe shrugged. “It’s the right time for me to go,” he said. “And…being honest, the right time for someone of your background to take over.” There was much he left unsaid.
It didn’t need saying. Knowles nodded solemnly, and stood. “Well then,” he said. “I shouldn’t keep you from enjoying your final day on the job. I gather the office has quite a party planned.”
“I’m not supposed to know about it,” Gabe smiled.
“You’ll enjoy it, I think. You have good people here. I look forward to getting to know them.”
They shook hands, and Knowles left after a few more small well-wishes, leaving Gabe to sit back in his chair, sigh, and look around the office.
The day before yesterday, he’d still called it his office. That had changed, now that the personal effects were gone. His family photos no longer dotted the walls and furniture, the picture of him in uniform along with his old SDPD colleagues no longer graced the top of the filing cabinet. His Padres shirt, bat and signed game ball - miraculous survivors that he’d purchased expensively at a charity auction to put San Diego’s last children through college - were no longer framed on the wall behind the desk. Now, it was just an office. One that Knowles would surely make his own within a day or two of taking over.
He should have felt sad, maybe. But he didn’t. This wasn’t a closing book, this was a turning page and the next chapter awaited him.
He couldn’t wait to find out what it contained.
Date Point: 16y7m3w1d AV
Planet Akyawentuo, the Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm
The best part about hunting, was that Julian didn’t need to think about anything else for a while.
He’d come over on the jump with Hoeff and Claire, which was honestly a nice distraction; the two were so completely in love, they were doing the playful cuddling thing people did, where they were oblivious to everyone besides themselves, whispering little secrets to each other…
It was hard not to smile after that. And a really good hunt was a spiritual exercise of its own.
Akyawentuo was murderously hot just then, and it was right at the peak of the hottest days, with the temperatures dangerously high and the humidity, as always, at the saturation point. But there was no rest for anyone, because the Ten’Gewek’s rut had finally…well, calmed down to a mere roiling boil instead of its usual volcanic power. Having regained the tiniest ability to think beyond hunting and sex, they had immediately begun their relentless campaign to build up winter stores, even though said winter was, by the human calendar, almost a year away.
Autumn and winter were short but intense on Akyawentuo. The Brown Ones retreated north toward the equator, and the werne flooded out onto the grassy plains to crop them short before the frost really set in. But it was also the time when the Ten’Gewek made the most cultural progress; they taught stories, craftsmanship, and lately reading and writing to the children, while the adults learned stories from beyond the sky. Now that they’d effectively mastered preserving food, they were eager to surge forward during the winter, where even the leanest and showiest red-crests gained a thin layer of fat and a placid, relaxed sense of contentment, instead of their usual testosterone-poisoned need to screw literally anything and everything with a warm, willing hole.
That was when Vemik—now definitely a red-crest—tended to get the most work done and come up with his best ideas, too. His aggressive mania never really died down. In fact he was like any other red-crest, meaning he was one of the most red-blooded men of the People. But rather than grumble aimlessly and play at war, he usually just…refocused his energies.
It was all part of his charm, really. He applied his ample aggression to sky-thinking when he had the chance. But if they were going to enjoy a peaceful winter, they needed to be ready.
All of that meant almost all the men were out hunting. When Julian arrived, it was only the smallest and youngest orange-crests guarding the village, along with a red-crested male named Obuk, who was relaxing from his turn out in the bush. The women were busy making pots, tending herbs…
They welcomed him warmly, allowed the children to climb all over him for a few minutes of play, and then sent him directly out onto the trail; the village could never have enough werne. He’d found his prey an hour’s trek deep into their tribe’s land, and from there…he hunted.
The werne’s scent was strong on the breeze, so strong that Julian could tell his prey was a bachelor bull without a herd. Werne smelled a bit different once they’d acquired a harem, and the People in general avoided those bulls. For one, they were usually more dangerous than the trouble was worth, for another it ensured the herds would remain healthy, strong, and defended.
Bachelor males, on the other hand, were one of their favorites to pick off. They provided more and higher quality meat, generally sported the kind of lard-like fat the People craved and needed for many things, and were exactly the kind of foolishly aggressive a hunter appreciated.
The forest floor rarely got a nice refreshing breeze, which today was blowing somewhat constantly through the underbrush. Normally the forest air was still and cloying but today he could almost smell the salt from the ocean much further south; definitely a big stormfront, maybe even a hurricane or something. It sure felt like they would be getting absolutely torrential rains in a couple-few days, not that he or anyone needed a weather satellite to figure that out.
Though of course, they had plenty of those. The surveysats he’d personally launched from Misfit were still up there, peaceably watching Akyawentuo and providing all the useful services that satellites did.
Werne always got restless when storms came through, which had made this particular hunt both longer and much more challenging than the usual. It wasn’t without its advantages; the breeze kept Julian’s scent nicely downwind, which was important because werne had a keen “taste” of the air and Julian was probably pretty dang ripe by now. It was hot out, he was sweating buckets even with the breeze, and moving stealthily was more of an endurance challenge than people realized. He was dang good at it too, but being as big and heavy as he was these days didn’t help matters much. But the Ten’Gewek could manage it just fine, and anything they could do…
The wind would normally mean he could be a bit noisier, but the werne’s ears were up and swiveling constantly, and its tongue lapped at the air between every single mouthful of foliage. Their vision was very sensitive to movement, too. It was in most every other way quite poor, but the tiniest unexpected movement could send them on a charging rampage. Best to keep some distance. Julian was awful dang strong these days, and had, for purposes of his post-naming rites, proven he could perform the much more daring technique of leaping over the charging bull, clamping his legs around its neck, riding out its rage while simultaneously driving a knife into its neck and crushing its throat flat… That was not something to do routinely, no matter how alive a man felt after managing something like that. Only very confident Ten’Gewek routinely Took their bulls that way, generally only the biggest red-crests or Given-Men. As far as Julian or Yan were concerned, only a fool or a desperate man braved a werne bull’s razor sharp face-blades when he didn’t need to, or wasn’t assured of success.
So, Julian stalked after it, patiently waiting for the right moment to strike. When the werne’s head was down, he’d step forward one foot at a time, slowly rolling all his weight from the outside to the inside of his feet while keeping mostly off his heels. He was careful to remain in the werne’s blind spot as he silently stalked from tree to tree, ever so slowly creeping closer and closer. It had been several hours by now and the day’s heat was at its most fierce. But, a hunt never rewarded impatience. So…inch by inch, tree by tree, grazing spot by grazing spot…
Julian eventually closed to within striking distance of his prey and slowly, ever so slowly readied his spear. Today he was spear hunting and there were a few reasons for that. Firstly, the People favored it because it was the fastest way to kill prey. They didn’t necessarily do so out of a deep sense of mercy; A Ten’Gewek’s regard for his prey was pretty much in direct proportion to its strength. Anything “weaker” than them often fell outside their capacity for genuine empathy, and that included basically everything else alive. Even on their own world they were fantastically, ridiculously hardy and strong compared to pretty much any other critter they’d ever met, and over deep time that had strongly colored their psychology.
Weak things were less worthy of life. Heck, if it wasn’t for Vemik and Julian’s first encounter, they’d probably have felt much the same about humans. If it wasn’t for Daar, they’d probably have felt the same for the other sky-tribes, too. Those chance meetings had successfully expanded the Ten’Gewek definition of “strong” to encompass anything that could talk; Yan said that sky-thoughts were strong, and he so utterly outclassed the other Given-Men that, well…might makes right. He said it, and so it was, and thank God for that. Having seen the savage joy their men took in the kill, how they often savored crushing the life out of their prey…
Nonetheless, their gods frowned upon cruelty, and so the People felt it was a good idea to be respectful. After all, if you were strong enough, you did the deed as fast and as powerfully as you could. A man’s strength was his offering to the gods, and the prey was the medium. The single best way to offer mercy through strength was to ram a spear right through its heart, and bury a knife at the base of its skull. If a man couldn’t do that, then…what good was he?
There was probably a fascinating set of xenopsychology papers hidden in there, somewhere. And probably the anthropologists would have a thing or two to say about religion, too.
For Julian’s part, he was mostly interested in keeping the People’s respect. If he’d had his way, he’d just shoot the poor thing through the head and grant it the most merciful death of all. But…
Well. If the whole business with the Brown One had proved anything, it was that he couldn’t possibly come up with a faster way to lose respect. The bow just about got a pass from the more liberal and open-minded Given-Men like Yan thanks to the fact that it still took a strong man to use a strong bow. A rifle though? Anyone could pick up a rifle, as far as the Ten’Gewek were concerned. It took strength out of the equation, and thereby emasculated whoever used it.
So, there Julian was in the woods, naked of all else besides his spear, knife, first aid kit, and his earbud radio. Yan thought that was a “strong” bit of sky-magic, so he allowed it. Whatever.
He stood in the shadows amongst the undergrowth, not even three yards from the werne. He considered his prey. The werne was a young unscarred male, but it had been well-fed and positively rippled with muscle and good, hard fat. At a guess, it was probably at least the same mass as a proper bull on Earth; a bit shorter, a lot stockier, and even more ornery. Not long ago that would have been a werne right at the limits of Julian’s ability to take, before that it would have been impossible. Lately…well, maybe he felt the need to prove himself a little more than he normally might. He could do it, but getting it back to the village would be a hell of a lot of work.
Humans were generalist survivors: pretty good at a lot of things, naturally excellent at a few more, and could excel at most anything…with enough determination. Ten’Gewek though, they were perfectly evolved for a hardy, deeply physical survivalist lifestyle in a rich temperate rainforest. Julian would probably never match a Ten’Gewek man’s ability to haul many times his own weight across his shoulders without much fuss. Their short, powerfully muscled legs, combined with their heavy rock-crushing tails and their heroically thick posterior chains running from their calves up to their neck, made them uniquely well-suited to werne-hefting work.
Ten’Gewek had been carrying werne bulls across tangled ground and up trees for probably hundreds of thousands of years. Like everything else about them, their utterly ridiculous physical strength had probably evolved specifically to accommodate that survival need of theirs, all other concerns be damned. They could leap with werne across their shoulders too, almost as impressively as they could unburdened. Julian couldn’t do that, at least not very high. Hopping over logs or small boulders, sure. Much than that? He had to climb, or go around.
Still, Julian had grown crazy strong himself. Evolved for werne-carrying or not, he could still hack it, so he’d do it. Good workout either way. If he was gonna be…well, literally bred and, uh, involuntarily enhanced for hard work and survival, then he may as well put his increasingly developed brawn to use feeding people he cared about.
The werne buried his head in a bush, thereby blinding itself for a brief moment. And in that moment, Julian struck.
Werne had quick reflexes and the bull reacted like a lightning bolt, but from that close, with that little warning? There was no way Julian could miss. He exploded forward and rammed his spear between the creature’s ribs with all the force his ridiculous weight and strength could generate. The spearhead was wide, designed to slice a broad entry wound, behind which the slimmer shaft could follow and penetrate deep into the werne’s innards. Getting through its interlocking ribs took an amazing amount of force though, even with a reasonably sharp and sturdy spearhead. Julian slammed into the werne so hard he knocked it sideways, and it was only after ramming it into a tree that he was able to break through and drive the spear home.
Nothing else tested a man’s raw speed, brute strength, and sheer focused aggression quite as thoroughly (or as dangerously) as spear-hunting a werne. Julian doubted there were many men who could manage; for humans, basically just the HEAT bros, besides Julian. A few really big Gaoians too. Heck, even smaller orange-crests had trouble doing it and often went in through the neck, which was a much riskier way to get meat…but a man’s gotta feed his tribe, danger or not. The bow might end up being the most important thing in Ten’Gewek culture because of that, just as important as steel.
The werne coughed its peculiar bleating moo, gurgled, and collapsed heavily, doomed before it had even finished slumping to the ground. Still, Julian made sure by skirting around it, respecting its blades, locked his legs as tightly around its thick neck as he could manage, and used both hands to shove his knife firmly into the divot between skull and spine where a werne’s thickly muscled neck was most penetrable.
The blade in its nervous system made the body twitch, once when the knife went in, and once again when Julian withdrew it. A good, clean, quick strike. The beast went limp. Werne were tough, though. It took another minute, with Julian squeezing down as hard as he could manage, but it died without any more noise and, importantly, without any more suffering.
Julian detangled himself, desperately gulping for air and with the edge of his vision a bit blurry. He caught his wind, knelt on the forest floor in front of his werne, and honored his prey.
It was a prayer, sort of. Julian didn’t really believe that God or the Ten’Gewek’s gods were beings, not in the sense that there was a personality there who watched and listened as a sapient mind would, or had ambitions, dislikes and expectations of mortals. But he still had a sense of the Divine in things, and moments like this were sacred. He’d just taken a life, and done so cautiously, for good reason. The hunt could have gone very differently if he were impatient or foolish. His quarry deserved respect in death.
After the Ten’Gewek fashion, he anointed his brow and cheeks with its blood, and sat in silence until he felt that it had dried, then a little longer until he felt… right. It was hard to put into words, but there just came a moment where he knew his vigil was complete. The Singers said that moment was when the creature’s spirit finally moved on and… well, it was a fitting description. Something had departed that had held him in silence for a while.
With it gone, that left the not inconsiderable task of hauling the thing back to the village. Like all the werne in this part of the forest, it was massive. Far too big to be much threatened by the prowling wolf-things that flit in their packs among the trees. That meant they could grow big, grow many, and grow fast, which their species did whenever they had the chance; it was as if they were made to be rich prey. The Ten’Gewek were always choosy about their prey too, all of it calculated (whether they knew it or not) to maximize the r-strategy effect in the herd. As long as there was enough foliage and grains to keep them healthy, and the People didn’t overpopulate…
He sighed, and over the course of a practiced few minutes he gutted the big critter to save some weight. That done, and with his arms filthy to the pits, he worked his way under the bull’s bulk. With a grimace and a hell of a lot of effort, he managed to stand up with the damn thing draped across his shoulders.
It was murderously heavy, even without its enormous water-filled and smelly digestive tract. The village was a few miles away, too… He’d kept the other organs but the women would still cluck at him for leaving the intestines. Too bad. Pulling the stomach out probably cut a quarter-ton of weight off his shoulders, since this particular werne was pretty much completely full of water today. Not surprising; they tended to gorge along the river until their stomachs ballooned out, then not come back and drink for many days. A proper Ten’Gewek would save that water, but…
But there were limits to how far Julian felt he needed to go to prove himself, frankly. If he was gonna heft a ton and a half of meat back home through a tangled and hilly rainforest and do so in goddamned supergravity on top of it all, then he could at least be spared the survivalistic joys of hot rancid werne-gut water.
Something ticked at the back of his mind, and he looked at the good hiding spots all around him…and spotted a wolf-thing. Julian was ever-wary of those. He made eye contact, snarled with his teeth bared, and the critter ran away…along with about twenty of his best buds. Nowadays he could quite literally punt them hard enough to flatten their rib cages if he wanted to, but anyone would have trouble dealing with an aggressive pack, if they ever got the idea they might win in a fight.
They’d probably follow after him, once they’d picked the gut pile clean. Best to keep an eye out. With a grunt of effort, Julian steeled himself and set to the long hike back to the village.
It was early evening by the time he returned. His whole body felt like it was on fire and his legs in particular like they were made of Jell-O. Hoeff gave him a sideways grin as he staggered up to their big table to the sounds of congratulatory trilling and the sudden bustling of women and the Singer.
Julian was much more interested in eating and resting than banter. He grunted in acknowledgement, grabbed an offered bowl of stew and stalked back to his “hut” where the idea of collapsing on his nice, soft field mattress sounded awesome. Though, he lamented the fact that Al and Xiù weren’t here, he sure could have done with a nice rub-down after all that hard work…
No wonder the People got frisky after a hunt! Well…no. They got frisky after basically any activity at all, so that wasn’t really saying much. Maybe Hoeff would help…
The thought made him chuckle, and he gave Hoeff a Suggestive Look, just to troll him a bit.
Hoeff picked up on it immediately. “Nuh-uh. I’m taken, remember? I swear we’ve had this conversation before.”
“Aww, can’t help a fella out?”
“Weirdo,” came the refrain, as was tradition.
“Uh-huh.” Julian decided to inhale the contents of his bowl just then. Nothing would ever beat Xiù’s cooking, but dang if the People didn’t know how to make a hell of a stew. He’d eaten it all before he knew it, and one of the younger women swept by and refilled his bowl just as he was happily belching out his compliments to the cook.
He slowed down about half-way through his second bowl when he noticed Hoeff was looking at him weird.
“You gonna put any fuckin’ shorts on?”
“Eh, I dunno. It’s hot out…why? You like what you see or something?”
Hoeff shrugged nonchalantly. “Nah. Ain’t me you gotta worry about. But Singer’s young Dancer over there is givin’ you the bedroom eyes…”
Julian looked over and, sure enough, the Dancer was… Well. A human gal would have been playing with her hair and chewing on her lip. The Ten’Gewek version was a feline tail twitch and idly fidgeting at the ground with her prehensile toes.
Julian finished his stew in a few practiced gulps, and nodded in agreement. “Right. Since Yan’s not back yet, I’m gonna go nap. Can you let him know I was looking for him?”
“Will do. G’on, git before the ladymonkeys decide to help themselves.”
That was a weirdly flattering thought. Julian didn’t dwell on it, but instead heaved himself achingly over to his “hut” and crash-landed on his nice clean werne-hide rugs, stretched himself out as best as he could, downed an entire skin of water, and then crawled his way into bed.
Normally, he quietly dreaded sleep when Al or Xiù weren’t there. His mind tended to…dwell. Not on bad things, at least not always, but without them he always reverted to the old instincts that had kept him alive on Nightmare: the ones that kept a hatchet to hand and full alert wakefulness just a slight rustle of foliage away. That instinct had kept him alive, but it made him a very light sleeper indeed and he never quite felt like he’d wake up rested.
Not today. In fact, Julian was so tired from the hunt that he passed right the fuck out almost as soon as he was horizontal. No dreams, no jerking awake in the night, nothing. He only woke up sometime early next morning when a wrist-thick finger gently prodded his face. It was Yan, sitting on his tail next to Julian’s head, calmly waiting for him to wake up.
[“Heff said you wanted to talk with me.”]
Julian groaned, and went to rub the grit and sleepy stuff out of his eyes when he realized he was still foul from the hunt and probably shouldn’t go rubbing stale werne juices into his eyes. In fact, he should probably brush out the hides on the bed, too.
He sat up instead. “…Yeah. [I have some interesting news.”]
[“You should clean up,”] Yan said. [“You taste bad.”]
Well that was an achievement, though not one to feel proud of. Julian grumbled and rolled off his furs, stood up and stretched, and decided he’d wear shorts today to at least spare Hoeff’s blushes and himself from the Dancer’s attention. Thus modestly dressed, he ducked out of his hut and headed for the sandy pit at the edge of the village that the People used to scrub themselves off.
As part of the Singer’s efforts to modernize and improve the village’s hygiene based on what she learned on Cimbrean, there was a row of clay pots full of clean and boiled water by the sand now, plus the result of her first efforts at making soap from wood ashes and werne tallow. It smelled quite nice actually, but had a texture closer to pumice than smooth. Julian put two of the components to good use: Water to dilute the mess on his arms and body, the soap to break it up and scrub, water again to rinse.
Ten’Gewek hides needed a very aggressive scrubbing, so they used the sand as an abrasive to scour themselves clean, but their skin was a lot thicker and tougher than a human’s, and there were the equivalent of sand chiggers in that sand that could make Julian’s skin a hellscape of bite marks if he wasn’t careful.
In any case, Yan was right: he needed to wash. The water running off him was foul.
[“Interesting news?”] Yan asked, sitting on his tail again nearby.
Julian sighed wearily and applied the soap a second time. He’d forgotten to bring his own, and was regretting it now. [“Yeah. Like I said, about my family, and also about the Corti…”]
[“That sounds more than just interesting.”]
Julian nodded. [“Oh, yeah. There’s big sky-magic involved, too. And secrets and lies and questions I’ll never know the answers to…”] He translated Nofl’s findings as well as he could. By the time he’d finished his summary, he was clean from toes to top. It might be hell on the skin, but he had to admit that it was an effective way to get clean.
Yan listened solemnly, and only ventured an opinion once he was quite sure Julian had finished.
[“You always knew Core-tie were the ones who took you and put you on Nightmare-world.”] he said. [“We have many reasons to not trust them, and you have many to hate them. What has changed? The roots dig deeper, that’s all.”]
“…Yeah. I get it, I do. But still!” Julian replied, in English. [“They bred my family like dogs!”]
[“But not your children. It ends now you know about it. And in time… you will have many children, I think. And your children will have many many children. In time, lots of humans will be stronger for it. You cannot Take back what the Core-tie owe you, so make some good out of the bad.”]
Julian sighed, and returned to English. “That’s the thing. I’m here, bein’ a survival expert—and I love it! But now I’m doing exactly what they made me for.”
“And that is problem?”
“…No. I think I just need to vent about it. Can’t change it, can’t pretend like it isn’t there. It’s just…what right did they have to do that?!”
“They had no right. But you do what you like doing, yes? And would not be able to do this if you were not you. Not many men of your people can.” He said it without judgement; not many Ten’Gewek were so fair-minded. “It was no good thing, but you can make good.”
[“No.”] Yan stood up and knuckled over toward Julian, and pulled him in for a loving, crushing, tail-around-waist hug. [“You’re stronger than that, I know you are. You’ll be fine. Don’t let the Core-tie win.”]
“…” Julian didn’t know what to say, so he just returned the hug as best he could. Sometimes, something as simple as that was all the medicine a man needed.
He felt much better about it, he had to admit. Everyone he loved and admired had been super chill about it. Adam had nodded levelly, saying “I’m glad we weren’t losing our minds.” Al and Xiù were of course perfect partners…he wished he could call them both wives. Legally. The Ambassador had told him to man up in the best possible way…Heck, even Vemik would probably have something useful to say whenever he got back from his own hunt…
…But right now, They’d better get on to the actual business that had brought Julian here. He was clean enough to get through the day, so he shook out his shorts, stood up and looked Yan right in the eye.
“Yan, big fella, there’s some big happenings we gotta talk about…”
Yan Given-Man stood on his feet and nodded solemnly. The hard work was just beginning.
Date Point:16y7m3w1d AV
The White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth
President Arthur Sartori
“We invited the Ten’Gewek?”
Sartori nodded. “They have as much right as anybody to be there. Hell, of all the Hierarchy’s living victims, they came closer to extinction than anyone else.”
“Unless you count the OmoAru.”
“The OmoAru are already dead, Margaret. They just haven’t quite died yet.”
Margaret White half-shrugged her head. “I suppose, but… this isn’t like that little group visiting Folctha, or their visit to Earth. The Rauwryhr are fragile, Arthur, and the Ten’Gewek have a long way to go before they’re ready to respect somebody so… well… weak.”
“The Ten’Gewek are also intelligent, rational and level-headed,” Sartori replied. “They’ve come to respect us. They’ll respect the Rauwryhr too, if they see a reason to.”
Sartori shrugged. “Flight? Have you seen them in the air, Margaret? It’s like they’re a different species. On the ground they’re ungainly and comical, but they’re magical on the wing. They impressed the hell out of Daar.”
“Daar’s got the softest, goofiest heart ever. He’ll like anyone if they give him a reason to.”
Sartori shook his head. “He’s amiable. He’s not a pushover. They impressed him, Margaret. That’s no easy feat. He might like easily, but he doesn’t respect easily. Remember, Daar is the man who ordered the orbital bombardment of nearly every major city on Gao to end a war.”
“…I stand corrected.”
“As you should. What the Fearless did at the battle of Rich Plains was borderline suicidally brave. They’ve earned our respect, and the Gao’s: They’ll earn the Ten’Gewek’s.”
Sartori twisted in his seat until his spine popped, then stood up to take a stroll around the room. He spent too long sitting down, and a chance to stretch his legs was always welcome. “I’m running out of office time, Margaret. Not long left, now, and a lot still to do. Whoever follows me—and I pray to God it’s you—is going to have to deal with Daar and Yan as peers.”
“I know. I’ve been worrying about that.” Margaret half-turned on the couch to follow his progress. “They’re both very… male. And with all due respect to them both, their cultures are still heavily segregated by gender. We’re a lot more egalitarian than them in that regard, and I’m still going to have trouble domestically.”
Sartori looked at her and suppressed the urge to sigh. “If that’s the attitude you go into this with, then you’ll be absolutely right.”
She arched an eyebrow at him, so he took that as an invitation to elaborate. “As President, you’ll be called to lead a nation. That includes some awesome responsibilities, such as ordering good men to their deaths. All that anyone asks of a leader in that position is that they have a spine, and everyone has one of those… but Presidents haven’t made use of that to any significant degree since the seventies, Margaret. But I tell you this: the second you bring up your status as a woman in relation to virtually any aspect of leadership, people will automatically ask, ‘why is she mentioning that? Is it an issue?’ And my answer is: no. It won’t be, until you make it an issue.”
“That opinion is very male too, Arthur.”
Sartori had been here before a few times in his career. Usually it was simplest not to argue, but Margaret was a friend and, he hoped, his successor. If he couldn’t be frank with her then he could never be frank with anyone.
“…If I could offer advice? Just approach them like you have a perfect right to be a leader, because you do, and they’ll respect that,” he said. “They won’t worry about your gender if you don’t.”
“Won’t they, though?”
Sartori shook his head no. “They won’t. It’s…never really been about man versus woman, I think. I think that’s the biggest mistake we make as a civilization when we talk about this. It’s usually about leadership, and our refusal to accept that men and women have different, complementary natures. In our era of plenty, where we aren’t in a total struggle to survive and our menfolk aren’t bound to the land or the sword in constant, dangerous toil…we can indulge. Neither the Gaoians nor the Ten’Gewek can.”
Margaret White had always been a calm person, and expressed herself in understated ways. Folding her arms was an indicator of quite serious indignation. “Indulge?” she asked. “I know you well enough to believe you aren’t dismissing gender equality, Arthur, so what exactly are you saying?”
“Oh, I’m not dismissing it… but it absolutely is an indulgence,” Sartori replied. “And one we can only afford because women can provide for themselves nowadays. In past centuries that just wasn’t true, and just surviving was a partnership and a division of labor.”
“Do you want to go back to that?”
“Absolutely not!” Sartori shook his head firmly. “That would mean going back to harder times. Worse times, where life was harder and shorter. Women’s liberation was hard-earned and benefited us all, but it absolutely is a luxury that only developed, stable economies can afford.”
“Treating women as equal to men is a luxury and an indulgence.” She said it flatly, unimpressed.
“And those are good things! You can only afford luxuries and indulgence when you’re succeeding!” Sartori replied. “But… Indulge me in this. You’re talking about treating women as equal to men? What does that even mean? Equality is such a loaded word.”
She frowned at him but gestured an invitation for him to continue, at least giving him a fair chance to explain. He wandered the room, thinking aloud. “…Nobody sane argues that women are not due the same dignity or protections as men,” he said. “But men are not interchangeable with women, ergo they are by definition not the same. Ignoring those differences is a fantastic luxury, and it enriches our civilization.”
“I get the feeling this is a subject you could talk about for a long time,” Margaret noted drily.
“I could, yeah. But what’s important here is that our alien allies simply can’t afford the kind of liberation we take for granted. The Gaoians are literally attempting to breed themselves back from the brink of extinction, on top of their massive natural sex imbalance, and the Ten’Gewek are literal hunter-gatherers. With them, it’s a simple division of labor brought on by a massive sexual dimorphism, and again, the needs of childbirth.”
“If it’s a luxury we can afford and they can’t, I can see them resenting our good fortune,” Margaret pointed out.
“I don’t think so. I think they’ll only resent it if it’s made an issue. Daar is…protective. And, yes, absolutely a bit of a chauvinist. All Gaoian males are but it’s largely benign, and in fact approaches something like worship. But the thing is, they’re protective in general. The Gao see us as good, loyal friends who helped them through their greatest trial. They also see that, now that they’re recovering, and even with the population bomb about to go off…they hold pretty much all the cards in the relationship. If they survive the next twenty years, that imbalance will be severely in their favor, Margaret. Now, consider that Daar’s ‘most biggest’ hope in life is to just cuddle everyone he loves and keep them safe…”
“Probably not a good idea to trigger resentment. And the best, safest way to do that is to just be a strong leader,” Margaret summarized.
“Exactly. A strong leader isn’t a strong male leader or a strong female leader, they’re just a strong leader. And you’re capable of that. It’s just that, well…and now I’ll actually be a bit of a chauvinist here. I think that may come a bit more naturally to men. But that’s okay, since some of the very best leaders either of our species have ever seen were women, after all.”
Margaret gave his self-confessed chauvinism a cool look, but let it pass. “I can see the Ten’Gewek being a tougher nut to crack,” she pointed out instead.
“…True. Yan Given-Man is…an absolutely ridiculous flirt. Even worse than Daar, and I know how you enjoy bantering with him…” he ventured a mischievous smile.
Finally, her cool indignation slipped. She laughed, looked aside and cleared her throat. “…Yes, well. At my age, flirting is a rare thing.”
Sartori chuckled and sat down opposite her, feeling more comfortable now that the ice had thawed again. He’d always held that true friends were the ones you could have difficult conversations and honest disagreements with, but there was always danger in actually testing a friendship like that. Her laugh reassured him that all was well.
“In any case, you have a path there too,” he said. “Their Singers are all women after all, and every tribe has both a Given-Man and a Singer…and the Singer is pretty widely considered the more important of the two. If a tribe loses a Given-Man, one of their red-crests will take over. Lose a Singer, though…and the tribe is broken. Yan is primed to respect you. Even if he can’t ever be allowed to sit on the couch.”
“But that’s contingent on not showing weakness,” she said. “And according to you, even mentioning that I’m a woman is showing weakness.” . Sartori picked his words carefully. “…In most circumstances, I think mentioning that I’m a man would weaken me, or at least exclude people unnecessarily. As I see it, the art to leadership is to never, at any time, in any circumstances, make something about you if it isn’t also something about all of us,” he replied. “Maybe men are more sensitive to that sort of thing, I don’t know. I bet there’s some psychology papers on it. But…. look. Maybe men really are chauvinistic, and so am I. But I didn’t pick you out of charity, Margaret.”
“I’ve never felt you have,” she assured him. “It’s the aliens and other world leaders I worry about. But I think you’re right. If I just march out there and act like I have a perfect right to be among them… well, that’ll be true. I will have that right.”
“Exactly. How you got that right doesn’t matter, they respect it nonetheless. Both of them were thrust into duty, after all.”
She nodded, and Sartori could see that she’d gone a few miles away in her head to think. He let her, for a few seconds, then decided to give the ice one last thaw.
“So what do you think? Reckon I’m a chauvinist?”
She laughed again, quietly. “…Well, if you are, at least you’re a thinking one,” she said.
She flashed a smile, then checked her watch and stood up. “If I wait any longer I’ll be late for my meeting with General Kolbeinn,” she said. “He wanted me to look at his presentation to the Defence Council.”
“Well, I won’t keep you then,” Sartori replied warmly. “Good night.”
She opened the door. “Good night, Mister President,” she said, and was gone.
Sartori sighed to himself, and returned to the desk. There’d be some new thing for him to deal with along in seconds, he was sure. But he’d enjoyed the conversation.
She’d do well, he knew it. Assuming she won the election, of course…
So. All he had to do was not drop the ball before she could pick it up.
Back to work.
Date Point: 16y7m3w1d AV
Ninja Taco, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Sister Leela, proprietor
Folctha was a strange and protected place, one where the great and powerful of the galaxy could freely intermingle with everyday folk. Presidents and Prime Ministers had wandered its streets. Premiers and Potentates had visited her shop to purchase her tacos.
And the most powerful and awe-inspiring of them all, the Great Father of the Gao himself…made a habit of visiting her, and her specifically, at her humble little shack.
And flirting with her. Hard.
They had long ago settled into a roughly bi-weekly routine. Daar would somehow sneak off to do…well, to run banal little errands in Folctha, like buy ice cream for his ‘Naydi.’ Why he insisted on doing that himself was frankly beyond Leela’s capacity to understand. How he managed it in relative secrecy was another question entirely.
She did know one of the consequences. On that day, whenever it happened to be and whenever it was getting late, and the customers were heading home to avoid the rain, Daar would appear and order a huge tray of tacos. He was always alone. He would pay her in cash and tip very generously. He would insist they drop the pretenses of rank. And then he would flirt with her like the unabashedly brutish brownie he truly was. There was crude innuendo. There was posing, and preening and all that excessively macho silliness, as one might stereotypically expect of big athletic Stonebacks.
And as much as it bothered her to admit it, she was growing to love every second of it.
He’d made several earnest offers to bed her, too. She’d found herself deeply flattered of course; how often would an offer like that come along? He was smart and clever, silly, somehow both super polite yet also crude and raunchy…and ridiculously handsome…brave…
Truth be told, his sex appeal was obvious even despite his penchant for playful oafishness. The problem was, well, he was just…too much. In every way. He was so far out of her league, out of everyone’s league, that meeting him in person had a nearly unreal quality to it even though he was, despite it all, a strangely approachable male. Maybe, it was like meeting a living Keeda.
Over time the amazing weirdness of the situation had her re-considering everything she thought she knew about brownies. For the first time since the War, she found herself warming to one of them, and warming to the biggest and most dangerous one of them all, no less.
That just made her wonder: why not take him up on his offer? A cub by the Great Father himself would be clever and strong, her cachet would skyrocket in the Commune…but she’d ultimately said no. At first he was surprised when she declined. Daar was used to having the pick of his mates and it was obvious why. That had stung his pride but much to his credit, he was graceful and good-natured about it. A lot of males took rejection quite hard but he shrugged it off, and even re-assured her that he understood, there were no hard feelings, and so on.
That almost convinced her right there to change her mind say yes after all…but she wasn’t…she couldn’t…
And somehow, without her saying anything even remotely hinting at her fears…he understood.
“Okay,” he’d said when she had at last tried to give voice to what bothered her. “You don’ hafta say anythin’ more. I get it. But, uh…we can still flirt, right? An’ I can still show off ‘fer you?”
“Well, I think you’d explode if you tried not to,” she’d said wryly. She wasn’t going to say no to an ongoing opportunity for the Great Father to put on a show for her up close and personal, after all…
Daar had duck-nodded sheepishly. “Honestly ‘yer not wrong. It’s fun!”
After that he’d proceeded to make a huge smarmy playful fool of himself every time he visited. Thankfully, he did this with much less of his usual aggressive come-on routine, which could be…an intense experience, physically and emotionally. She understood why her fellow Sisters enjoyed that kind of male attention, and why he was so good at it, but for her it was just, way, way, way too much. But he backed off, which was wonderfully considerate of him. Males could get awfully pushy when attempting to woo a Female and he of course had more advantages than anyone else, so that he showed her such respect and deference was…
Leela chittered to herself in fond recollection. One day. If he was still interested. When the wartime memories weren’t quite so sharp, maybe.
The evening had been pretty slow, which meant she’d have a lot of unsalable food at closing time. That always felt like a waste but Deathworld precautions against taint and spoilage made a lot of sense. It was why so many gaoian foods were pickled or preserved, after all….
A familiar scent reached her nose, cutting right through the nasal landscape of food, cooking oil, cleaning products and hot metal.
Well, it had been a couple of weeks since his last visit…
She called out through the window towards the huge silhouette shambling over on all fours. “I hope you’re hungry!”
“I am! An’ I’ve got friends ta’ feed! Gonna take ya’ a while to fill this order!” He flicked his ears in amusement. “Mebbe we can chit-chat a bit? Share gossip? Negotiate a mating contract? Or, y’know, jus’ go lay down in the grass right now? I’d keep ‘ya warm all night, if ‘ya wanted…”
Yup. he was definitely in a happy mood.
“I’m pretty sure that isn’t happening. Just like, you know, it’s not ever happened before.”
“Bah! You don’t know what ‘yer missing!” The Great Father rose to his hind legs and filled her window as he rested his body-thick forearms on the window ledge. Her little taco shack groaned as it took on some of his weight.
“I need a dozen o’ everything! An’ all the fixins too!” He settled himself down and wrenched yet more unhappy protests from her apparently not-Daar-proof shack.
Leela chittered in exasperation. “Daar! Please don’t destroy my taco stand! I haven’t paid off the loan yet!”
“Aww, don’t worry! It’s a sturdy little fella, I can tell! An’ it’s at such a nice height to, y’know…”
Even though he was crouching low, his chest was just a bit above her eye level, completely filling the window and therefore impossible to miss. He grinned and snapped every muscle in his entire body into stone-like hardness, all without moving an inch.
Leela’s shack had a nice wide window so she could better interact with her customers. Even so, Daar filled and exceeded its frame; he was a huge furry wall of muscle blotting out the sunset. She tried not to stare, but…he was sleek and short-furred today, which was when he was his most unashamedly distracting. It was raining too, so his fur was slicking down and clinging to every inch of him…
…Well, there were definitely some perks to being a target of Daar’s affections.
He watched her try not to ogle for a bit, then grumbled in knowing amusement. “My eyes are up here, you know.” The playful look on his face was infuriatingly smug.
So. It was going to be one of those nights.
Leela sighed, rolled her eyes and chittered. “Conspire on what, exactly?”
“Oh, y’know. On a nice warm blanket! All night! All day. Err’day ‘fer weeks on end if ‘ya wanna see what th’ Stud-Prime o’ Stoneback can really do…”
Leela flicked an ear at him. “Oh? That’s an impressive boast.” She turned her attention to her work; since he had friends to feed, he’d basically just buy everything she had left. No wastage tonight. “Don’t know if I’ve ever met a male that could back a claim like that.”
“Ya’ need a better class o’ male in ‘yer life, then! Mebbe those nice polite lil’ guys you been datin’ need ‘ta work on their cardio.” Daar sniffed toward her and grumbled, “‘Cuz y’know what? I don’t lie. An’ if anythin’ I was bein’ modest ‘bout just what I can do…”
…Well. She looked over her shoulder and he was being a big smarmy Keeda just like always. And…yes, he was playfully posing even harder. Leela chitter-sighed again in a combination of amusement and exasperation. Most likely, he wouldn’t let up or relax for the rest of their encounter, no matter how many times she told him off. Daar was ridiculous.
“Impressive as that is, you’re still not getting a contract out of me tonight, you huge oaf.”
“Who said anythin’ ‘bout a contract? I’m a flexible sorta ‘Back, y’know…”
The tone of his voice suggested that he wasn’t speaking strictly about his social engagements.
Leela harrumphed primly. “I’m not that kind of Female, Daar. I know some of the younger, inexperienced Sisters succumb to your advances, but I’m not interested in a one-night stand.”
“Hey! I love ‘em just the same! An’ a girl’s gotta learn the ways o’ man an’ woman just like the boys do! ‘Sides… I like bein’ the teacher, y’know…an’ I’m really good at it…”
“Are you.” It wasn’t difficult to keep her tone dry and unimpressed. If Leela had one guaranteed turn-off, it was a male bragging up his experience as though females were just… conquests. “With as many Sisters as you’ve plowed through in your time, I imagine you would be by now, if for no other reason than sheer brute repetition.”
“Ha! Well, even a thick-skulled ‘ol ‘Back’ll learn somethin’ if’n he practices enough… an’ if repetition is what ‘ya want, I got endurance like ‘ya wouldn’t believe…”
Leela growled at that while she quickly assembled a dozen plain, crispy tacos. They were the most popular kind even if they weren’t strictly authentic: just seasoned ground beef, shredded cheese, and a thin topping of lettuce. “Practice, huh? Daar, I’m disappointed in you.”
“Are you here because you enjoy the company and the break from your responsibilities, or are you here because you can’t stand the idea of a Female left unconquered?”
Daar retreated from the stand a little, and his head tilted a touch as he considered that. Just for a moment, she’d got him to stop the clowning.
“…Gotta be honest… It’s prol’ly a little o’ both,” he admitted. “But the first one more!”
She’d stung him. For a second she considered apologizing, but in truth he probably needed stinging now and then. Maybe that was why he kept coming back.
Leela waggled her spatula at him. “Well, If you’re going to seduce me, that’s entirely the wrong attitude.”
He perked up. “Aww! So you’re saying I still have a chance, right?”
Great Mother he was ridiculous. “Less and less as the night goes on…”
He chittered, confirming her suspicion that he took a kind of perverse joy in being stung by her, and veered onto a new tack. “…Is that ‘chicharones’ I smell? Can I have a big order o’ that too?!”
Daar somehow managed to wriggle his massive head in through the smaller sliding window, despite the thick girth of his neck pressing alarmingly against its frame. His musk immediately permeated the entire taco stand even more forcefully than usual; he was heavily lathered up and had clearly been engaged in Maximally Brownie Activities all day long. Normally she wouldn’t mind—quite the opposite, actually—but her taco stand was not a locker room for huge well-exercised brownfurs, no matter who they thought they were. He snuffled around gleefully until Leela deftly swatted his nose with her spatula. “Get out, you stinky oaf!”
“But it smells nice in here! Like happiness! An’ cumin!”
Leela’s ears were happily up, but still. She spatulated him a bit more forcefully.
Daar chittered and withdrew his head, shaking the entire stand as he did so. “Okay, fine!”
“Much better. Now wait nicely while I make your tacos. And yes, you can have some chicharones, if it’ll keep you busy while I work.” She filled a bowl and slid it toward the window.
Daar grabbed half the bowl’s contents in one massive paw and popped a few into his mouth. “Thankee!” He made delighted cronching sounds for a long moment while she assembled tacos, but apparently he wasn’t done with mischief, either. “Rain always makes me feel itchy in a short coat! Can I scratch my back on the corner again?”
He was being deliberately irritating now in his maddeningly charming way. She had to work to suppress her happy ears.
“No! Do not wear down the corner of my taco stand! Neither I nor my stand will appreciate it!”
“Aww! But can I sniff through the window again? I know you like it!”
“I like it when Folctha’s health inspectors don’t find Daar hairs in my food. Nobody will appreciate that, no matter how much you try to… charm them.”
Daar rumbled a pleased avalanche of a note. “Oh, I dunno, smell’s like ‘yer enjoyin’ my charms plenty! …Or mebbe that’s just the cumin again!”
“I’m pretty sure those two things don’t smell at all the same, Daar.”
“Naw, but both of ‘em are happy smells, yijao? An’ I can still smell ‘yer amusement…”
Well, he had her there.
“I will admit, there is a certain…crude entertainment value to your shenanigans, yes.”
He chittered in turn, this time innocently. “Good! That’s why I do it! ‘Cuz what’s the point o’ anything if’n ‘ya can’t get a pretty Female ta’ pant-grin at ‘ya?!”
She couldn’t argue with that line of reasoning. Still. Leela carefully twisted her ears into the most mocking positions she could wrestle them into without betraying her amusement. “Oh? If you’re looking for a grinning Female you may have come to the wrong taco stand, Daar!”
“Naw! See, I think o’ this as makin’ an investment.”
Daar punctuated his last word by pressing his forehead against the side of the stand, his shining puppy-dog amber eyes peering ridiculously into her front window while his weight gently rocked the stand back on its wheels. Leela swayed with the motion, having long since gained her ‘sea legs’ weathering the bi-weekly Daar-storm.
At least there was a layer of sheet metal between her and him.
“Are you like this with every Female? Literally every one? I fear for the whole town, frankly.”
“Naw, jus’ the most bestest ones! Investment, remember?!”
“Well, I feel honored…”
“‘Ya should! I’m the most bestest at botherin’ a Female! An’ the bestest at showin’ off! I could show off ‘fer you all night long, y’know!” He put deed to word, and despite herself Leela did stop to watch and enjoy his oafish, hypermuscular clowning, until the smell of warming tortillas managed to remind her of her culinary and business responsibilities. She immediately found herself frustrated by his ongoing campaign of distraction.
“Behave! Or no tacos for you!” She yipped, and swatted her spatula at him again for effect.
“I mean it!”
“But I ain’t even shown you my back yet! It’s my most bestest part!!” Daar spun away from her, raised his massive arms and pulled them down and sideways. “See?! I’m th’ most hugest ‘Back ever! From my neck down to my calves! An’ all my other bits, too!!”
Leela chittered in exasperation. “Daar!”
“Fine, fine…” Daar ambled back and re-settled his ridiculous weight on her little taco stand; she really needed to put it up on cinderblocks or something if they were going to keep the game going. “‘Ya can ogle me here jus’ fine…”
Leela rolled her eyes at him and chuffed in disapproval, and determinedly focused on something other than him. Daar, of course, kept preening for her, and probably himself, too. For a precious minute or two, the only sounds in her stand were the rain on the roof and the hiss of frying.
…And an occasional grunt of effort from Daar, whom she studiously ignored. Well. Mostly.
“But f’real, this is why I pester ‘ya,” He finally broke the silence, in a slightly quieter but no less playful tone. “It’s fun to banter, yijao?”
“What banter?! All you’ve done is bounce your muscles at me like a bad movie villain!”
“Well, how ‘bout this bit o’ conversation right here?”
“Wh–no! Couldn’t you talk about, oh, anything else at all?!”
“Well, okay…how’s gossip at th’ Commune?”
“Same as always. Try again!”
“Anythin’ new in the world of taco cuisine?”
“I’ve perfected a ten-herb salsa made entirely from Gao-native plants…”
“Ooh! I want some! But now we’ve got a problem, ‘cuz…what else you wanna talk ‘bout?”
“…Need I remind you, Daar, I’m not the one attempting to woo a Female!”
“Essactly! Y’ain’t never been one ta’ volunteer a topic, after all…”
“Maybe I’d rather hear about the massive lout who won’t stop preening for my attention!”
“Did you say massive?!”
“Aww! Fine…Well, if’n ‘ya wanna talk ‘bout my life, there’s three general categories ‘ya got: farm stuff, civil engineering stuff, or really boring-ass anodyne dung like Clan politics…”
“I think you’re omitting several entire categories, there…”
“I am! ‘Cuz this here is the part where I remind you I’m actually the Great Father in disguise. An’ that means I gotta be careful ‘bout jus’ how spicy a topic I pick, yijao?”
…Admittedly, that was a good point. “Well, fair enough. Actually, wait a minute. How do you talk about anything, then?”
Daar gave her a slightly melancholy look. “Honestly? I don’t usually. ‘Less it’s, y’know, like a Champion’s business or somethin’ all Great Fathery. Why d’ya think I keep my hobby farm?”
“…I hadn’t appreciated the problem that would present. What about movies?”
“I ain’t got time ta’ watch ‘em! An’ that’d be takin’ sides.”
“Love ‘em! Mostly do audiobooks an’ podcasts when I’m workin’ out! Still can’t take sides…”
“…What in the Great Mother’s name does that leave you, then?! Surely there’s something!”
“Oh, there’s sports, food, and a vast an’ tangled web of Clan praise I gotta be careful ‘bout, since th’ last thing I wanna do is kick off a centuries-long rivalry like Fyu did that one time…”
Leela reset for her next batch of tacos. “That doesn’t sound so great. How do you cope?”
“Well, Naydi firstly. She’s amazing! Also tusslin’ and play wif my Brothers an’ stuff. An’ trainin’! But really, the thing that works the bestest when I jus’ need to get away from it all…”
“Oh? Is that what we low-rank Females are to you? Just a distraction?”
“Naw! ‘Yer a chance ‘ta love regular folk! Ain’t nothin’ wrong with high society an’ all, but sometimes they ain’t real, yijao? An’ honestly, I can’t have the same conversation over an’ over again ‘fore I get bored half ‘ta death. But y’know what never gets old?”
He rammed his head through the window again and snarled suggestively right next to her ear. “Real people ‘preciate the direct approach, so lemme cut through the shit. If what ‘ya want is a smart, strong an’ healthy cub, then ain’t nobody gonna give ‘ya one as good as me. I’m th’ bestest. That interest ‘ya?”
Some instinctual, primitive part of Leela really wanted to give in. But her Civilized mind couldn’t let that pass without notice. “…What…how can you be so arrogant?!”
“‘Cuz it ain’t arrogant if it’s the truth, Leela. I ain’t never sired a male under third degree. I was born luckier’n anyone an’ I’ve worked harder’n ‘em all ‘ta maximize my gods-given potential. Ain’t hardly anyone smarter’n me, or quicker’n me, either wit’ words or on my paws. An’ ain’t nobody bigger, or faster, or stronger. The only guys in th’ whole known damn universe that’re tough an’ lasting like me…well, they ain’t gaoian. I’m gettin’ better err’day too, ‘Horse thinks I ain’t gonna slow down ‘fer mebbe decades yet t’come. I’m more blessed’n I got words ‘fer an’ I’m proud o’ what I’ve done with that, an’ I wanna share it all wit’ ‘ya, if ya’ let me.”
“…Wh–why me, Daar?”
“Cuz I think ‘yer pretty fuckin’ gods-damned special ‘yerself. Naydi really likes ‘ya, too. An’ like her, ‘ya clawed ‘yer way back from somethin’ that’d break pretty much anyone else. Din’t break ‘ya though, jus’ made everythin’ ‘bout ‘ya way more beautifuller. ‘Yer tough. ‘Yer a survivor. And balls if that ain’t the sexiest thing ever.”
All the pretense of the game was gone. All that remained was the most frank and unbelievably blunt statement of…well, of inescapable reality that she’d ever heard any male even dare.
He held the intense moment on its edge almost long enough for Leela to just…
“But…that’s kinda heavy stuff. So if’n you ain’t in the mood ‘fer heavy, an’ since I gotta be all Great Fathery with my words an’ all…I guess that jus’ leaves me with makin’ a fool o’ myself!”
Leela burst out chittering—why, she couldn’t quite say—and spatulized his face back out of the window. “Great Mother! You don’t do anything gently, do you?”
“Nope! Well, I do when it’s important…”
Leela chittered to herself as she fell back into her taco rhythm. “Don’t you even.”
“Bah! How’s a ‘Back s’posed ‘ta get his lewd banter in then?”
“Go lewd someone else, then!”
“But they don’t have tacos!”
“They don’t have weapons-grade spatulas, either.”
“Aww, ‘yer no fun! An’ here I am, poor Daar, jus’ hungry ‘fer some tacos an’ someone warm ‘ta cuddle…balls, some workin’ days all I get is Sheeyo and he’s maybe too girly…”
It took Leela a moment to process that, since she was busy adding the latest batch to the growing mountain of tacos.
“Sheeyo…wait. The Goldpaw Champion!?”
“Yup! Smart lil’ guy, an’ a lotta fun ‘ta banter with! An’ he’s a friendly enough tail. Only a firs’-degree, though. I think ’yer paws are rougher’n his!”
He meant it as a compliment, she knew. Deep down she was even flattered, since hard work was something he admired. She did too, being honest about it. Still…
“That’s because I work for a living,” she replied icily, and didn’t quite manage to hide her amusement. He practically howled with laughter.
“T’be fair, he’s sired Keeda’s own share of females, so he’s not so bad! I’ve only ever had three, so I guess I’ll keep tryin’…and tryin,’ workin’ hard an’ all…”
That playfully smug face of his just couldn’t be contained. She flicked an ear and looked down through the window, and…yes. He was still showing off, like the world’s most predictable workhouse romance novel cover.
She managed to keep her expression dry and sardonic despite herself, and deployed her rejoinder. “That looks painful. I hear there’s a human in town that can work those muscle spasms out for you, My Father.”
“Y’mean ‘Horse? Do I look like a masochist to you?”
“Well…you do keep stepping up to pounce, and you do keep missing…”
“Naw, ‘ya just don’t know what ‘yer missin’!” He chittered, then curled one of those giant arms of his right in front of the order window. With a smoldering growl, “Wanna feel it?”
…Yes. “No! Can’t you act civilized for ten seconds?!” Please don’t.
He knew, the big Keeda. “‘Ya sure? Ain’t nobody got big buff biceps like me!”
“…True enough. But I can think of many who have a more subtle delivery…”
“Oh, sure! ‘Subtle’ ain’t exactly my specialty. I’ll leave that tricky game to clever lil’ silverfurs!” His tail was wagging up a storm. Brownfurs really had trouble controlling it. “Speaking o’ that, I hear ya’ got ‘yer nose on a handsome lil’ friend o’ mine these days! Howzzat goin’?”
Well that was different. Daar usually focused on her qualities. And especially his. Not on other males.’ What was he up to?
“I am suddenly deeply suspicious.”
“Ya should be! Smart Female like ‘yerself prol’ly knows all the tricks us big lunks use!”
“Mmhmm. And this one? I believe the humans call this the ‘wingman’ technique.”
“Absolutely! Also, I can smell ‘em all over in ‘yer lil’ shack, y’know…he were here a few hours ago weren’t he?! I bet you let him help make tacos, too. Scandalous!”
Leela chittered happily as her paws worked. “Oh dear, you’ve caught me, Daar! Yes, all this time I’ve been stringing you along when really I’d put all my attention on some other Male. And yes, I’ve seen his paintings, and he politely asked if he could paint me.”
“Really. And I said yes.”
Daar’s tail whipped back and forth like a rudder, swatting at the air audibly. He looked like a gricka readying itself to pounce on a dizi rat.
“Ah! But you ain’t really seen ‘em, did’ya know that? Those paintin’s o’ his got something a little extra…an’ Leemu’s one o’ the only gao who can see it! Can ‘ya guess what it is?”
Daar’s chafing-dish-sized paw had crept a little too close to the window opening, which earned the offending limb a swift spatulatory whap.
“Bad Daar! And I honestly could not possibly imagine what it might be, I just admire his skill. You’re right, he really is a talented painter.”
“Talented an’ more! See, it’s ‘cuz he can see the color red.”
Leela paused. “He… wait, what?”
Daar’s contrabass chitter rattled the window in its frame. “Yeah! Turns out, we all can, it’s just a gene what’s not activated! An’ he, uh, sorta helped us ‘ta discover that!”
Leela peered thoughtfully into the fog that Daar’s breath was building on her window. A whole primary color she’d never seen? What would that even be like?
What were Leemu’s paintings like? She wanted to see that.
Remembering herself, she quickly rescued some almost over-browned corn tortillas and assembled another half-dozen tacos with a few efficient motions.
“So he can see red,” she said nonchalantly, trying to control her twitching, swiveling ears.
Of course, under all the comically hulking brawn, Daar was still the Great Father. He noticed everything, even through the fogged-over window. “Yup! Y’should, y’know, ask ‘em ‘bout it!”
“I…you’re serious. You’re actually talking him up. Earnestly.”
“‘Course I am! I happen ‘ta like the lil’ fella! An’ you two would make a cute couple! He’s tough an’ determined and creative as balls, an’ ‘yer industrious, super smart, beautiful…”
Earnest praise always felt good of course, but it felt doubly so coming from Daar. He was a Stoneback and they never lied. Ever. He wasn’t one to sugar-coat things either. To be called beautiful and smart by someone like him…
That didn’t mean she couldn’t tease him, though. She knew exactly the jab to take.
“Daar, I’m surprised! You’ve somehow learned to think beyond your own Little Father!”
Daar’s uproarious chitter sounded like a revving motorcycle and shook the ground for several seconds. “Naw! Ain’t been little since I were! It’s a long an’ heavy pawful, even ‘fer me!”
“An’ besides! While ‘yer busy with Leemu, I’ll just go fuck all ‘yer most bestest Sisters ‘fore ‘ya give in ta’ the inevitable!”
“Oh! An’ ‘fore I forget, how’dya like ta’ get a nice, fat caterin’ job?”
Leela needed just a second to recover from the conversational whiplash. Life around Daar was just that way, it seemed.
“Uh…wow. Okay. That’s a novel means of attracting my affections…”
“Naw, right now I’m jus’ tryna get more tacos. Priorities, y’know!”
“Fer’ serious! There’s gonna be a whole lotta First Fang and Human operators there. Couple hunnerd bottomless stomachs! An’ I bet they’ll tip well!”
“…And one bottomless Daar.”
“Naw! You need proof otherwise? ‘Cuz I’ll shake my big ol’ glutes ‘fer a pretty Female any day!”
“That’s not what I— Oh for fuck sake.”
Daar shook them anyway, because preening for Females was just what he did.
Leela wasn’t as disapproving as she pretended. There was something perversely delightful in rejecting the earnest advances of a male like him, but leaving aside his extreme smarmy boisterousness, it was hard to say no. He was without any serious question the greatest gaoian male to ever live; that unbelievably brash self-assessment he’d unleashed on her had the virtue of being entirely true. Yet nonetheless, Leela resisted him. She wasn’t entirely sure why. He was genuinely affectionate and charming under it all, but…
He was just so…
Ridiculous. Blatant. So completely over the top, an outright parody of himself…and yet.
Leela gave in and chitter-sighed.
“Alright, you irredeemable meathead. Fine. You win, just like you always do. But right now I’ve got a mountain of tacos here. How are you carrying all this?”
“I got saddlebags! Hang on, I gotta put ‘em on…can ‘ya help?”
Well. Leela tidied up the last of the tacos into a big paper stasis bag and stepped out under the awning she kept over the door. Daar thumped over on his rear legs, his body still tensed…
…And abruptly, the playful illusion between them was broken. Leela didn’t know if it was the lighting, that his attention was on something else for the moment, that she was standing so close to him and he was so utterly, unbelievably huge and so toweringly tall—
For that moment he wasn’t big, goofy Daar, an incorrigible oaf with a penchant for silliness and light-heartedly boorish behavior. Standing before her was the Great Father in all his glory, all his noble being, all his terrible power and unrestrained capacity for action.
He sighed, and a touch of melancholy colored his voice. “See that sunset, Leela?”
She looked. Even though it was raining locally, those clouds were only a local phenomenon. The sunset itself was a warm wash of yellows. Pretty enough, she supposed. The dying light shining through the rain was certainly striking, and the faint arc of a rainbow added an intriguing highlight, but… Still, she couldn’t quite see what was so enrapturing about it.
He sighed again and finally relaxed. Somehow his slackened muscles only amplified the sense of tragic nobility about him. Right then, staring into the sunset, his face lit with warm yellows and his expression almost mournful…he was wasn’t just handsome. He was beautiful.
She keened softly and suddenly felt very, very small. “…What’s wrong?”
“I wish all my people could see that. Soon, maybe…” He looked down at her and smiled wanly. “But that’s a problem for tomorrow-Daar.”
Whatever it was that had bothered at him seemingly passed without much issue. He fell to all fours with a heavy ‘thump’ and pranced over to a little package he’d brought with him. It turned out to be a pack harness, which he wriggled into without much complaint. Leela yet again enjoyed the view—she was doing that a lot tonight—until he was ready.
“Can ‘ya load me up? I don’t fit so well in ‘yer little stand…”
“No,” she chittered. “If you tried to squeeze yourself in I fear it would burst!”
Leela popped in and fetched the order. Half of the order went into one of his side-bags, and he spun around on the spot so she could load the other half. She secured the flaps and he was loaded up, ready to charge over to wherever he was going next.
“Balls that smells good, can’t wait to dig in! Thankee!” He reached for his money and they settled up accounts.
“Will there be anything else?”
“Nah, you made everything jus’ how I like it, I can tell. And…uh…thank you. ‘Fer puttin’ up with me. It means more’n you’ll ever know that I can have an occasional dose o’ normalcy.”
On all fours, his head was only a bit below eye level, which made it much easier to look him in the eye. She didn’t see smarminess there, or boisterous ego. No preening, no boasting…
That was…she didn’t quite know what to say, but humor seemed a safe escape. “Uh…well, if you want your hopes repeatedly dashed, then I guess I’m the Female for you.”
Daar chittered, this time warmly. “Good! Even a Great Father needs someone ‘ta put ‘em in his place now an’ then! But, uh, on a more serious note…”
“…I weren’t kiddin’ ‘bout you an’ Leemu. It’s just…he’s been through some shit, Leela. An’ I respect the balls outta him ‘fer copin’ as well as he has. So, uh…I ain’t askin’ a favor or nothin’ and this isn’t me as the Great Father tryin’ ‘ta intervene…but, uh…give him a fair shake?”
Leela smiled warmly and scritched at the side of his brutish jaw. “You don’t need to worry about that, Daar. I like him. And…thank you, too.”
“Oh? ‘Fer what?”
Leela felt a bit at a loss for words. “Um…just, in general. I think mostly, thank you for paying attention to me. Even if it is over-the-top hypermacho attention.”
Daar nuzzled against her hand and chuffed. “You like it, though.”
“…I do. I don’t know why, but I do.”
Daar sighed and looked up at her. “Yeah. Better that, then be all terrified o’ me, I guess.”
“Just a few ticks ago, you saw somethin’ in me that gave ‘ya a fright, din’t ‘ya?”
Great Mother he was perceptive. “…Yes. The light caught you just so…”
“Right.” Daar shook out the fur on his nape. “But ‘ya know I’m mostly jus’ a goofball, right?”
She understood. “You do it deliberately, to disarm yourself.”
“Partly, yeah. Mostly I do it ‘cuz that’s just how I naturally am, but…”
“You never wanted any of this, did you.”
“No. I want to protect an’ ain’t nobody else can do this, but balls if I’d rather just, y’know…”
That was…well, there was only one thing to do. She crouched down and hugged his massive head to her chest, and scritched her claws in his dense neckfur.
“Daar…” She pulled back to look him in the eyes. They were beautiful really, a very pure amber that was almost like they were glowing. “Daar. My Father.” Leela touched noses with the Great Father, and then pushed his muzzle down to her throat. Not an easy thing to do, the memories flooded back…
She summoned up her courage and didn’t quaver. “I believe in you. I trust you. We all do.”
Daar, bless him, understood her meaning. He snuffled against her throat and gave her a single affectionate lick, then guided her muzzle against the brutishly thick cords of his own neck with his great, skull-encircling paws. He could kill her so easily, even by accident…
But she trusted him. She hadn’t lied, and he knew it. “I know. An’ I trust you, too.”
They held for a long, profound moment.
Daar eventually broke the moment. “Well…I better git goin’ before the Lads send out a search party. We’re havin’ a bit of a get-together, ‘fer old time’s sake.”
Leela stepped back and duck-nodded. “You should get going. Go find a nice warm towel or something, you’ll catch a chill.”
Daar gave her one last smarmy look, this one more gently playful than the others. “Naw, I like the rain! I don’t git cold, even bein’ all super lean an’ short-furred like this. My ‘tabolism’s always been pretty crazy.”
“It’s certainly kept me in business…”
“An’ me full o’ energy!”
Leela smiled warmly at him, but decided she needed to do one last thing. She leaned in and touched noses again, and then nibbled at the side of his heavy jaw. “One day. If I ever go in for an oaf again…it’ll be you.”
Daar duck-nodded seriously and returned the nip. “An’ I’ll be ready, when you are. Take ‘yer time, ‘kay? An’ if ‘ya ever want me ‘ta stop, or mebbe dial it back a bit…”
Leela smiled warmly. “We should get you on your way. Someone’s got to put the Lads in line!”
They hugged one last time. Leela gave him a taco-shaped business card, with a custom pop-up ninja inside the fold brandishing “throwing tacos.” Daar was suitably delighted with it, said his goodbyes—warmly, as always—and with tacos filling his side bags, finally thumped off toward his other business. She admired the roll of his hugely muscular haunches as he thundered off at a prancing trot, shaking the ground underfoot as he went. When he was at a fair distance away, he looked back at her, flicked his ears, and poured on so much speed, he handily outran the cars cruising the road.
She went inside to close for the night, and found herself grinning.
Date Point: 16y7m3w2d AV
Quarterside Park, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
The ‘hostel’ had other guests staying, though there was room for Ferd and his men. They were given room keys (and then a quick lesson on how keys and locks worked). Ferd kept the intricate little steel shape in a pouch on his bandolier next to his lucky arrowhead and his game-bones.
The other guests were young humans, a couple of hands of hands of them who couldn’t believe their good luck at actually getting to meet Ten’Gewek. Ferd and his party quickly became the most interesting thing around, and they couldn’t go anywhere in the hostel without a following.
…The young ones weren’t unwatched, though: they were under the watchful eye of a tall man with a ruddy beard and long hair as orange as boy’s crest, and a short, springy, wiry woman with short hair the color of stone, who made introductions.
The children were a ‘choir,’ she explained. It was a word that Ferd didn’t know but which turned out to mean ‘many singers.’
Not Singers. Just… people who sang. These children still kept their names, and their songs weren’t communion with the Gods. They weren’t magic, they just sung because they were good at it and enjoyed it. Apparently they came from a place called ‘Lun-dun’ and were in Folctha for a hand of days on a ‘tour.’
The children themselves eagerly suggested putting on an impromptu show for the Ten’Gewek, and formed in a half-moon on the grass at the back of the hostel. The tall man with the orange hair picked up a wooden thing with thin wires on it that made a strummy, pleasant noise when he ran his fingers across them, and…
…Ferd hadn’t ever heard singing like it.
The Humans might be young, but they took clear, pure notes out of the air and pulled them together into three or four voices, each made from two hands of lone voices woven together like deft fingers braiding cordage.
Ironically for something sung with so many voices standing shoulder-to-shoulder, it was a lonely song about loss and longing, tossed back and forth between the boys and the girls like an echo.
♫♪ “Did they get you to trade (did they get you trade?) your heroes for goals? (Did they get you to tra-ade?) Hot ashes for trees? (Trees fall down) Hot air for a cool breeze…”♪♫
Humans were good at singing.
It left Ferd sitting in an odd place. He was a Given-Man! A strong hunter, a warrior, a father and a protector of his people. But here in this place, he didn’t have anything he could show off with in reply. There was nothing heavy enough that lifting it would be impressive, and even if there was it probably belonged to somebody and he should be careful with it. There were no trees big enough to climb, no mighty beasts to hunt…
He could boast with the best, but Humans could be weird about boasting. They weren’t impressed by the same things so much.
What did that leave him with?
Answering questions, that’s what. And children, any children, were full of them. At first it was questions about what kind of songs the People sang, then questions about Singers and Dancers, and Given-Men, and did they know Julian Etsicitty? For some reason, a lot of the girls were giggling at that question.
Well. He knew why. Somehow though he knew he shouldn’t explore that branch.
“Yes! Jooyun is good friend! Good hunter, very smart! Easy to wrestle, though…”
That eventually led to them asking Ferd and his men to do all sorts of things: “Can you scratch your own back?” Yes. That seemed an odd question, but Humans didn’t have tails and couldn’t easily reach a spot in the middle of their backs! “Can you pick up that table?” Easy! And so on.
Ferd did eventually pick up a car, for fun. Sort of. It was heavy like a good Werne but it was much more heavy at one end than the other, and anything he tried to do felt like it might break something. He settled for just picking the front up a few times and putting it back down. Too bad. If he weren’t worried about it breaking in his hands…
That seemed to impress the children well enough, but by then their tribe elders were getting nervous, so he made sounds like the children should listen, and so forth. That got him some warm smiles, once the grown-ups figured out that the People did not fear toothy grins.
Once the children had been shooed away, some of the older not-quite-men and almost-women—young, but old enough to be treated basically like adults—suggested that they were going ‘out on Folctha.’
What that meant, apparently, was partying and fun, so of course Ferd and the others were in. That led, some minutes later, to something called a ‘night club’ which had nothing in common with any club Ferd had ever seen or held. Probably a words thing. Language.
There were bright, strongly colored lights, always moving. There was heat. Not as much as the forest, but it was warm and the air was heavy with moisture and the taste of young, excited people. There was music. This was much more like what the People made: deep, strong, a good rhythm for dancing. The difference was the high, soaring singing up above it, so loud that in minutes it sounded different.
Ferd liked dancing. Any strong-blooded man of the People liked dancing for the women. Here, that seemed to be the whole point of it. And there were many pretty people…
And drinks. Funny-tasting. It was the alcohol he’d remembered from the last time, and was very careful after that. Even so, with just that one drink he felt pleasantly a little dizzy and odd in the head. Everything was funny, especially the way Oki started falling asleep. Ferd was strong though and didn’t succumb to the magic of alcohol so easily. Instead he had a tiny slip of a woman with such pretty colors in her hair suddenly sitting in his lap, her arm around his neck…
Well…he was just a man, after all. Her wonderfully soft hands felt all along his body, and he felt her right back, and there was very much sneaky fun high up in a hidden corner, where Ferd and his new friend could explore each other without being bothered. But he remembered dimly the warnings from Wild: no fucking for him. Too bad. She would have felt so good…
But clever fingers and warm mouths were a good start. He’d have to visit her again some day!
Somehow, they made it back to the hostel. He wasn’t really sure how. He slept like a fallen tree on the almost too comfortable bed and…
…And the next morning was a gods-damned Taking for the Giving of the night before. He woke to the evil screeching-bird noises of his accursed fone and peered at it with eyes that felt like they were coated in sand.
…It was getting late. They had to get to the terminal. He rolled to his feet and shook out his head–that was a mistake. Suddenly it felt like Yan himself was punching him right in his brain. It must have been the alcohol. It’s Givings and Takings were very powerful magic.
Humans were strong people, at least in the ways of magic. Getting Oki to wake up was a small blessing though: Ferd had begun to worry they’d have to carry him back.
If they’d had to do that, Ferd would have made sure Oki paid for it later. In any case, they put their beds back together they way they found them, then shambled to the food room and ate some breakfast—the eggs were tasty at least, and he was already feeling much better. Bacon! There was also something called ‘black pudding’ which was very obviously made with something’s blood, but there was something else in it he couldn’t place. Whatever it was, it was also tasty, but was definitely something sort of like those ‘pastas’ the Humans loved. He would be farting loudly in an ‘hour,’ probably.
They said their goodbyes to the children from the night before while the adults gave them knowing looks. Probably remembering adventures in their own youth, maybe.
After that, things went smoothly. All the stuff that should have been waiting for them at the jump array, was. Everything was loaded up quickly and expertly by a team of men with wheeled things, who got it all in place and settled inside the square briskly and quietly, then vanished as quickly as they’d come.
The Gaoian guard made a strange not-quite-trilling noise when he came to stamp their papers. “You smell like you had fun last night!”
“Too much fun,” Ferd grumbled. His head was still unhappy.
“Was it worth it?”
Ferd looked around. Folctha was.. A strange place. A jungle of its own kind, with its own ways and paths. He’d probably spent his time blundering and crashing through it like a panicking animal, rather than moving gracefully like a hunter should. The people who lived here had been friendly, and helpful, and full of surprises…
But he was going home knowing that there was much he did not know. Wild’s lesson was clear, there.
“…Yes,” he said. “Very worth it.”
They levered Oki onto the platform, settled in among all the things they’d come to fetch, and went home.
Date point: 16y8m1w AV
Planet Rauwryhr, the Rauwryhr Republic
Scrythcra, Rauwryhr ambassador to the Dominion Security Council
Rauwryhr tradition symbolically put important things higher up. Leaders and visionaries flew higher, saw further… and stayed there. Climbing up the trees from the bottom was hard work after all.
For this occasion, and these leaders and visionaries, the Republic had chosen the highest and most symbolically important location possible: the canopy. Dappled green-and-white leaves sprawled away in all directions under the perfect open sky, pierced here and there by the silver needles of starports and transit hubs.
And on a wide platform built intricately of lightweight high-strength alloys and decorated with polished stone tiles and other such heavy luxuries, under the warm sun and the open blue, the leaders of the most militarily significant species in the Dominion were gathering.
The Deathworlders drew the most attention. All of them were conspicuous in their exceedingly competent physicality. Many were Human, some of which were small, a few were enormous, all were gifted with compact and dense bodies that variously shook the platform with every step.
There were also Gao, mostly lighter-footed and less conspicuous than the Humans, with a few brutes sprinkled within that competed with the largest Humans for sheer strength.
There were even a pair of Ten’Gewek: Yan Given-Man, Chief of the Lodge, and his niece known only by her title: The Singer. As Scrythcra understood it, her role was complex: a spiritual-philosophical guide to her uncle, a keeper of her people’s oral history, and a physician of sorts.
Primitive they may have been, but that only enhanced their Deathworlder presence; The Singer was as imposing as any Human Scrythcra had ever met, and only one other being present could stand beside her uncle as an equal.
They mostly kept counsel with the great leaders of the Deathworld nations and glanced warily at the sky whenever a security air shuttle passed nearby.
Handily surpassing them all was one hulking charismatic exemplar: Daar, the unacknowledged, de-facto leader of the Deathworld species. The treetop platform, sturdy enough to serve as a landing pad though it was, still thumped like a drum under the Great Father’s enormous mass. He spent most of the social morning leading Yan and the Singer around to the attendees and making introductions. The others paid close, if discreet attention; when the most powerful being in the galaxy, one who was arguably its most dangerous predator as well, wanted someone to meet his good and trusted friend…
He was nothing but civilized, polite friendliness to everyone. Nonetheless, all but Yan paid him deference, and some representatives of minor powers did so to the point of near terror. Even the great Human leaders, proud and capable all, gave the Great Father his due respect.
His clear and obvious fondness for the American President was a major topic of discussion during the morning social before the official start of business.
Not that it was much of a social. The Kwmbwrw Grandmatriarchs—conspicuously lacking Henenwgwyr among their number—huddled together and conspired, as did the assorted Vzk’tk and Rrrtk heads of state, the gaggle of Corti Deans, and the representatives of all the other minor species.
There was, however, an island of stillness in the middle of it all: a Guvnurag, thin and recovering. Furfeg, now elevated to President of the Guvnurag Confederacy by simple line of succession. He’d been eightieth, before the Hunter attack on their homeworld and the en-masse biodroning of his species’ entire population.
This had prompted an outpouring of sympathy from the Gaoian camp. And of course, the Gao had gone through something similar themselves: if anybody could genuinely sympathize, it was them.
The rest… faced the prospect. Scrythcra’s government had conducted quite an early investigation into Human claims about the dangers of neural interfacing cybernetics, and the Republic’s leadership had been methodically and slowly quarantined and cleansed… a process that had only become overt after the Battle of Gao and the Guvnurag invasion.
Everyone present today was clean of implants.
There were two notable moments during the social mingling and small-talk, the first of which happened quite early in the day when Scrythcra was introduced to the Ten’Gewek.
It was hard to know what to say to such people. The psychological profile on Ten’Gewek that he’d read upon learning of their attendance suggested that their culture placed a premium on physical brute strength. Rauwryhr, being among the Dominion’s more fragile species thanks to their lightweight bones, were apparently at a disadvantage there.
At least, until the Singer asked a question.
“I heard you can fly?” she asked.
“Here on this world, yes,” Scrythcra said. “Should I demonstrate?”
“I would love to see it!” the Singer replied eagerly. Yan was more impassive, but even he bobbed his head and issued a soft hoot which Scrythcra took for badly-restrained interest.
So he demonstrated. There was a nice updraft off the forest canopy, and he rode it to some distance above the platform before spiralling down again. An easy and gentle glide from his perspective, but the Ten’Gewek pair seemed thoroughly impressed before Daar guided them away to meet other delegates.
Their Human guide and minder, an enormous and solid specimen with plenty of shaggy hair and darker skin then most of the rest, smiled and shook Scrythcra’s hand with care.
“You impressed them,” he said. “Neither of them impress easily.”
“I thought they weren’t much impressed by weaker species?” Scrythcra inquired.
“Flight is a strength they don’t have…” The Human glanced over his shoulder as the Great Father introduced the Ten’Gewek to First Director Shanl. “…I should follow them. Thank you, Your Excellency.”
And with that, he was gone. Scrythcra spent the remainder of the morning feeling quite accomplished.
The second incident came later, and was much more consequential. Scrythcra didn’t catch the conversation between the Great Father and Furfeg, which had begun with the enormous Gaoian approaching with as cautious and non-threatening a prowl as he could manage: not, therefore, a particularly reassuring gesture to most present. They exchanged words and Furfeg’s chromataphores flashed many colors, which seemed to strongly fascinate the Great Father. There was a pause, the Great Father duck-nodded, rose to his hind legs…
…And gave Furfeg a hug.
Exactly what was said between them wasn’t clear, and Scrythcra heard much speculation for the rest of the morning as he mingled and talked with the delegates. Furfeg didn’t say, and Daar teased infuriatingly rather than answering.
Scrythcra could appreciate discretion. He didn’t pry.
Instead, when the time came, he called the delegates to order.
Today was the culmination of months of meetings between the Dominion species’ military thinkers, not to mention fraught negotiations with some of the Security Council members. Over the time the Symposium had been going on there had been practical demonstrations of technology, philosophical discussions, presentations and history lessons…
…All in preparation for today. The moment that the Gao and Humans revealed their big plans, and invited the other species to join in.
The delegates spread out around the platform, and an experienced political eye could see the underlying loyalties and affiliations in where they chose to coalesce. The Humans and Gao were side by side, as close as old friends. The Ten’Gewek sat with them, and then on either side of the Deathworlder trio were the Guvnurag and Corti.
An interesting statement from the Corti, that. The Directorate’s delegates, especially First Director Shanl, were experts at conveying much while saying little, and their choice of floor space must have been calculated to a very fine degree indeed.
The rest of the circle was more sparse. The Kwmbwrw remained aloof and sat opposite the Deathworld representatives. The Domain picked a diplomatic spot halfway between both, and the Locayl and Independents did the same on the opposite side.
It was all a subtle dance, and none of the species were blind to it. But the dance ended when two of the Gaoians stepped forward to begin the first presentation: Champion Thurrsto, and Champion Fiin.
Both were large and powerfully-bodied males of such stature that they fit comfortably in the company of their fellow Deathworlders. Both were possessed of an easy, assured grace that commanded instant respect and attention, as befitted the leadership of the two most capable military Clans of the Gao.
And they were not, apparently, interested in diplomatic preamble. There had been enough of that already.
Thurrsto launched into the presentation without even a note of welcome or an acknowledgement of the situation. “We begin by framing the obstacles in front of us,” he began. “The first component of a solution, after all, is understanding. And understanding the twin enemies we face is going to be crucial as we move forward.”
Unlike his colleague, Champion Fiin preferred to remain on four-paw. He never quite stopped moving as he spoke, either, creating a prowling impression that contrasted with Thurrsto’s upright stillness. “We have learned over many years that our two great enemies are two aspects of the same problem. The Hunters are, in fact, the discarded corporeal husks of the dataforms–” A grumble from the Great Father off in the corner made Fiin chitter resignedly. “–sapient malware that threaten our peoples’ freedom and existence.”
“A brief review of ancient history is probably the best place to start, therefore.” Thurrsto continued. “From what we can gather, the civilization known as the Igraens were among the first to evolve in this galaxy, sharing it with only a few others. Exactly how many is long-forgotten, but we know of one for certain: the V’Straki.”
“We’ve heard some fanciful stories about the V’Straki,” Fiin continued. “Including that they in fact evolved on Earth, homeworld of our Human friends. If so, they somehow managed to achieve advanced spaceflight without leaving any trace of their advanced industrial age in that planet’s well-studied geological record, but the details don’t truly matter. What matters is that the Igraens and the V’Straki were bitter enemies, and their conflict raged without regard for any other species. Each was so concerned with destroying the other that every other concern was secondary. And in the end… the Igraens won.”
“Their victory wasn’t complete, however,” Thurrsto took over. “Igraens were dependent on a dietary supplement native to their homeworld. Without it, they quickly descended into violent, mindless cannibalistic madness, and the V’Straki successfully eradicated the crop, most likely with some kind of tailored bioweapon. Again, the exact detail doesn’t matter. What matters is that the Igraens were left with a choice: descend into insanity and go extinct, or upload their mind-states to a digital format and persist in that form, no longer corporeal but arguably still themselves.”
“But the insane corporeal Igraens did not die off,” Fiin resumed his part in the back-and-forth. “A minority retained enough intelligence and insight to survive. In time, this intelligence was selected for and they evolved a twisted kind of sapience very different to what had once been. Eventually they became intelligent enough to understand the ruins of the civilization around them, to learn from it, to build, and to strike out to the stars in search of prey. Thus began the Hunters, and they have tormented spacefaring life forms ever since.”
“As for the—with My Father’s indulgence—the dataforms,” Thurrsto said, “They found that a version of their corporeal deficiency came with them. What had once been a dietary need became something else. A need for something they can hardly define to this day, but which they know as ‘Substrate.’ Its exact nature remains a little… arcane… but they derive it from living, material life forms such as us. But to get it, they require access to our brains. And over the long millions of years - nearly a third of a galactic rotation - the most effective method they found was to cultivate a thriving market for neural cybernetics.”
“This market needed protecting,” Fiin said. “They needed their own designs and technology to dominate, otherwise inevitably somebody would have invented a version that wasn’t vulnerable to their machinations and that didn’t provide the needed Substrate. So they brutally suppressed all innovation in the field, bought patents, engineered the law and the private sector alike across every incarnation of the galactic community going back far beyond the limits of our historical record.”
Thurrsto sighed, and padded back to the center of the floor. “However, this ran the risk of lulling the Substrate too far into complacency. They observed that a motivational threat was required. To that end, we suspect they aided the Hunters in their climb back to the stars…and from time to time, engineered Contingency species. The most recent such species…was the Gao.”
He looked over at the Great Father. “We do not know the degree to which we were tampered with. We know it was extensive, and that every aspect of our existence has been touched by their interference. We know that at some point, our planet was a rich class-eleven world and trending steadily higher. It is now…well, it flowers because of our industry. Only now, across deep geologic time, as Gao has begun to reclaim its former richness, do we begin to understand just how much was taken from us. We are as we are because we were designed to be, encouraged to be. Bred to be. How much of that was our will, we will never know.”
Daar rumbled from his seat at the high table. “But we ended it, on our terms. We ain’t nobody’s Janissaries.”
Thurrsto duck-nodded, then returned his focus to everyone else. “…There was another threat to their schemes, however. It’s an oversimplification, perhaps, to artificially separate the galaxy’s species into Deathworlders and not, but the fact remains that where many species thrive on stability, others thrive on the opposite. Put aside the strict rules of classification: a Deathworlder is a being who hails from a dynamic, dangerous, and fundamentally unpredictable world. Such people simply could not be relied upon to comply with the Hierarchy’s cybernetic monopoly…. Which left, in the Igraen’s estimation, only one option. Extermination.”
“We don’t even know how many species they destroyed,” Fiin said. He hung his head sadly. “But at a minimum… thousands. Tens of thousands, most likely. Tens of thousands of our fellow sophont species, trillions of individuals, all mercilessly eradicated because they might pose a potential future danger to the Igraen Hegemony. That, esteemed attendees, is the kind of ruthlessness we are up against.”
“It is the fate that was reserved for Humanity. We’ve since learned their final plan before they triggered the War for Gao, before My Father became a hindrance to their machinations…was to trigger an interstellar war between our peoples.”
The pair let a gentle susurrus of whispered comments swell and die around them before Thurrsto moved the history forward.
“So. That is where we are now. The Hierarchy lurking in the background, plucking the strings of our economy and the very neurons of our brains, and the Hunters at large in a vast and untamed swathe of uncharted space. Both know that things are about to change for them. And both, if pressed, will gladly wipe us all out and cultivate a new set of civilizations if given the chance. They have done it before.”
“Let’s review a few facts about Hunter space,” Fiin said. He finally turned to the holoprojector behind him and summoned a graphic: a map of the galaxy.
Scrythcra was always struck by how small the Dominion seemed, when he saw it on the map like this. Though the Interspecies Dominion claimed rather grandiosely to be the arbiter of galactic law and the mediator for every sapient species in the galaxy, in reality it was a thin band—presented in this case in yellow—that stretched maybe a third of the way around quite a narrow corridor of the galactic disk, perhaps two-thirds of the way out from the core.
Even so, in real terms that was an immense volume encompassing uncountable millions of stars, trillions of sophonts, an economy so immense and complex that nobody could begin to fathom it, and the richest known field of temperate worlds in the whole galaxy. Turnwise from Dominion space, the number of temperate worlds dwindled sharply. Counter-turnwise… well, the farthest-flung backwater of the whole Dominion was Earth, sitting alone and forgotten amidst the barren Border Stars.
There were two other hues on the map: A tiny green smudge that was the Celzi Alliance, once the Dominion’s most bitter enemy, now merely an irksome and unreasonable neighbor…
…And Hunter Space. A blue tumor whose sprawling tendrils reached out to lick the entire Dominion from the Coreward Marches at the edge of Kwmbwrw space all the way down to the largely uninhabited Far Reaches.
Fiin considered the map for a moment, then returned his gaze to the attendees. “…We don’t know exactly how big Hunter space is,” he said. “It’s never been adequately mapped or explored, as every attempt to do so has been intercepted. We do however have intelligence recovered from the Hunters’ own navigation charts.”
“At the cost, it must be said, of many brave and talented lives,” Fiin added. “Nevertheless, what matters is that we can put approximate limits on the boundaries of Hunter space, and an estimate on how many temperate worlds fall within those boundaries, all of which we presume to be claimed and used for slave farming.”
He swept his paw, and a constellation of little points of light filled the Hunter volume on the map. “…One hundred and six of them.”
Dismay swept around the chamber like a light breeze on leaves, causing much movement but still leaving everything where it had been. One hundred and six? The Vzk’tk Domain, by far the Dominion’s largest and most sprawling member state, encompassed twelve. The Kwmbwrw, in second place, had a mere ten.
Everyone else had six or fewer.
“I should point out that despite that number, the Hunters themselves prefer an exclusively spaceborne existence. Nevertheless, they have the resources to control and contain those planets and keep their slave population suppressed,” Thurrsto finished.
Fiin raised his voice as the dismay got a little louder. Not shouting or anything, just making himself heard. “Please, delegates! We’re not here to alarm you. We’re presenting raw facts here, which need putting in their proper context.” He paused long enough for the rising noise to settle, then duck-nodded. “A hundred and six planets is a lot, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of overestimating our foe; that’s often just as dangerous as *under*estimating them would be.”
“It’s difficult to translate their… uh… lifestyle into our terms,” Thurrsto agreed. “But if the planet ‘Hell’ is fairly average by their standards, we can expect each of these worlds to bear about a hundred million slaves. Considering the average Hunter’s nutritional requirements, that puts an upper limit on the population all those planets can support.”
“Those estimates would set the Hunter population at a little fewer than five and a half billion individuals,” Fiin said. “It could be less, or It could be more. It could be much more. Nevertheless, My Father’s Grand Army has, as of this morning, one billion, eleven million and seven-hundred thousand trained and experienced soldiers. They are well-drilled in the logistics and teamwork of dealing with unspeakable horrors and—go ahead?”
He had been (politely) interrupted by Ak’kk’brr, Grand Admiral of the Vzk’tk Domain, who raised his larger left hand to draw the Champion’s attention.
“Nobody disputes the competence and tenacity of Gaoian soldiers, Champion Fiin of Clan Stoneback” he said, diplomatically. “But you are still describing a five-to-one numbers deficit. How exactly do you propose we attack a power that much larger?”
“That question isn’t ours to answer, Grand Admiral,” Fiin replied. “But I can promise you that it will be, in due course.”
“Setting that question aside for a moment, the final issue to consider regarding the Hunters is the logistical and rehabilitation challenge posed by the slave populations of those planets, some of whom may even be hitherto-uncontacted species,” Thurrsto took over smoothly. “If our estimates are accurate, then the total slave population is more than ten billion individuals alive at any given time, and that population can be expected to explode without the Hunters. The question of how to deal with them will be a long-term and ongoing one.”
“That’s the Hunters. The Hierarchy pose a different set of challenges,” Fiin said. He waved his hand at the holoprojector, and the galactic map reappeared, dotted with a constellation of glowing zones like dried fruit in a cookie. “All software requires hardware, and they are no different. There are a number of communications relays dotted around the galaxy, though we have estimates on the upper and lower bounds, as well as mildly contradictory testimony from interrogated Igraens as to how many there are which fell inside those bounds.”
“We also know roughly where they are likely to be,” Thurrsto added. “Though I should point out that each of the highlighted volumes in this slide is hundreds of light years across and contains hundreds of thousands or even millions of stars. Work is ongoing to narrow down their locations. The one relay we have so far found was scouted extensively, tapped for a prolonged period to extract useful intelligence, and finally destroyed by orbital bombardment. The instantaneous effect of that last step was the liberation of the Guvnurag population on… uh…” He paused and gave the long alien word a fair attempt. “…Ugun-duvur-onag-thureg-nubur-thuruv. ”
For a brief moment, Fiin’s professional facade slipped and he gave his fellow Champion an amused look and flick of the ear. Thurrsto shot him a return look that clearly said ‘don’t laugh’ in any language, and the Stoneback Champion returned to his half of the briefing. “The work of identifying and demolishing these relays is going to take a while, But we expect that each such victory will be a painful loss for the Hierarchy. Their resistance will no doubt be fierce, and ruthless.”
“There’s also the implanted civilian population to consider,” he continued. “On Gao, the biodrone uprising was ferocious, and the necessary measures to put it down were extreme. It will be necessary to take appropriate steps to mitigate, contain or prevent such uprisings as the Hierarchy grow increasingly desperate.”
“Again, the question of how to resolve that issue is not for us to answer,” Thurrsto said. “Ambassador Sir Patrick Knight, Human representative to the Dominion Security Council, will discuss the philosophy behind the general strategic approach, and finally My Father will explain the details alongside General Gregory Kolbeinn, Supreme Allied Commander of Extrasolar Defence. Before we step aside for them, are there any questions?”
Scrythcra turned around and joined a brief huddle alongside Yrwcrohyr and their advisors.
“Do we have any?” Yrwcrohyr asked.
“What could we possibly ask at this point? What they are proposing is near-certain doom. Let them fall all the way down before we think about climbing down after them.”
“And yet, they’re still alive. Both of them, Gao and Humans alike. And the Ten’Gewek,” Scrythcra pointed out. “If the doom you speak of was so certain, I don’t think that would be so.”
“We were promised an explanation of how they intend to take on those odds,” another advisor agreed. “I say we hear it before we decide the situation is hopeless.”
“Agreed,” Yrwcrohyr said, and that settled it. They returned their attention to the waiting Gao, and indicated that the Rauwryhr contingent had nothing to ask at this time.
The Corti requested a few clarifications concerning the estimated number of Igraen relays, and the Kwmbwrw had a question regarding fleet deployment which Fiin politely explained was not within his authority to answer. Most seemed to have reached the same conclusion as the Rauwryhr had: that they would continue to listen before asking questions.
With that, the pair of Gaoian Champions withdrew to sit behind the Great Father, and Ambassador Knight stepped forward.
Knight had once explained the concept of Knighthoods to Scrythcra, noting that in his case he held the honor of being a knight, in addition to being a Knight. He’d laughed, and then had to explain the joke and the family naming conventions of his native culture.
As Scrythcra understood it, the title referred to highly prized and skilled warriors from the days before Humankind had invented steam power and explosives. Knight had described men wearing full suits of intricately beaten steel, armed with the finest weapons and riding astride a powerful war beast.
It was hard to compare that mental image with the tall and rather elderly Human who nevertheless bore himself upright and with dignity as he moved to the middle of the platform to take up his own chapter of the briefing. But there was something there. Scrythcra had worked with his Human counterpart for some time, and respected him greatly.
He was quite sure that Ambassador Knight would command similar respect from the other delegates, soon.
“So,” the old man said amiably. “The question I’m here to answer was already astutely raised by the Grand Admiral of the Domain—please forgive me if I don’t try to pronounce your name, Grand Admiral, I’m afraid the closest I can manage would be, er… obscurely unflattering—But how do we propose to attack a power that large?”
He turned to the holoemitter. “The answer is that we don’t. Have you ever studied how predators choose their prey? We do not contest with our enemy at their point of maximum strength. Instead…” he waved his hand, summoning the first animated slide. “We identify areas of weakness and strike at them, deftly and without mercy. With each weakness we exploit we create new weaknesses to strike at, and all of this is with a clear objective in mind: to starve them.”
The slide was a little complex for Scrythcra to make sense of at first, but it was that last comment which finally prompted understanding to blossom. The intricate three-dimensional inverted tree Knight had chosen to indicate was a summary of the dense and sprawling material needs demanded by even a modest military. Each extremity was a resource, each higher node a place where those resources came together to produce something necessary.
Knight spoke as though reciting an old adage. “For want of a nail…” he said, and one of the tree’s minor extremities flashed and went dark. “…A shoe was lost. For want of a shoe…” the darkness crept upwards and inwards, as the higher functions which drew from that resource were denied. “…A rider was lost. For want of the rider, the battle was lost… And for want of a battle…”
The creeping starvation reached the tree’s core, and the entire thing went dark.
Knight swept the room with a level, confident gaze. “This is how all wars are won,” he said, firmly. “Any action not directly devoted to this process is wasted action. Fleets can clash, armies can brawl in the mud, heroes can die by the thousand and megatons of munitions can be expended, but unless this happens, it is all… to quote a great poet, ‘It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’
He dismissed the hologram and stood primly where it had been, with his hands loose at his sides
“We propose to teach you how to think like predators. Often, a predator is outnumbered and outmuscled by his prey. His true strength lies in his cunning and wits, and the careful application thereof.”
Scrythcra glanced across at the lumpen stone-age figure of Yan Given-Man, who was nodding in undisguised agreement. His people, Scrythcra was certain, had never fought a war on any kind of real scale in all their history… and yet it was clear that Knight was sharing knowledge that was already intimately familiar to the Ten’Gewek.
Knight saw Scrythcra’s head turn, followed his gaze, and smiled. “…Yes. It is no accident we have among us the great chieftain of a fierce, yet undeveloped people. There are few anywhere who could convey the lesson better than he.”
Yan nodded, and at Knight’s prompting stood up.
“Every day I visit, I see things I know are not magic only because your people long ago tamed the power of the gods. The world, the sky, the power that runs unseen behind it all… you teach me impossible things! Time bends like water ripples, and the world moves around it! Light and heat and fire and the earth, all the same, deep down! And you all can bend space and time to your whim, split the sky and tear the world apart whenever you wish… That is terror. That is strength! And yet I fear no one here but the Great Father. I respect him because he is the only man here who could Take me before the gods, as a hunter takes his meat. The rest of you…I say without disrespect, cower before me and him. You should not! You should stand strong! Why let us win before the fist has been raised or the knife drawn? Because I am bigger than you? My arm is stronger? That doesn’t matter!
“When I hunt… A werne is a mighty beast. A good bull has blades of bone on his face that can break even a steel knife and hooves that could crush my guts with a lucky stomp. I must be careful! I respect my prey, because my prey does not want to die, and it has the strength to fight back, and will kill me if it can. These Hunters and Hierarchy, they are dangerous too… but you do not respect them. You fear them. Not the same thing.”
“Not the same thing at all,” Knight agreed. Yan nodded to him, and resumed his seat.
“Please understand,” Knight said once he had the floor to himself again, “that I am not making any accusation here. We are dealing with a blameless reality of evolutionary psychology: That many of the beings in this room have instincts which served their well in their deep ancestral past, but which are no good for the present crisis. That is, I think, a surmountable obstacle with education and training. Goodness knows, I needed plenty of both myself when I was a young man.” He smiled tightly, and there were some variations on quiet mirth from around the room: a bass chitter from Daar, a brief trill from Yan, and some chuckles from the humans.
It wasn’t a humorous sound.
“Are there any questions before I step aside for the Great Father and General Kolbeinn?” Knight asked.
Scrythcra turned to Twrythruc, the fatalistic advisor from before. “Still think it’s hopeless?”
“Pretty-sounding aphorisms, and no detail on tactics. I am not convinced by magical thinking.”
“What was magical about that? It seemed logical enough to me. A tree dies when the roots rot.”
“And that’s a pretty aphorism from you, too,” Twrythruc grumbled. “Where is the detail?”
“We aren’t here to discuss detail. We are here to discuss grand strategy and our course. Besides: the Deathworlders are going to do this, with or without us. If they should fail, the backlash… might well end our civilization.”
“And if they fail with our assistance, then it certainly will!”
“But if they succeed with our assistance—and I dare to say that success is more likely if we do assist them than if not—then we will have taken a hand in our own future and left a safer tomorrow for our children,” Scrythcra insisted. “If we aren’t even interested in that, then what are we for?”
Yrwcrohyr simply remained quiet, though Scrythcra fancied he detected the faintest agreeable twitch of her left ear in response to his words.
Nevertheless, part of Twrythruc’s objection was put to Ambassador Knight by the Locayl delegate, Chief Secretary Oryus.
“A grand vision,” he said, “but lacking in detail. Do you have a finer-grained vision for the war effort?”
“The Great Father and General Kolbeinn do,” Knight replied. “My intent was simply to explain the underlying logic behind the details. If that is your most burning question, then I think the most appropriate thing to do now would be to hand over to them. Shall I?”
There were nods and equivalent gestures of encouragement from around the platform, so Knight bobbed his head in a gesture of respect and returned to the ranks of the Human delegation. A slightly younger, broader, meatier man in a uniform so dark blue it was almost black, decorated in gold and many colored patches traded a respectful nod and strode out onto the platform alongside Daar.
The Great Father wore no accoutrements. His fur was exquisitely groomed and brushed to a sleek sheen, but other than that he needed no decoration or badges of rank, and his energy quite unconsciously shook the room just from the simple act of standing. There was just something instinctive about him: Humans were intense and intimidating enough, but they at least didn’t have actual fangs and claws. They weren’t heavy enough to make the whole deck resonate like a giant drum with each step. Their danger was potential. His was immediate.
Despite what Yan Given-Man had said, the gathered non-Deathworld delegates couldn’t help but be instinctively afraid of Daar… and he knew it.
“See, that there is what my friends were a’talkin’ ‘bout. Y’all jus’ recoiled from me. I can see th’ alarm in Furfeg’s chromatophores an’ I can smell it in err’one. Th’ first thing we gotta teach ‘ya is ‘ta control that instinct, even if it’s to my personal advantage ‘ya don’t. I can’t have allies scared o’ me just ‘cuz I’m the most strongest. At this level o’ the game, that don’t matter none. An’ ‘ya gotta figger that out. Wars ain’t generally won by who’s got the most biggest muscles or the most hugest fleets.”
Kolbeinn nodded solemnly. “They are won by whoever has the most effective use of their logistics, and the strongest will to victory.”
“Yup! An’ to that end, war strategies’re ultimately pretty simple, ‘least at th’ highest levels. ‘Ya maximize ‘yer logistical ability ‘ta project force, an’ you minimize ‘yer enemy’s ability ‘ta do the same. All ‘yer tactics need ‘ta focus on that first.”
“First, frustrate an enemy’s ability to fight. But just as importantly, if you can, also destroy their will to fight.”
“War is a contest o’ wills. How much pain an’ sufferin’ can ‘yer enemy take ‘fore they decide it ain’t worth it? An’ how much opportunity are ‘ya givin’ ‘em ta’ let up? Cept, that part here is a problem, ‘cuz Hunters are as anti-Civilized as anythin’ thinkin’ can be. An’ that means…”
“We can only strike at their will to fight by threatening their capacity to exist in the first place.”
“Ayup. So this ain’t gonna be a quick war.”
“But it can be done,” Kolbeinn said. He summoned his presentation on the holoemitter: a not-to-scale model of a solar system with a temperate world. “As was said earlier, we intend to starve them out. We propose to do this by encasing each of their systems in a set of system shields, like so…”
The temperate planet pulsed, and was encased in a translucent blue web. Simultaneously, a far larger bubble encapsulated the entire star system. The view pulled in, and the bubble around the planet turned out to be double-walled.
“Pairs of system defence fields, one facing outwards and one facing inwards, with enough of a gap between them for a halo of jump beacons, and sufficient room to safely jump in ships and stations,” Kolbeinn explained. “With this arrangement, Hunters outside the shield can’t access the planet, and any that were trapped on the planet when the shield went up can’t attack the outer shield and destroy it. Instant orbital superiority.”
A series of flashes - twelve or so - sparkled across the planet. “We use that superiority to destroy any Hunter ground installations, terminate any trapped Hunters, and prevent the construction of groundside jump arrays. The job at this point is only half done, however.”
“Next, the Farthrow generator,” the Great Father rumbled. “Ain’t no such thing as a secure system now ‘less you control who gets ‘ta jump in an’ out.”
Korbeinn nodded. “Farthrows mean absolute control over the lines of communication. Once the generator is in place and operational, the system has been secured. Every slave on its surface is now safe, and any Hunters stuck down there can be isolated and exterminated in whatever manner is most appropriate.”
“Th’other pair o’ shields are there ‘fer two reasons,” Daar added, and pulled the presentation out to the lonely shields at the system’s edge. “Same arrangement, one ‘ta stop the greasy fucks from gettin’ in, one so’s they can’t shoot their way out. With this an’ the Farthrow, we cut off any industrial base in that system, stop ‘em from escapin’ an’ regroupin’, an’ make it so they can’t rally troops or coalesce anywhere. It ain’t enough ‘ta protect th’ slaves. We gotta pin the Hunters to th’ floor an’ rip their throats out.”
Despite himself and what the deathworlders had all said so far, Scrythcra found it impossible to completely suppress the nervous shiver that ran through him when the Great Father bared his fangs in a gratuitous display of righteous malice.
Even Kolbeinn gave him a sidelong glance, though the Human’s reaction was understated. He cleared his throat and opened a new slide, which looked like nothing more than a bullet list of needed items.
“So. Logistics,” he said. “At an estimated hundred and six planets, four shields per system comes out to four hundred and twenty-four units. That’s not a lot, but the hundred and six Farthrow generators? Those are a big deal. Just one is an enormous investment of time on even the largest and most advanced nanofactories.”
“My people…we’re not in a position ‘ta crank out Farthrows on that kinda scale,” Daar said. “Humankind ain’t, neither.”
“Nor us,” Yan added, with surprising dry wit that drew mirthful vocalizations from literally everyone present except for the Corti.
Daar looked back at Yan, who was baring his enormous fangs in what Scrythcra’s translator suggested was a friendly gesture. The Great Father chittered and shook his head. “Makes a sweet knife, though…anyhoo. I can supply well-trained soldiers an’ spaceborne operators only the Humans can stand side by side with. They can provide amazing trainers ‘fer basically any military of any ability. Together, we’ve got the finest warships in the galaxy, proud martial histories, an’ some tricks up our sleeves that’d just leave ‘ya awestruck.”
“We’re prepared and ready to be the tip of the spear in fighting the Hunters,” Kolbeinn said. “But we need a sturdy spear shaft behind us. That’s what we’re asking you to be. As for the Hierarchy…”
He flipped through onto the next slide. “Starving them will pose some slightly different obstacles. The first step obviously is to sanitize the neurocybernetics market. This is, however, going to come at a massive economic cost. Neurocybernetics are heavily integrated across many layers of the Dominion’s economy, and in some fields are actually necessary for certain kinds of workers to do their jobs.”
“Obviously, y’ain’t gonna wanna take the path my kind were forced down,” added the Great Father. “Doin’ it properly means ‘yer gonna need ‘ta secure critical personnel quickly, an’ that won’t be easy.”
“Fortunately, great strides have already been made in that direction, as evidenced by this very conference,” Kolbeinn said. “You have all successfully purged your leadership of neurocybernetics. Cleansing the layers below that, however, is going to require careful planning and preparation.”
“An’ it’s gotta be done carefully. The Hierarchy decided ‘ta burn my species, as a warnin’ t’anyone watchin’ about the cost o’ turnin’ down their ‘gifts.’”
“Specific proposals on that score will by necessity have to be on a case-by-case basis. There are too many variables for us to reasonably go into the details of each species’ emancipation and inoculation today,” Kolbeinn said.
“I make this pledge, though: if’n ‘ya need help with the plannin’ an’ mebbe some help executin’ on ‘yer mission, the Gao stand ready ‘ta help.”
“The Allied nations likewise stand ready to offer training and advice. Indeed, that will be the primary focus of our war effort in the early stages of the conflict,” Kolbeinn said. “It isn’t good enough to just describe the philosophy after all—the actual practical details of its implementation need to be taught to the people who’ll be doing the hard work. Fortunately, we have a lot of experience with that.”
“True words, those,” the Great Father rumbled. “Humans trained th’ Grand Army of the Gao; ain’t nobody else coulda. Balls, they taught me things I din’t know I din’t know! Me and my people owe ‘em everythin’ an’ we can pay it forward wit’ y’all, if ‘ya want it.”
“So there, in short, is our proposed plan of action,” Kolbeinn acknowledged the praise with a slow nod of his head. “We train your forces and equip them to fight this war as it must be fought. With our aid, your homelands will be better-defended, your peoples will be liberated from the sleeping threat in their midst, and your frontier colonists will be able to live without fear. In return, the Dominion’s economic and industrial base will supply us with the resources we need to not merely bring our mutual enemies to heel, but end them.”
Daar duck-nodded, and his amber eyes swept the whole platform with a challenge. “Th’ only question left is… are you with us?” he asked.
There was conversation among the various delegates for some time. Twrythruc, the dismissive advisor, was no longer so dismissive. He hardly seemed enthusiastic, but he did not venture a strong objection. Among the Rauwryhr, at least, the decision seemed straightforward. There would be politicking and votes in the Senate and Chamber of Representation of course, but Yrwcrohyr had already been empowered by both and by the Republic’s constitution to be here and make the choice today, and Scrythcra was fairly sure he knew what she would decide.
So, as he waited, he listened carefully. And as far as his sensitive ears could tell, the alien chattering around him mostly boiled down to ‘yes, that all seems like a solid plan’ and similar sentiments. He suppressed the urge to fidget.
It fell to him to bring the meeting back to order, as the host species’ ambassador to the Security Council. But when he stood up to do that, rather than the usual fractious and reluctant process of restoring focus that he might usually see…
…this time, everyone fell silent and looked. For once, it seemed, the species of the Dominion were thinking alike.
He tidied up his gliding membrane as he stepped to the middle, and turned to look at them all. The Deathworlders were looking… oddly wary.
They truly do need the rest of us, he realized.
“…Delegates. The time has come to commit to a course of action,” he announced. “The Allied species have presented their thinking, their plan, their rationale and their requests. We now know what is needed, what it will cost, and what the stakes are. All that remains is to determine what we will do. Will we join them in their war against the Hunters and Hierarchy? Or will we stand aside passively? I direct the question first to the esteemed Yrwcrohyr, President of the Rauwryhr Republic.”
Yrwcrohyr rose to her feet. “We will join the fight,” she declared, simply.
“President Furfeg, of the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun Confederated Worlds?”
Furfeg lurched to his feet. Vibrant resolve shone down his whole body. “The Herds of my people are with the Deathworlders,” he announced.
“First Director Shanl of the Corti Directorate?”
Shanl nodded curtly. “On behalf of the Directorate, I pledge the support of the Corti people.”
“The Grandmatriarchs of the Kwmbwrw Great Houses?”
One of the wisened old diplomats stood up on her hindlimbs, rearing to her full and impressive teetering height. “Our people have been preyed upon for long enough,” she said, fiercely. “We are with them.”
“Ak’kk’brr, Grand Admiral of the Vzk’tk Domain?”
The Admiral bowed his head in a long, slow nod. “The Gao and Humans came to my people’s aid, and shed their blood defending our citizens. We decided to repay our debt long before this council was even called.”
“Oryus, Chief Secretary of the Locayl Unified Nations?”
Oryus gave the simplest answer yet. He stood, and spread all four of his arms in a Locayl bow. “We’re with you,” he said.
“Yan Given-Man, Chief of the Lodge, on behalf of the many tribes of the Ten’Gewek of Akyawentuo?”
Yan sprang upright with such force that the whole deck shivered. “We live because of them! We will fight by them for as long as they will have us!” he barked.
“Skirnhiv, on behalf of the Associate Species of the Dominion?”
The Mjrnhrm chosen to represent the Dominion’s minor and less powerful members tilted his head and fluttered his vestigial wing casings with a sharp buzz. “…I am still awaiting instruction,” he declared. “I must abstain.”
There was dismay, a few outbursts of anger or disappointment from those at the edges of the room: Scrythcra simply recorded the abstention with a nod, and turned toward the Humans.
“I understand there are two major factions on Earth to consult,” he said. “Would the High Commissioner of the Global Representative Assembly please vote?”
Human internal politics were sadly a bit of a closed book, from Scrythcrur’s perspective. As he understood it, their homeworld was divided into more than two hundred sovereign territories, each with their own legal codes, agendas, beliefs, ethics…
Speaking on behalf of most of them was Ping Guozhi, a neat man in neat clothes who had remained utterly silent throughout the proceedings. When he rose to his feet, he cast an inscrutable glance at the five other Human leaders, then turned to Scrythcra.
“In consultation with the United Nations Security Council, and in line with the Global Representative Assembly’s mandate to protect the interests of our member states above and beyond the Earth’s atmosphere,” he said, formally, “I am instructed that the GRA member states will offer whatever support and aid they can to the Allied nations if they should choose to support this war.”
“And the Allied nations?” Scrythcra asked.
There was a brief and apparently ceremonial exchange between the Prime Ministers of Britain, Australia, Canada, Folctha and New Zealand, and President Sartori of the United States. It was all too complex and arcane for Scythcrur to truly follow: There was something about a Commonwealth of Nations, His Majesty King George, and formal permissions. Whatever it all meant, Sartori listened solemnly, thanked them quietly, then turned to the assembled species.
“On behalf of the United States of America, and with the permission of my counterparts, I renew the dedication and support of the Allied nations to the war effort against the Hunters and the Hierarchy,” he declared firmly.
That left only one.
“And… Daar. Great Father of the Gao?”
Daar duck-nodded slowly and gratefully to the Humans, then reared up on two-paw to complete the cycle. There was no doubt about what he’d say, of course: The only question was how he’d say it.
He spared a glance toward Skirnhiv, then turned back to Scrythcra and a slow, vicious pant-grin spread across his face to put every last one of his wicked teeth on display.
“…We accept,” he said.
Date Point: 16y8m1w AV
Broodship of the Thirsting-Brood, The Coreward Marches, Kwmbwrw Grand Houses
Limbs destroyed. Cybernetics…neutered, somehow. Prey so powerful, they tore apart even the Augment-Betas with ease. The Alpha couldn’t move, couldn’t issue orders, could hardly think–
An armored figure kicked a nearby corpse aside, and the Alpha felt the deck under its helpless body shake and bend as the Prey—not prey any more—stopped and considered its broken form.
Somehow, its translation implant was still almost working, in a glitchy way. Hunters rarely deigned to communicate with Prey, but understanding their language meant hearing their fear given voice… usually.
This time, what its implant ventured was “This piece of [fecal excrement] is still breathing.”
Another figure, armored visor glowing balefully in the sparking darkness, joined its fellow. “Tough [disavowed-offspring].”
The word tough translated most directly to a Hunter’s understanding in the sense of “difficult to chew.’ Did the prey plan to eat it? The Alpha would have shivered at the sickening inversion of the natural order, if only it could.
One of the armored figures bobbed its head sharply, then turned away. The Alpha heard its voice as it communicated aloud with a third individual.
“Smokey, Moho. Got a live one for ‘ya. Think it’s the Alpha.”
The reply went unheard, but the Human nodded sharply, said something that the translator did not understand, then knelt and drew a fusion cutting tool from its belt.
Rather than deliver a killing blow, however, the Human cut away the Alpha’s implants and cybernetic limbs. The fusion claws, the implanted guns… it even, the ultimate humiliation, blunted the Alpha’s teeth despite the Alpha’s best efforts to snap at its hand.
One of the Fur-Faces ducked through from an adjacent compartment in its own armor. This one was far bigger than the Thirsting-Brood Alpha knew Fur-Faces to be, and it snarled from the bottom of its belly. “That is one [unappealing] [one-which-engages-in-violent-procreation-with-its-parent].”
One of the Humans chuckled. “Yeah, you said it, ‘Dutch’”
“You haven’t seen Predator? Guess I know what [video-footage-for-recreational-purposes] we’re watching tonight, then…”
The enemy didn’t even respect the Alpha enough to be wary of it any longer. Nor should they: it was disarmed, totally and literally, utterly helpless. The Alpha Fur-Face chittered, and a paw slapped down along the Thirsting-Brood Alpha’s back, snapping bones and implants alike. Claws tore and hooked into what remained of the Alpha’s flesh, heaved—
…And the Alpha was dragged ignominiously off its own ship, helpless as newborn meat.
It had suffered a fate worse than death.
It had been captured.
++END CHAPTER 59++
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The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 60: “To War.”