Chapter 60: The Calm and The Storm
Date Point: 16y8m1w1d AV
Wi Kao city, Planet Gao
The painkillers weren’t working so well any longer, and Yulna had taken to wearing several thin layers of loose robes to hide her missing patches of fur. Her natural eye was almost useless thanks to a cataract, and without the replacement she’d had installed after losing the other one in a rogue Corti lab all those years ago she’d probably have been thoroughly blind.
But she was home.
Though, home looked rather like she felt. Wi Kao had been spared, but the Commune–once among the most populous and productive on the planet—was now a memorial. Its shattered walls had been made safe, its garden replanted, and all the dead named among the stones and flowers they’d once called home. Only a small staff of caretakers lived permanently there any longer.
Well. A small staff of caretakers, and now one retired Mother-Supreme.
She’d expected the smell to be wrong, somehow, but to the contrary it was almost too right. She didn’t know how the caretakers had so accurately recreated the fragrance of the commune at the height of its occupancy—the messy symphony of flowers, cut grass, young cubs, cleaning, cooking, nervous male petitioners and the occasional sniff of a female feeling very pleased with herself after a successful contract…
It felt mocking, somehow. Like the life Yulna remembered was just around the corner, if only she knew which corner. Like she could open a door and find Ayma and the others laughing over Talamay and Ta’Shen in the light and warmth, and the last few years would be…
Would be what? A bad dream? Yulna had enough reasons to feel as much, but she hesitated at the thought. She’d always tried to live by the belief that life, however it turned and twisted, was fundamentally a Good Thing. It was why she’d endured two decades of medical indignity and encroaching discomfort, rather than opt for gentle euthanasia when she’d been given her diagnosis.
Since the war, she’d lived to see the Clan of Females secure a place for themselves where they’d never again be so vulnerable as they had been the day the violence broke out. She’d met her cubs’ cubs, done great things, and had plenty of moments to chitter and enjoy life. It hadn’t all been bad. She would never throw away the good to chase an impossible dream of better.
But by the Great Fathers, the story her nose was telling her made her heart ache with nostalgia. So rather than linger in the commune garden, she returned to her quarters and lay down to rest.
Rest, but not sleep. Her mind was too full of today, of far too many painful yesterdays, and far too few tomorrows.
Should she have retired? Perhaps working until her last breath would have spared her this… this Limbo. Still herself, but no longer needed. No longer relevant. Just an old Female still dying too young.
Maybe she should—
There was a hefty scratch on the door. She sniffed, then heaved herself out of her nest-bed with a puzzled groan and opened the door.
“…I thought you were on Rauwryhr,” she said.
“Did it go well?”
“Better’n I thought it would. Can I come in?”
Yulna’s reply surprised her: She keened softly, touched at his concern and pain, and welcomed him in. Not even a few days ago she would have fallen back on sass and playful confrontation, but the truth was that if she could have picked one living person’s company tonight…
Daar understood. He ducked under and sideways through the doorframe, and by mutual unspoken agreement they curled up together on the nest-bed like the old friends they almost were. And, as she’d done back when they were friends and had even consummated a mating contract together, she chirped in frustration at the state of his fur. It was in that awkward stage between clipped-short and shaggy-long, and just running her claws through it turned up more than a few nascent tangles.
“I know Naydra combs you whenever she can,” she muttered. “How do you manage to do this to yourself?!”
Despite herself and the way it made her lungs feel dry and scratchy, Yulna chittered. She clawed a tangle apart, then resolved that Naydra could damn well do it herself and settled down to simply bask in some close physical affection. There’d been too little of that in her life for far too long.
“…Here to close the ledger, I suppose?” she asked, after a peaceful minute.
“…No. You deserve better’n a horny Daar.”
“Relax, I know that’s not why you’re here,” Yulna assured him. “I just thought… you like to get your accounts in order. Close off an old relationship properly.”
“I ain’t the kinda ‘Back to think that way. I just felt, uh…it might be nice to visit. An’ say goodbye.”
“…I appreciate it. And I’m sorry, I’m so used to everybody around me being all agendas and calculation. Too many cynics in my orbit.”
“Yeah. I got an advantage that ain’t nobody wanna lie in my presence, but…”
“Want to? Oh, I’m sure they want to!” Yulna chittered again. “They just can’t and don’t want to suffer the consequences of trying!”
“Small blessings, I guess. I s’pose I’d hafta make their first slip-up comical an’ embarassin’ though. Like, I dunno…go all pro wrasslin’ on ‘em?”
“As opposed to the friendly tussling you inflict on all the people you like.”
“Well yeah! I’m careful not ‘ta smush people too hard when I’m bein’ all nice-like!”
She chittered again and nuzzled down to listen to the sound of his industrial-sized lungs at work. And behind them, a steady, healthy, strong heartbeat.
“…You sound like you’re in ridiculously good health,” she commented after listening for a while.
“Yup.” Daar sighed uncomfortably. “Better’n ever, even. I’m in perfect condition, like I was fifteen again. No sign o’ age at all neither ‘cept ‘fer a tiny bit o’ silver, here an’ there.”
“Part of me wonders, you know…” Yulna mused. “I wonder if the treatment that has you in such fine shape came from the same research that put me in such a poor place?”
“Prob’ly. I know I have Julian to thank, in part. But that’s not the end of it. Have you ever done the math on my genes? It ain’t simply that I’m a natural sixth degree, that’s just the start. The odds against a male like me are literally astronomical. It’s awful hard t’ignore that these days, given…y’know. Everything.”
“You mean the way you only count as the same species by dint of the fact that you’ve sired a great many cubs?”
“…Okay.” Daar chittered quietly. “I admit I’m happy as balls ‘bout that bit. But, still. It’s…”
“You worry that you’re just as much of an experiment as I was.”
“There aren’t many possibilities. I am either an experiment, an anomaly beyond words, or I’ve been put here with purpose. An’ I ain’t happy with any o’ those possibilities, yijao?”
“Go with the experiment, I suppose. At least there’s rhyme and reason to it, and not one that will stoke your ego like divine providence would.”
“Yeah. There’s only duty. So where does that end? I’m pretty sure I’m gonna live a very, very long time ‘cuz o’ all this. Longer’n I got any right t’live, prol’ly.”
Yulna’s cough had an excellent sense of timing. It was a hacking, dry, agonizing thing and it entirely stopped her from replying for several breathless seconds before finally it subsided enough to let her croak her sarcastic reply to that.
“…What a curse.”
Daar chitter-sighed and pulled her a little more firmly against his bulk. “Point taken, I guess.”
“Yes. I… honestly, Daar, I’m scared. I’ve known this was coming for a long time, but I’m still… I don’t want to die. I’m not ready.”
“No.” The Great Father snuggled his brutish jaw against her neck and held her awhile.
Yulna found that she dozed. She was too uncomfortable for sleep, and wouldn’t be able to rest properly until she’d taken the strong painkillers, the ones that made her fuzzy and vague. But the moment was peaceful enough to at least put her ache aside like a heavy bag for a while.
She half-slept, half-dreamed, and found herself talking without being properly awake, only just conscious enough to notice the thought she was giving voice to, as though it slipped past while her waking mind had its back turned, like a sneaky cub raiding the pantry.
“…Every heartbeat… so precious. And we all get so few of them…” she murmured. Daar stiffened a little, listening. “If you get more than your fair share… you value it, Daar. Promise me that. Don’t you ever write off what you are as a burden. Too many people died for it… you owe it to them to treasure yourself.”
“I don’t, Yulna, not anymore. Not after Naydi. I promise that. I jus’ worry…am I good enough ‘fer this?”
“There’s nobody else, is there?”
“Then whose standard are you measuring against?”
Yulna nodded to herself. “…I hope you figure it out,” she said. “Could you hand me one of the blue injectors from the case over there? I think I’d like to get some sleep now.”
He gently extracted himself from the nest-bed, fetched the device, and watched as she touched it to her own throat. It clicked, there was a faint cold, sharp scratch, and the pain immediately began to subside, as it always did when she took her sleep medication. She sighed in relief, and relaxed into the soft bedding.
“…Can you stay?” she asked.
“‘Fer you, I have all the time in the world.”
“Flatterer…” she yawned as he curled up alongside her again. It was good to have at least one old friend left. And she was glad to be his friend again.
Warm, comfortable, and drifting on the sleepy cloud of medication, she snuggled backwards into him, and fell asleep feeling comfortable and safe.
Date Point: 16y8m3w AV
Planet Akyawentuo, Ten’Gewek Protectorate, Near 3Kpc Arm
“These are vack-seens?”
Jooyun shook his head no as he inspected the weird things that had come in an even weirder box. Vemik itched to examine that box. It seemed… ‘over-engineered,’ but Jooyun said that Core-tie didn’t do that much.
“No they aren’t, big fella. This is a blood kit. They need your body-words and a small Giving of your blood so they can find the sickness and build a vaccine against it. As for the box, it’s ‘cuz it has to keep your blood-Givings super cold.”
One of the Core-tie was far above in a ship, talking through Jooyun’s fone. Vemik had a problem with Core-tie in that he couldn’t tell them apart. They all had the same narrow faces, the same huge leaf-shaped eyes, no hair…. And weirdest of all, no ‘gonads,’ either! (He liked that word; he’d picked it up from the scientists.)
Jooyun said there were subtle changes from one to another, but a tiny fone screen didn’t carry subtle changes well, so the Core-tie talking to them could have been anyone.
“Freezing the samples is a necessary step in the process,” it explained. “The fresher the better.”
“Why not use stay-sis?” Vemik asked. The subtlest little twitch of emotion crossed the Core-tie’s face, though he couldn’t say which one.
“…An item in stasis cannot be interacted with, which is necessary for proper sample preparation. The container will begin some of the safety preparations automatically. In addition, they would need to be cooled anyway for some of our processes.”
That made sense, Vemik nodded and shrugged, and offered his arm for Jooyun to press the sample-thing to.
“…Other side, buddy. Kinda think the needle won’t go through your hide unless we get a soft bit.”
Reluctantly, Vemik turned his arm over to expose the thinner, softer skin on the inside of his elbow. From what he gathered, this was going to be like a nasty bug bite, and those were always the worst in a soft place. Jooyun just shrugged at him, pulled a slightly sorry face, wiped something cold onto Vemik’s skin with a tiny white cloth and then applied the sampler.
It stuck to his skin strangely, then went click and stung a bit, but Vemik had had much worse over the years. He watched interestedly as a small amount of his blood was drawn up into a clear pod about the size and shape of Jooyun’s smallest fingertip. There was a cold feeling, and then the sampler let go again. Jooyun taped a small wad of white stuff that looked like a tiny cloud over the wound, and told Vemik to hold his fist tight against his shoulder.
Then it was the Singer’s turn. Then little Vemut, who didn’t like it one bit, and Vemik had to hold his arm still so Jooyun could take the sample without hurting him.
The rest of the village followed, some casually happy that if the Singer and Sky-Thinker had done it—and let their child do it—then there was no harm, others nervous but determined, a few swaggering and sneering at the idea they could be scared at all by anything any skinny dickless sky-person could do…
It didn’t matter why. They all Gave, in the end.
Yan was the last to Give, and wanted to deliver the samples—still one of Vemik’s favorite sky-words–in person.
Jooyun meanwhile turned to his fone and raised his eyebrows at it. “Satisfied?”
“The collection process seems to have been conducted competently and to specification.” That was a lot of big words where a simple “yes” would have done. Strange. “Our agent on Cimbrean awaits your timely delivery and the opportunity to take appropriate full scans.”
“He’ll get it,” Jooyun said.
“All is well, then. We will depart the system and return to Directorate space. Starship Thesis Crucible, signing off.”
The bland face on the fone’s screen vanished.
“What happens next?”
“Well, I’m gonna take these back to Folctha, along with you and the Singer for personal scans and stuff.”
Yan grumbled from his spot on a log, “took long enough…”
“Shit happens, big man. You know that. Honestly, I’m kinda fuckin’ impressed that the Corti even have a ‘universal basic vaccine’ to modify. But I suppose if they can figure out things like, uh, what they shaped me and my family into, or Cruezzir and stuff…eh, I’m not smart enough.”
“Shame to see smart-strength like that wasted on body-weakness.”
Jooyun shrugged in what Vemik had learned was a very non-committal sort of way. “I suppose. Still, that smart-strength is a big part of why I can out-wrestle your red-crests—didn’t ask for that, but whatever—and why you’ll be getting vaccines. Don’t underestimate it.”
“Am not. Just saying: they should be both.” Yan stood up with a push of his tail. “…We are.”
“No argument here. I think they know it too. I mean…why else would they be doing this?”
Yan nodded, then grinned in mischief. “Also, Vemik still out-wrestle you any day!”
Vemik trilled at that and bounced happily, while Jooyun chuckled gently. “Eh, we’ll see how long that lasts…there.” He closed the cold-box, then pressed a big shiny button on the side. The box made a hiss, and some fog poured out of a small hole on the side, and then it was still.
He grabbed one handle, Vemik the other, and together they transferred it to the jump platform. It was bulky and surprisingly heavy, but neither of them had any problem moving it.
A thought occurred to Vemik. “Shouldn’t we be doing blood-Givings from everyone?”
“Eventually, yeah. But you don’t map the whole forest in one go, Sky-Thinker. One tree at a time. Also, everyone’s body-words come half from their sire and half from their dam. We can use those family ties to see how body-words change over time, and how they work together.”
“How long to the jump?” the Singer asked.
“…Just before sunset,” Jooyun said after checking his watch.
“Awwgh,” Vemik muttered in frustration. “I want to meet… uh… Hawwisun.”
“Harrison, Vemik. I know it’s a hard name for your big-ass tongue but that’s okay.”
“Sound too much like Awisun anyway…” Vemik grumbled.
Jooyun chuckled in his easy-going, friendly way. “Don’t worry big fella, you’ll get to meet him. Mostly all he wants to do is eat and sleep right now anyway.”
Satisfied, Vemik’s mind turned to the question of how to occupy themselves until sunset. Work out? Eh, not right now. His muscles were still nicely tight after yesterday’s lifting and spear-hunt, so it felt important to rest. Wrassle Jooyun? …Nah. Tussles with Jooyun were always fun, especially since Vemik usually won, or learned neat tricks when he didn’t…but Jooyun was strong these days and Vemik needed to be well-rested to stand against him. So no, not today.
Write letters? Maybe! He still didn’t have a reply from Tis-dale about his last ‘field report’ though. He had to wait until he knew what the Humans were interested in before he went for more samples. Also, he wanted to do that with Jooyun! Doing samples with Tilly was always good fun, but they ended up playing with each other too much instead. Good fun with her, even if they didn’t always fuck…but Tilly-fun wasn’t getting the work done.
Make a knife? His forge wasn’t cold—he never let it get cold if he could help it, because starting it up again cost too much charcoal—but his apprentices were practicing right now and they needed some time at the anvil without him looming over them.
He had to let them ‘tinker’ in peace, no matter how much it hurt. They were doing it all wrong!
He could go and make merry with the other men. The village felt nice and lazy today and so did the neighbors, and days like this always had the taste of mischief about them. It was really fun to wrestle! Or maybe they could band up and go raid Ferd’s old village! They were good people and were just a nicely fun journey away, but they were a bit too proud about their brightest son, who hadn’t even been Given his totem yet! They were practically begging for someone to fight with. They had pretty women, too…it could be a fun day for everyone!
…Well, their village was maybe too far away. Now that he thought about it, if they made a warband right away, then by the time the singing had been done, and the spears had been carefully blunted and colored, so everyone knew they were only at play-war…
And, well, even play-war could be dangerous, especially a completely unexpected raid.
Also, the day’s heat and the heavy wetness of the air was sorta lulling everyone to sleep…
Vemik looked over at Singer, who was standing just so in the morning light…
Suddenly he had much better ideas floating in his head. He grunted at her, gave her his most suggestive snarl…she grinned, and flicked her tail…
That was all he needed. Vemik long-jumped and pounced, wrapping an arm and tail around and picking her clean up off the ground. She hooted a play-objection, but clung to him rather than struggling. Her hands were gripping nicely at his chest and that just got his blood going faster…
“See you at sunset!”
“Before sunset!” Jooyun corrected him with a smirk.
“Aww!” Vemik snuggled his Singer and bounced his way toward their hut. If there was a life-after and the gods rewarded him for good balance, then surely that reward must have been something like this: loved ones, and all the time in the world to indulge them.
Right now, Vemik didn’t have endless time. He just had the rest of the sunlight. But he had it with Singer, and for now, that was enough.
He laid down with his Singer, gave her every bit of his strength, and made the most of their time.
Date Point: 16y8m3w AV
Coreward Marches, Kwmbwrw Great Houses
It had been quite some time since the last distress call from a facility out in the Marches. Wrythwynw had foolishly begun to hope that maybe the Hunters would acknowledge that they were beaten, but no. More people were dying.
This time, it was an ice mining operation in a main sequence yellow-white star system quite close to the border. An important target, in fact: lots of outposts, stations and groundside facilities in a large radius around that star depended on the water and volatiles it extracted from an ice dwarf in the system’s outer halo.
The Sword of a Poet was back, this time accompanied by a different capital ship, the Scorching Claw. Wrythwynw was impressed: the Gaoians had lost no sharpness or eagerness while they waited. If anything, they seemed a little bit quicker and more precise.
Sadly, they weren’t the only ones.
Once again, the Hunters bolted when they saw the incoming response fleet. Once again, the Sword launched a megalight probe to chase them down.
This time, the Hunters launched one of their own.
It ate the light-years in an eyeblink, intercepted the Gaoian probe and pinned it back to relativistic spacetime with a gravity spike so fierce that the Gaoian and Kwmbwrw combined fleet felt it as a minor shockwave. The Gaoian probe sent a brief confused squawk of error messages, and disintegrated: apparently its Hunter counterpart was armed.
A new counter-tactic, then. That was deeply inauspicious.
The Gao adapted quickly and fired off a wide spread of interceptor probes, but the Hunters matched them shot-for-shot. Each one was caught, dumped back to sublight, and destroyed
The minutes dragged on, and the Hunters were too fast to catch without the probes. All Wrythwynw could do was watch as the ice station’s abducted crew were carried away into deep space, until the last faint sensor echo, itself barely a ghost on the instruments, vanished entirely. They had failed.
Shipfather Orno was not the pleased, happy, exhilarated Gao he’d been the last time they spoke. When his hail connected, every social context marker Wrythwynw’s screen had told a story of frustration, embarrassment and tightly contained anger.
“…Shipmatriarch, on behalf of the Clans of Gao and my Claw, I apologize to the Kwmbwrw Great Houses,” he began. It was… strange to see him so formal.
“On behalf of the Coreward Marches Fleet and House Wynw-arbryn, your apology is accepted, though unnecessary,” Wrythwynw replied in the same vein.
“You do not understand. I must report my failure to the Great Father.”
“Will he be…angry?”
Orno’s ears flattened dejectedly. “…I’d almost rather he would be. Instead, he will be saddened, understanding, and disappointed.”
“…Surely that’s good?”
“If he got angry, there’d be somethin’ I could work on an’ improve. If he’s understanding… ain’t nothin’ we coulda done different. An’ there ain’t nothin’ worse than bein’ completely useless.”
That was… weirdly logical. And it rather changed Wrythwynw’s perspective on her own report to her superiors. Hopefully they hadn’t grown too used to victory.
…And hopefully Henenwgwyr and her House wouldn’t seize too hard on this failure as a chance to inveigle themselves back into the political mainstream. A naive hope, that.
“So… what do we do now?” she asked instead.
Orno glanced off-screen at something she couldn’t see. Maybe the Gaoians had better sensors, because he watched attentively for a few seconds with his ears up, then sagged, shook his head, and offered her a complex expression that her console interpreted as a medley of resignation and melancholy.
“We make our reports, and see what happens,” he said. “But somehow, I think the Hunters might fight back after this…”
He reached forward to close the conversation, and paused just before his claw reached the button. “…Good luck,” he added, and closed comms.
Wrythwynw returned to her duties in a despondent mood.
Date Point: 16y8m3w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
“I’ll just need a minute to set up the recorder.”
“Take your time. I mean, we haven’t seen each other in a while anyway, it would be nice to catch up, not just be all business.”
Ava shot Xiù a sorry smile and stopped fussing with her gadgets. “You’re right. Sometimes I forget how to set my work aside.”
She had to admit, mothers and babies looked good. Xiù and Allison had come to her, in part on the Byron Group’s request, to do a little girl talk interview for the ESNN magazine.
They made for a striking couple, Ava thought. Firmly in each other’s orbit as well as Julian’s, they’d always seemed very much in tune. As the old joke went, they finished each other’s… sandwiches.
But there was something more to the glow of good health surrounding them, Anna and Harrison than just a happy, harmonious home. Something unstoppable, untiring, almost-superhuman in the way neither mother seemed sleepy or stressed and neither seemed to weary of holding a baby or two, despite both babies being fat and focused and well-developed for their ages.
They reminded Ava of the HEAT, somehow. Though, it was hard to put her finger on exactly why. Something similar in their indefatigable, unboundable energy.
“Ugh, tell me about it,” Allison agreed. She was feeding Anna on the couch. “I’m lucky it’s such a long drive out to Chiune Station, it gives me plenty of time to kinda mentally reset and switch from work mode to home mode, you know?”
“That sounds useful,” Ava agreed, thinking guiltily of the way her idea of a good evening involved getting some editing done while Derek played videogames next to her.
Then again her passions were writing and photography, the same things she’d built her career around. Did she need a third hobby to take a break from her career? Did the occasional weekend at a clothing-optional beach with her friends count?
…Probably yes and probably not, respectively.
“What do you do for fun?” she asked.
“I tinker,” Allison smiled self-effacingly. “You should see some of the crazy gizmos in the garage.”
“Uh… well, my friend Clara is really into cosplay. She just started on this classic ‘60s Star Trek costume, so I’m making a prop phaser for her with all the bells and whistles. I’m even trying to mod a forcefield emitter to get it to shoot a beam.”
Xiù gave her a surprised-delighted look. “You never told me about this?!”
Allison shrugged and gestured at Harrison. “I mean, Chungus there came along and I kinda forgot everything else for a while.”
Xiù’s giggle at the nickname was infectious, and Ava caught it easily. In fact, it took her a few minutes to recover, and her cheeks ached by the time she did.
“Ahh… I really should ask about that,” she said. “I mean, he’s huge!”
“Yeah. Too big,” Xiù gave her son a complicated look. “I mean, I looked it up and he’s not quite a record-setter or anything. But he was definitely too big for me to handle.”
“You had a C-section?”
“You’re doing really well! It’s only been, what, four weeks? I can’t tell you’re recovering at all!”
“Thanks. I had some, uh… special help. I’d rather not go into it, you know?”
“That’s fair… and I guess we’re in interview mode after all, huh?” Ava sighed and shook her head, amused and exasperated at herself. “…Shall I start?”
Xiù and Allison glanced at each other, then nodded. “Sure, go for it,” Allison said.
Ava nodded and started the recorder. She glanced at her notes again, picked up her camera, and rose from her chair to walk the room and find good angles for pictures.
“So… Congratulations! Was having your babies so close together part of the plan?” she asked.
Allison nodded. “It was Xiù’s idea.”
Xiù bobbled her head with a wry look. “Yeah, I had this romantic fantasy of being side-by-side in the maternity ward… In the end, Julian and I needed to keep trying for a couple more months.”
“Those were a fun couple of months,” Allison chimed in, and Ava’s camera captured the exact moment Xiù’s face went pink. Probably a little too candid for the magazine, but whatever.
“Was it hard to hold down your career and have a baby at the same time?” she asked Allison.
“…Mmm…. Yes and no.” Al shrugged her head from side to side. “Like, it didn’t take long before I couldn’t wriggle into the tight crawl spaces any longer, so I had to start delegating that side of my job, but after that… I mean, I mostly work with schematics and checklists and stuff anyway. I’m mostly able to do my job from right here, but I prefer to be there actually working on the ships as we build them, you know? I’m too hands-on to feel happy with just reading and signing off on a work report every night.”
“So you’re eager to get back to work?”
Allison shook her head. “Right now? Not even if they doubled my salary,” she said, and Ava unconsciously snapshotted the moment she glanced fondly down at Anna. “…But give me a few months and I’ll be glad to get back to it.”
“Are the ships selling well?”
“That’s not really my department, but… yeah. Turns out a tough little punchy cutie like Misfit has lots of uses. I can’t talk about what AEC are gonna use theirs for, but we have other buyers who wanna use them as couriers, tugs, asteroid tractors… and MBG are still doing the whole deathworld exploration and survey thing. I think our girl’s gonna be around for a long time, especially ‘cuz we update each new one with the latest tech every time.”
“So the Misfit line is still a prototype?”
Allison nodded. “The tech’s advancing so quickly at the moment. By the time we got back from the first mission, our Misfit needed a major upgrade. Sooner or later we’ll standardize the design and switch to mass production, but right now we’re selling a bespoke made-to-order product. Not, like, the spaceship version of a Ford.”
Xiù nodded. “My first takeoff on that second mission was my worst ever. Everything was just that little bit different!”
“You both sound like you remember it fondly,” Ava said.
“Of course we do!” Allison said. “We lived on a spaceship and did the whole ‘boldly go’ thing for real! It was a great time! Sometimes scary and crazy and emotional, but… I’m glad we did it. We won’t go back, we have other responsibilities now. But…”
“But we’ll always remember it,” Xiù finished for her.
“You both had pretty crazy lives even before then. How does motherhood and a normal home life compare?”
“They… don’t.” Xiù adjusted Harrison in her arms as he started to gripe at her, and he fell asleep again. “You can’t compare them.”
“They’re rewarding,” Allison said. “You can say that for both. I mean, I didn’t think being abducted was that great at the time, but looking back… I mean, I wouldn’t be where I am now if it hadn’t happened. Honestly, my life probably woulda been a train wreck, but instead…”
There’s a caption, Ava thought to herself. She’d captured the exact expression that crossed Allison’s face when she made that confession, too.
“…Instead I met two people who complete me,” Allison finished after a second.
…No. There’s the caption.
Time for a change of subject. “…Two of you hold the weird distinction of being honorary members of other species…” Ava said. “So, a weird one for Allison: if you could be an honorary something, which species would you be?”
They laughed, looked at each other, and Ava watched their faces as they had a whole conversation without saying a word.
“…Wow. I… don’t know!” Allison admitted after a moment. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love the Gao and Ten’Gewek, but I don’t think I’d be a great fit for either, you know?”
“What makes you say that?”
“Well… ‘Shoo’ here has this history with them. And a sort of zen for the whole thing that just… works. ‘Jooyun’ is doing what he’s always done, just amped way, way up. He’s got a talent for cavemonkey work, for, uh, various reasons. Me?” She shot Xiù a mischievous grin. “…I’m the normal one! So honestly, I think I’m pretty happy being one hundred percent unadulterated human, thanks.”
Xiù just rolled her eyes and smiled.
“…I was sorry to hear Mother-Supreme Yulna’s news,” Ava said. “I know you two are friends.”
Xiù sighed heavily, looked down at her baby for a second, then up at Ava. “…Yes. It’s been… hard. Yulna was there for me at the Wi Kao commune when I couldn’t even speak the language. She taught me a lot about Gaoian life, she helped me find ways to fit in and be useful… She doesn’t deserve this. She deserves more time.”
“You’re the only human with a vote in the Clan of Females’ election, and it’s widely reckoned that if you were to openly support one candidate or another it would make a difference.”
Xiù shook her head. “Maybe in any other election, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that Naydra will be Yulna’s successor, even if I were to oppose her… which I don’t.”
“There’s already talk about ‘Great Mother’ Naydra,” Ava said.
Xiù nodded. “Yes. A queen to sit on the throne alongside Daar.”
“Do you approve?”
Xiù tilted her head as he considered that. “…I mean… really, I think it’ll just be a case of making formal what was already true, you know?” she said. “I believe in democracy, myself. But according to the Gao, they need something else and I won’t disagree with them. I respect Naydra a lot, and I think she’ll be worthy of the title.”
“ETs do things their way, not ours,” Allison added.
Xiù nodded. “And the Gao especially do things their way. The thing is… the Great Father might be a dictator, but he’s the most benevolent dictator you could ever ask for. And Naydra is one of the strongest souls I’ve ever met. So it doesn’t matter what I think. What matters is that they’re in good hands. Or, um, paws.”
“That’s quite a phrase. ‘The most benevolent dictator you could ask for?’
“Well…the thing about the Gao is they’re extremely social. Daar in particular is unbelievably extroverted. That, and, well…he has a reputation with the Females…”
“And what would that reputation be?” Ava pressed.
“He’s, uh…let’s say he’s…. His biggest personal incentives are to be liked, and to sire cubs. Say what you will about him, he’s got many noble qualities, but…”
“He’s a horndog,” Allison chimed in. “In, ah…the best possible way.”
“I might have gone with ‘passionate,’” Xiù sniffed.
“Oh sure, he’s definitely passionate. Have you heard the gossip at Ninja Taco?”
Despite herself, Ava giggled. She very much had heard the gossip. Gossip about aliens was, after all, an important part of her job. Sister Leela had made quite a reputation for herself, as the girl who turned down the Great Father. Sometimes the comments were scandalized, sometimes they were confused, sometimes they were awed…
Privately, Ava suspected that the Great Father very much enjoyed a female who said no to him. But unless he came back to her for another interview at some point, she knew better than to ask him about it. She’d earned a place in Daar’s good books after what everyone called the ‘Laid Bear’ shoot, but that could easily be squandered by intruding on his private time.
And the good graces of a figure like him were not to be wasted by any sensible journalist.
“So what exactly are you saying?” she asked. “What does being ‘passionate’ have to do with being ‘the most benevolent dictator?’”
“I’m saying… I’m saying he didn’t choose to be what he is,” Xiù explained. “The Daar who visits Folctha to flirt with small business owners and lift weights with his buddies, that’s the real Daar, and he never pretends otherwise. I’m not his personal cheerleader, but we both had plenty of time to get to know and trust him before. His essential nature is playful and pragmatic. He just…isn’t a schemer.”
“And if somebody were to suggest that absolute power corrupts absolutely?” Ava checked.
“Is it the power? Or the wanting the power?” Allison retorted. “Anyway, we were discussing Naydra weren’t we?”
“Yes we were,” Ava agreed. “Do you think she’s the same as him?”
Xiù shook her head. “No. Naydra is… She represents something that Gaoian females don’t often get to do. She gets to be a devoted lover. That gives the Clan power over the Great Father that you can’t underestimate. Or, at least…it gives them a voice.”
“Is that why she’s doing it?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. Or… I hope not. I like to think that two very… pure… people happened to meet in the middle of something awful and are doing their best. You know?”
“I’m more cynical than she is,” Allison added with a self-effacing shrug. “But I gotta admit… that does sound nice.”
“So… I guess I she is the same as Daar,” Xiù backtracked. “She’s doing something different, but… yeah. For the same reasons.”
“How exactly did they meet?”
“He rescued her. From a self-styled warlord who tried to set up his own little kingdom during the war, complete with a harem. We probably shouldn’t go into the details out of respect for her privacy.”
Which said a lot, all by itself, but Ava didn’t make that observation aloud. Instead, she nodded and asked the first other question that came to mind.
“…What happened to the warlord?”
“…There’s video of Daar’s sentence. I’d not watch it unless you have a strong stomach.”
Ava nodded, and decided that there was nothing more to be gained from that line of questioning. She mentally rewound, checked the notes she’d scribbled as they talked, and nodded.
“You’ve had the privilege of knowing two—possibly three, soon—Mother-Supremes. There’s been a lot of focus on Yulna recently, but of course she was endorsed by her predecessor Giymuy, and there’s been a lot of speculation as to why.”
Xiù nodded, then shushed her son as he complained faintly. Comforted, he baby fell asleep again and she addressed the question, “Yeah. Yulna was a surprise choice. Until Giymuy’s endorsement, she’d been a respected Mother in the Wi Kao commune, but not much more than that.”
“So why pick her, do you think?”
Xiù had to consider that one for a long time. While she did, Allison quietly stood up and took Anna into another room. The baby came first, always.
“Giymuy was… a very shrewd judge of character,” Xiù decided, eventually. “She sized me up the second we met, and I could barely speak a dozen words of Gaori at the time. She probably had Yulna picked for a long time before she died. By reputation, by meeting her…”
“What trait made her such an attractive choice?”
“Yulna was… she always knew what the right thing was. Not just practically, but morally too. I remember the cubs being in awe of her, ‘cuz they always knew exactly how much they could get away with around her, and that when they crossed the line she’d be very… fair. Not nice, but fair.”
“Yeah. Basically. Always level, always seeing the bigger picture, always… somehow, always knowing the right thing to say or do, even when she wasn’t at her best. That’s Yulna. And I think that’s why Giymuy chose her. Because she knew one thing above all else about Yulna,” Xiù said. “She knew that come what may… she’d do the right thing.”
“And did she?”
“…Yeah. I think she did.”
Ava smiled. “You know what? I think that’s an interview,” she said. “Remind me to hang out with you two properly sometime. I swear I can leave my work behind…”
“Bullshit, hun,” Allison teased her. “But it’s fine. Good timing, too, I think this little germ’s about to get all cranky…”
Sure enough, Anna was stirring and scrunching her face up in preparation for a good howl about something. Ava stood up. “I’d better let you be moms, then,” she said. “I’ll email you the finished article before we run it, ‘kay?”
Ava smiled to herself, and let the two distracted mothers be mothers. She let herself out, and stood on the sidewalk while she ordered a cab. She was already writing in her head.
There was just one problem, really, from what her contacts on Gao had to say. She hadn’t wanted to raise it, though she was feeling a little guilty that she hadn’t. But the fact was…
The fact was, she was pretty sure she was writing Yulna’s obituary.
If so… she was going to make it a flattering one.
Rather than go home, she went back to the office.
Date Point: 16y8m3w1d AV
Alien Quarter, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Julian liked Nofl, Vemik and the Singer, though he’d had some nerves and concerns about putting the three of them in the same room… which had largely turned out to be unfounded, leaving him feeling a bit guilty. Something about Vemik in particular had Julian consistently underestimating the big hyper cavemonkey, which wasn’t exactly fair. Vemik knew the boundaries. He was just…really good at going right up against them.
Still, Julian was going to have to do this several more times with other Ten’Gewek, and that was a harrowing prospect. Vemik and the Singer were the well-behaved ones with the strongest handle of what was expected from visitors to civilization, having done it more than any others. Bringing their cousins, tribe-members and Given-Men along later, though…
People were still talking about how Ferd had climbed the post office to scout the land. And their night of fun at Tempest, the nightclub closest to the youth hostel.
Which was why the plan was to do it in twos or threes at the most: that was about his limit for cavemonkey-wrangling. And it was also about Nofl’s limit for doing a full body scan, workup and all the other arcane medical science involved in… whatever he was doing.
He was, in a new development, humming as he worked. And somehow, he was doing it just artlessly enough to leave Julian with the nagging suspicion that he recognized the tune, but not quite able to put his finger on it. Which was probably deliberate.
The Singer, of course, was ignoring the borderline insult to music out of sheer fascination with the realities of cell biology and advanced medicine surrounding her. She’d even weedled a peek down Nofl’s microscope out of him, and was staring in fascination at the sample. “This is what blood looks like very small?”
♪“Hmm hm-mm hm hmmm-m-m…♫ Mm? Oh. Yes. Yours, anyway. Mine looks rather different.” Nofl indulged her and called up a side-by-side comparison. Julian leaned forward too, out of interest. He’d never considered what Corti blood might look like on the cellular scale.
It turned out to be rather dilute-looking. The equivalent of a red blood cell was more of a purple-blue color and shaped like a bad case of sickle cell anemia, and there was nary a white cell to be seen.
“…Your blood is not red?”
“I really don’t have the time to get into hemocyanin versus hemoglobin…” Nofl said, nearly apologetically. He resumed his almost-identifiable humming and returned to his work. The Singer, thwarted, turned to Julian.
“Uh… Blood has metal in it, believe it or not. Ours has iron and that’s what makes it red. His has… copper?” Julian checked.
“Copper,” Nofl confirmed, not looking away from whatever it was he was staring into.
“Anyway, the iron in our blood is stuck to something called hemoglobin. It’s like…it’s one of the countless kinds of super tiny machines that make your body work, way smaller than what you’re looking at. What it does is take that iron into our lungs, which rusts when it touches the air. Rust is actually iron and oxygen coming together, which is the stuff in the air that your body needs. Later on your body uses energy it gets from your food to pull the iron and oxygen apart, so it can use it for whatever it needs. Iron is just…better for this than copper.”
“However,” Nofl said, “My hemocyanin doesn’t require special cells to transport it. It can just float freely around the body. Which means a reduced metabolic impact and lower nutritional needs.”
“That means he can get away with eating a lot less food than we can,” Julian translated.
“Everything is a tradeoff,” Nofl murmured, and turned away from his instrument to address a different one. “And every form of life adapts to its circumstances. Now compare Ten’Gewek blood to Human blood.”
He summoned another sample for comparison. Side-by-side the two were similar… but not identical, Julian could see.
“Your blood is thicker, and carries more hemoglobin than even a Human. But, they have something you don’t.”
He tapped his finger on the projection, indicating a white cell. “These are part of your ‘immune system’ which is how your body fights against disease. The Ten’Gewek have a strong immune system,” he said, prompting much pride and preening from both Vemik and the Singer. Then he wiped it off their faces. “The Human one is godlike.”
“…Dunno if I’d go that far with those particular words, Nofl…” Julian cautioned, but the Singer waved a hand.
“I learned a word. High-pear-bole-ee? But yes, be careful with gods,” she cautioned Nofl. “Always best to be careful.”
“…Fine, fine.” Nofl said, clearly deciding that discretion was the better part of avoiding awkwardness. “Fearsome, then. Aggressive, almost psychotic. Honestly, half of the worst diseases that Humans have are caused by their own immune systems getting too excited and figuratively smashing up the place.”
“Ah, yes. I know that problem well.” The Singer shot a toothy, teasing grin at her favorite boy, and Vemik’s tail lashed in the Ten’Gewek equivalent of awkwardly clearing his throat.
Nofl smirked, inasmuch as a Corti face could achieve that expression, and returned to his work.
“Yours is… just a tiny bit slower to learn,” he said, having apparently decided to abandon his atonal humming in favor of being a teacher. “Better with what it learns, but learning takes time. The Human immune system attacks, attacks, attacks, like a crazy swarm. Yours…”
“Is like a patient hunter,” Julian finished.
“Yes, that’s a good analogy. I think.”
“Which works better for you. You have very tough bodies, and I bet that means you can take more misery while your body figures out how to hunt the sickness.”
“Well, I’m not exactly a biologist. Hell, I was a lab technician and field assistant, not an actual scientist.”
“You are very good at bringing in interesting samples, though.”
“What does this mean for us?” Vemik asked. He was still scratching his crest watching the microscope imagery.
“For you, it means that a vaccine will likely have to be delivered in stages. Two, possibly three injections depending on the disease.” Nofl sat back and tilted his head back and forth. “…Which doubles or triples the expense, of course. And I fear the Directorate will absolutely be happy with that fact.”
The Singer pulled a face. Vemik just nodded resignedly.
“How long are the Directorate going to want samples for?” Julian asked.
“Deathworld studies is a rich and, ah, pertinent field for the Directorate right now. Samples from Akyawentuo aren’t going to lose their value anytime soon, darling,” Nofl assured him. “It’s a big and lush planet, after all, and nearly all of it is utterly untouched. I’m sure the Ten’Gewek won’t run out of cash any time soon.”
Julian nodded. “Still need us here?”
“Oh dear, are you bored of my company already?” Nofl gave Julian a sly look, then shook his head. “No, no. I have everything I need, probably. I’ll call if I need you to come back in. Go, enjoy your day. Eat tacos. It’s Tuesday after all!”
Vemik immediately perked up at the idea of a dozen tacos gurgling happily in his belly.
“Maybe some one-on-one Gravball practice later, big fella?” Julian suggested. He slipped his phone out of his pocket and messaged Al to see if she and Xiù wanted anything.
“I want to play too!” The Singer protested.
“Okay, why not? I bet the Lads would join us… oh no.” Julian paused as Nofl started humming again and the tune finally stuck.
He turned back and glared at the tiny scientist. “…Is that fucking Barbie Girl?!”
Nofl giggled gleefully and the widest troll grin a Corti face could achieve spread across his features. “Finally! I was beginning to worry!”
“…You’re a monster, Nofl. That’s going to be in my head all afternoon now.”
“What a shame. Enjoy your dinner!”
Julian snorted, and followed the Ten’Gewek out the door.
It was a nice day in the Alien Quarter, if one ignored the nauseating scent of Zrrks wafting off a market stall. The ETs gave the deathworlder visitors a wide berth, and they did the same out of due caution. The Quarter was carefully isolated to keep deathworld diseases from ravaging the occupants, and time spent beyond the wall was carefully logged, but it never hurt to be sensibly cautious.
Still. Behind the Zrrks were the scents of imported low-class flora. One of the flowering trees imported from a Vzk’tk core world was in riotous bloom, shedding yellow and white blossom everywhere, and the assortment of fruiting bodies, flowers, shrubs and other forms of life that slightly didn’t fit human classification planted all around gave the plaza outside Nofl’s lab quite a pleasant atmosphere.
A pair of twin Locayl artists had moved in a while back too, and promptly set about beautifying the otherwise rather plain concrete buildings. There were abstract murals and intricate “light sculptures” formed from the interplay of shadows cast by stretched canopies… They’d done a pretty good job of beautifying a part of the city that had otherwise been kinda dull outside of the two Gaoian enclaves. Those—the Female commune, and the Clan Starmind monastery—were now almost outclassed.
The copious advertising for alien products made it clear this wasn’t really a space for humans, though. No human was ever going to need hoof polish. Or… whatever that billboard was selling for Guvnurag consumption. Julian couldn’t read a word of their language.
“Makes me think,” Vemik said, uncharacteristically quiet as they headed back toward the checkpoint and its cleansing biofilter fields.
“‘Bout what, buddy?”
“Us. The People. When our children’s children are grown and learning their trade… will we be like this? Con-crete, and little trees kept in pots?”
“Some of us, I think,” The Singer said. “Others… Most of us, I think we’ll keep the forest. I had a vision.”
Julian raised his eyebrows. “You did, huh?”
She nodded. “I saw… sky-magic among the trees. Clean and white things, there to help but not change. Vack-seens keeping our people strong, but not taking what we are. I saw mothers coming here when the birthing goes wrong, or hunters being healed even when a Werne gores them. Men like Ferd coming to the sky to Give back, but down on the ground we stay who we are. I saw…” she trailed off.
“…Balance,” Vemik suggested.
“Yes. I think we can balance these things. Have all that is best in us and all that is best in sky-magic at the same time.”
“I’d like that,” Vemik agreed.
Before Julian could comment, his phone pinged. It popped the moment like a bubble, but made him smile when he checked the message from Allison, which Vemik craned in to read as well.
“X says if you don’t bring us a Shinobi Platter, you’ll be sleeping on the couch ♥ ”
“No you won’t!” Vemik blurted out. “You three fuck too much!”
“Okay, so firstly: rude. Don’t read people’s texts unless they invite you!”
“Oh. Yeah.” Vemik looked like that was the kind of thing he kept ‘forgetting’ in the hopes that everyone else would forget it too.
“Secondly, you’re hardly one to talk. You’ve got Singer and Tilly—yes, we all know what you two are ’sampling’ when you go off on ‘research trips’ big guy—”
“And every pretty girl when he visits other tribes, too!” the Singer added. She tickled Vemik’s ear with her tailtip.
“—Exactly. And also, you should know by now I’ve got no shame in my game these days. We’ll fuck however much we want! I expect better teasing from you in the future.”
“A challenge?” Vemik grinned an enormously fang-filled grin. “Hmm. Tacos first.”
He ambled forward with a redcrest’s thick-thighed bouncy swagger off toward the barrier, his tail twitching merrily while he energetically hummed a catchy tune.
Julian hesitated, and a cold knot of dread settled in his stomach. “No. No, no, you do not know that song!”
“Nofl teached me!”
“Don’t care!” Vemik ducked through the decontamination fleld. [“Hey Singer!] ♪‘You can touch my hair, undress me anywhere…’”♫
There were three things about it that disturbed Julian. The first was Vemik’s vocal power. He was LOUD. Loud enough that several nearby ETs cringed in discomfort, and it wasn’t from bad pitch either, because the second disturbing thing was how perfectly he could mimic the recording, highs and lows and everything in-between. It was horrifyingly uncanny.
And the third was that he was dancing to it; anything with a nice, bouncy beat could get the manic cavemonkey going, but this in particular seemed to have inspired him. Which was fine, but the thing with Ten’Gewek was that dancing was more or less as blunt an invitation to amorous activities as a man could possibly perform. He shook his big-ass…well, ass at the Singer, who in turn hooted appreciatively, clapped and whistled, and joined in. Thank God they’d be staying in the guest bedroom downstairs…
Julian took a moment to enjoy the relative peace as he was left alone on the right side of the wall.
“…I’m going to kill that little gray asshole,” he muttered. Traitorously, though, his face insisted on smiling.
He shook his head, sighed, and followed after them.
Hopefully, this was going to be the worst of his problems.
Date Point: 16y9m AV
High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao
Brother Tooko, Stud of Clan Firefang
The door closed, and Tooko was left alone with a male who was, in a very biological sense, practically his opposite.
Tooko was proud to be a first-degree male. It was his charm, his calling card and his selling point. He could confidently and truly boast that no other male his age had sired as many daughters, and very few had sired more cubs than him in total.
The Great Father was obviously among those few and held a commanding lead over the field, even among Stud-Primes. And while the Great Father was a figure of deference and respect of course, it was just a little but vexing to know that all the groomed perfection Tooko could ever muster wouldn’t be quite as attractive to the Females as raw feral magnetism.
He’d started playing around with a concept from human fashion to try and regain the edge. ‘Sprezzatura,’ a kind of studied and calculated nonchalance. The idea was to seem effortless and even aloof from such petty concerns as how perfectly his coat was groomed or how well-trimmed he was, while in the privacy of his own quarters he in fact tinkered with every detail. He could spend hours working on every last subtle imperfection, each one studiously judged to give the maximum impression of sexy rakish insouciance.
Tooko had to work hard at it all. Daar, it seemed, genuinely didn’t. Well…he did obviously spent a lot of time in the gym, but he would have done that anyway. He was a well-lacerated brute of a Stoneback over fifty years gone, yet somehow retained all his youthful handsomeness and energy. Those many scars covering him from head to tail were mostly hairline things that told the story of his rough-and-tumble nature without marring his body’s ridiculous perfection. Balls, they weren’t even visible unless his coat was short-shorn, which it usually was; no grizzled hide for him. The only real clue to Daar’s age was the (maddeningly) dignified silver creeping into his cheek-ruffs and the slightly longer fur along his torso-thick forearms. And as for everything else…well. There was no point dwelling on that which Tooko could never be.
But despite all that, Tooko just couldn’t work up the will to hate the Great Father. He was… likeable, even despite it all. And in all honesty, subservient awe was so much easier and more natural…but Daar didn’t like that. He respected males who thought and acted for themselves. And yet, something about it all made Tooko powerfully desirous of pleasing the Great Father.
Which, really, was pretty much the definition of subservient awe in the first place.
The Great Father duck-nodded politely. “Thanks ‘fer comin’.”
“Well, I could hardly refuse, could I?” Tooko retorted, playfully rather than resentfully.
“…You coulda. I’m the Great Father, sure, but I try not ‘ta be a kwekshit about it.”
“With respect, My Father… I really couldn’t. You’re speaking the truth I’m sure, but let’s not pretend I really get to say no when you summon me.” Tooko had studied Daar even more carefully than he’d studied casualness. There was a line between disrespect and blunt confrontation, and the closer to that line one rode, the better… provided one stayed on the right side of it.
Daar snorted. “…Guess y’don’t,” he admitted. “Don’t think I’ll ever get used ‘ta that…take a seat. JETS team two should be here shortly.”
“You’re handling our briefing personally?”
“Yeah. ‘Cuz things are ‘bout ‘ta get way more serious, an’ this is gonna be my last chance ‘fore I gotta focus on other things…”
He looked up as the doors at the other end of the room opened and three familiar humans entered, escorted by Naydra.
Wilde, Rees and Frasier were looking good, and smelled of jungle. Clearly they were fresh back from some kind of training operation… though the bouquet of other, more urban (and erotic) aromas around them suggested they’d enjoyed a productive day or two of leave in Folctha.
Daar took one whiff in their general direction, flicked an ear, and gave Tooko an amused, sly look.
“You can always tell when a Human got lucky, can’t’cha?”
“The smell lingers all week,” Tooko agreed. Of course, it was just as true for Gaoians, but Humans were so very teasable, and sure enough the three JETS operators put on a gratifying show of covering for their embarrassment with smiles and nudges among themselves.
“Some of us,” the Mother-Consort observed, “Are discreet enough to not mention it.” Her tone was icy, but she was nothing but warmth as she sniffed noses with Daar. Tooko caught the slight, sad flick of her ear, and he knew why: the Great Father had been with somebody very sick, recently. There was a faint note of imminent death among his scent today.
Tooko had been trying to ignore it. Fortunately, it all went over the Humans’ heads.
Rees, as ever, was the loudest of the three. He grinned enormously. “Tooko! ‘Ow’s it ‘angin’, Mush?!”
He led a round of paw-crushing, painfully physical greetings that probably added to rather than diminished Tooko’s carefully scruffy appearance, and once it was complete the six of them sat to discuss business.
Daar opened with a map of Hunter space, insofar as it had been mapped at all.
“We’re givin’ you two targets,” he said. “First up is Hell, right here.”
He touched a claw to one of the highlighted systems, and it zoomed in. “Site of the ring we blew up. Prob’ly that planet is uninhabitable now, but we need intel on how the Hunters are reactin’. You won’t be landin’ there, just fly by, take some scans from orbit, then move on ‘ta the main objective…”
Another gesture, and they moved on from Hell to a comparatively nearby system, just a few hundred light years away. “…Doesn’t have a name, technic’ly. Over at Mrwrki they wanna call it ‘Mordor’ so I guess if you wanna call it that you can.”
The Humans chuckled, but Tooko was left confused. “‘Mordor,’ My Father?”
“It’s from a Human epic, kinda like Nerru when he went across the sea.”
“Ah.” That was one of Tooko’s favorites as a cub.
“We even have a Took,” Frasier chuckled.
“Never mind, Pippin. We’ll explain later.”
“After second breakfast,” Rees agreed.
The Great Father’s knowledge of Human lore was nigh-legendary, and his bass chitter was enough to kill Tooko’s objection to the no-doubt complex new nickname, at least for now.
“Back on subject?” he suggested, instead of complaining.
The Great Father duck-nodded and returned to his map. “We don’t know shit about this planet. We’re pretty sure there’s no ring around it—near as we can tell, that thing was a one-off, thank Fyu’s furry nuts—but there could by all sortsa things in the system that’ll give us grief.
“Our long-term objective,” he continued, “Is ‘ta liberate that planet an’ the people on it. That’s gonna mean bringing in the Grand Army, but it’s also gonna mean puttin’ up a shield ‘round the planet. So you’re gonna be lookin’ specifically for ground-to-orbit weaponry, jump arrays, nanofactories… anythin’ that might jeopardize the shield or let the Hunters get past it once it’s up… or stop us from puttin’ it up in the first place.”
“Purely scouting? Or do we get to blow shit up?” Wilde asked.
“‘Yer bein’ given the most stealthiest o’ ships ‘cuz we can’t tip our paw jus’ yet, so…”
“I get to fly the Drunker again?” Tooko perked up eagerly.
“Better.” Daar pant-grinned broadly. “The third in the line. ‘Sides, Drunker on Turkeyer is bein’ upgraded an’ reserved ‘fer somethin’ real special an’ important.”
“Better?” Tooko’s ears were firmly pricked up and intent now.
“Wanna see her? Heh. What am I askin’ for? ‘Course you do!” Daar gestured them to follow and ambled happily across the room toward the far door from the one they’d entered through. Beyond was an enormous elevator, big enough for cargo handling, though even it groaned slightly under the Great Father’s heft. He tapped the controls with a chest-breaker of a claw to head up to the roof and dropped to four-paw looking highly pleased with himself.
“You’ll like this one even more than Drunker I bet. She’s a li’l bigger an’ more comfortable inside, but no sacrifice in performance for that. We contracted with Byron Group ‘fer some design enhancements too, ‘cuz they’ve got more ‘speriance doin’ deep-range exploration. So: a way more bigger pantry, a kitchen that don’t suck balls like the last one did, an’ a compact lil’ fold-up gym that’d keep me nice and tuckered out. Lotsa room ‘fer cavemonkeys, too!”
“Oh, thank Christ,” Frasier commented. “I wasn’ae lookin’ forward to gettin’ squashed in wi’ them.”
Wilde issued a humorless sort of one-beat chuckle, though his smile said he was in fact amused. “At least you weren’t gonna be Ferd’s personal snuggle-bear.”
The Great Father chittered merrily. “Oh, that’ll still happen, don’t kid ‘yerself. Anyhoo, it’s bigger, an’ all the specs are better, an’ we actually did listen to ‘yer gripin’ ‘bout the last mission so’s we filled it up with durable creature comforts. An’ unscented soap, too.”
Tooko glanced excitedly at the Humans, who looked more pleased than eager. Their loss.
The elevator reached the rooftop and the doors opened with a hefty gust of cold wind. The Northern Plains were a windy place at the best of times, but at this time of year they gained a frozen, arctic bite that cut straight through the fur. And as for the humans, without a nice thick natural coat to keep them warm, it must have slid over the skin like an ice cube.
The cold didn’t seem to bother the Great Father one bit, even in his habitually short coat. Instead he chitter-sighed happily and took a deep, appreciative breath.
“Refreshin,’ ain’t it?”
“Aye!” Frasier agreed. Wilde and Rees both gave him a mildly disbelieving look.
Daar gave an amused look toward Tooko. “Most monkeys don’t much like the cold, y’know. Ten’Gewek are exactly the same.”
“They’re worse,” Frasier agreed. “Dinnae like the cold at all.”
“If they ain’t sweatin’ their balls off, they’re huddled under pelts an’ complainin.’”
“They sound like fun…” Tooko said, but his heart wasn’t in the banter really. He’d just seen the keen blade of a ship parked on the fortress’ rooftop landing pad.
It was wider than it was long, swooping down to a sharp forward edge that must have had… Keeda, basically zero radar signature. Everything about its design was clearly from the same family as its ancestors, but refined, upgraded and tweaked. Even the necessary forcefield emitters on the hull were flush with its sleek lines rather than pushing outwards.
And, in a sign of the Great Father’s affection, the nose bore a stylized version of the stripes and facial markings characteristic of a genetically conforming Firefang.
For a moment he forgot himself, sank to all fours, and giddily charged up to meet his new ship.
Up close, she was a masterpiece. He couldn’t find a seam to fit his claw-tip into, which was an incredible feat for something that had to accommodate wild temperature fluctuations as it transitioned from ground to orbit and back, not to mention its own waste heat…
Speaking of which…
He found what he was looking for tucked at the back of the ship, among the kinetic thrusters. Every ship had to vent heat somehow, and while the shields could handle the job well enough, they generated their own pronounced EM signature. Stealth ships needed a way to dump heat that didn’t involve the shields, and this one was well-equipped with heatsink launchers. Several of them.
“…How long can she stay quiet?” he asked, half to himself. But Daar of course knew, of having ambled in his silent-wall-of-doom way across the roof to watch the inspection with an amused set to his ears.
“More’n three days,” he said. “If ‘ya don’t mind gettin’ real uncomfortable for the third day. An’, uh, mebbe closer to a week if you ain’t got cavemonkeys on board.”
“Or a Daar, maybe,” Rees ventured.
“Nah. Our thick fur means we ain’t gotta spend nearly as many calories as y’all bare-skin monkeys at keepin’ warm. Saves energy an’ all that. Mebbe a well-exercised Daar, though…”
“A little wishful thinking there, My Father?” Tooko ventured some light teasing.
Daar sighed to himself a bit forlornly. “Maybe…”
Rees cleared his throat. “So… I dread to ask, but what’s she called?”
Daar pant-grinned. “Well, she’s the latest in the line that started with Drunk on Turkey, and then o’ course we had the Drunker on Turkeyer so o’ course my first instinct was ‘ta name her in honor of her proud heritage.”
Tooko distinctly heard Wilde mutter ‘Oh, Christ…’ to himself under his breath.
Daar ignored him. “But then I thought, nah, this ship deserves its own name, so it’s not always in the shadow of its ancestors. So after much deliberation and hearing a few suggestions, I settled on somethin’ that really catches the finesse an’ power o’ this baby.”
He looked fondly up at the ship, then pant-grinned at Tooko again. “So, young Fireclaw,” he continued. “I proudly give you… the Silent But Deadly.”
Tooko hesitated warily. “…Oh. Well, that sounds like quite a fine—” he began, but the Humans were groaning.
“Problem?” Daar asked them, innocently.
Wilde sighed. “…Sir, I think I speak for the whole galaxy when I say that only you would take the latest and greatest in stealth warplanes and name her after a fart.”
Daar’s pant-grin got wider. “Actually, it was Naydi’s idea! It ain’t my fault ‘yer people get hung up over fart metaphors!” He chittered again, then sobered. “So. You get a month ‘ta train with her, get used ‘ta her an’ make ‘yer preparations. There’s a team on hand to make modifications an’ stuff—within reason—an’ some o’ that time’s gotta be used ‘fer Tooko’s shakedown, and gettin’ ‘yer cavemonkeys ready, too. They gotta know safety procedures…”
“So, we’re definitely taking some Ten’Gewek with us?”
“Yup. They’re ready as anyone can be, an’ okay mebbe they’re not gonna be so useful ‘fer the first leg o’ the mission, but ‘fer the second? Absolutely. Shit, they know more about scoutin’ new terrain than anyone. An’ after that ‘yer goin’ relay-world hunting. Kinda wish I could go wif y’all, but…”
There was a distinct note of…longing to the Great Father’s scent. Tooko felt a certain sympathy for that: he couldn’t imagine being permanently forced out of his work to take on a higher calling. What Daar had been doing in the field had been important, and while being the Great Father was about the most important thing he could possibly do—why else would he be doing it?—Tooko could tell that he’d have been more comfortable in the dirt, doing the hard work himself.
Wilde’s thoughts, clearly, had gone in a different direction. “As I recall sir, your relay missions took weeks. The Ten’Gewek are…high performance, let’s say. Especially Ferd, he eats like a Beef Bro.”
Daar duck-nodded. “Yeah, an’ if you were doin’ a long-term mission on a world that’d be a problem. Ideally ‘yer not, though. We figgered out the most importantest part is ‘ta get in, get sensors emplaced, and get out. Nominal mission’d be a couple-few days. Also, these are all gonna be deathworlds too, so there’ll prol’ly be game and such they can hunt in a ‘mergency.”
“Well…then no offense to them or anything, but…” Rees began.
“You much like climbin’ hunnerd meter trees with a hunnerd kilos o’ gear, Rees? An’ can ‘ya do that silently? How ‘bout in supergravity? They can do that effortlessly all day long.”
Rees paused. “…Fair points, those. Fuck, I’m sold!”
Daar chittered again. “Thought y’would be.” He looked up at the ship. “The Hunters are big. The Ring proved that. They’ve been around a long time, they’ve outlived a lotta species. Made a few extinct themselves, mebbe. You know I gotta lotta respect ‘fer Humans, an’ I know y’all have a lotta respect ‘fer the Gao. We both know that the other species can do things we can’t. But we both need ‘ta start respectin’ the Ten’Gewek ’fer the same reason.”
He looked back down at the four of them. “Cavemonkeys or not, they’re with us. Shit, they’re standin’ up to enlist in a war they don’t even really unnerstand. And they can bring somethin’ to it neither of us can. Primitive they may be, but they’ve got bodies better’n ours in basically every possible way, and their senses an’ instincts are super-sharp an’ perfectly tuned ‘fer this kind o’ adventure. That matters ‘fer missions like this, yijao? How ‘ya gonna deal with a bear-snake if’n ‘ya wanna avoid gunfire? What about if ‘ya gotta move boulders, climb cliffs, any o’ that? Can you guarantee ‘yer food? Is ‘yer awareness so good you wouldn’t want eyes an’ ears like theirs? We’d be fools ‘ta turn ‘em away just ‘cuz they ain’t industrialized.”
He looked at Tooko and flicked his ear mischievously. “Don’ worry. I’ll tell ‘em ‘yer fragile an’ they should play gentle.”
The thing about Brownies was they had an uncanny way of teasing that somehow lacked the sting of direct challenge. Daar being the “mostest” brownie, and being above the need to directly challenge anyone, was particularly good at it.
“So long as they don’t muss the fur job, I think we’ll get along.”
Daar chittered heavily, then looked back up at the Silent But Deadly. Something seemed to be on his mind.
After a moment’s thought, he revealed it. “…Look. You all know this is important anyway. Ain’t none of us can stomach havin’ somethin’ like the Hunters around. But there’s more ‘ta this mission than just kickin’ those balless fucks where it hurts. We’re sittin’ on a time bomb here. Come with me.”
He led the way to the edge of the roof and gestured to the horizon. “See there? The town of Pan Sho. What’s left of it, anyway. Destroyed by RFG, on my orders. I come up here an’ look at it most days…”
He considered the distant ruins for a moment, then turned away. “The Grand Army ain’t a cure for what the war did to us. It’s a patch, a band-aid. A way of takin’ all those males who survived the War an’ didn’t know where to turn an’ puttin’ em to good use. ‘Cuz the thing is, what I’ve got here is what the Humans call a tiger by its tail. Hundreds an’ hundreds o’ millions of fit, motivated Males all eager to do somethin’… It ain’t jus’ that I gotta keep ‘em useful an’ productive. There’s only so much employment that’s possible given’ how much was destroyed, an’ how much has to be built back up. I owe ‘em some kinda legacy, too. I am the most blessedest male ever. I’ve sired over a thousand cubs now, an’ I get to love a woman who is as close to perfect as a woman can be…”
He trailed off, sadly, and looked back over his shoulder. “None of ‘em…they’ll never get that. Mosta them ain’t gonna ever sire a single cub. Their legacy dies with ‘em, ‘cuz of the evil that were done to us. There just ain’t enough Females left, even if we took away their rights an’ became the kinda monsters I executed during the War, ain’t no physical way in the whole world for all the males in the Grand Army to pass on their line.”
“…But if they aren’t working toward something good…” Tooko realised, running ahead of the Great Father’s train of thought.
“…Then the charismatic sociopaths among ‘em won’t see things so clearly. They’d look at the Clan of Females on their island an’ think ‘we’ve got all these men and weapons, why can’t we just take our future?” And then I’d need to put them down.” Daar finished. He shook his huge head despairingly. “It ain’t a matter of if. It’s a matter of when. An’ the only thing can stop it is if most of the Grand Army feel they’re buildin’ a future that’s as good as all the cubs they’ll never sire. They did the first bit an’ helped free the Gao from invisible slavery. Right now, though… they’re sittin’ on their asses. That needs to change, as soon as possible.”
He gestured to the ship. “You’ll find ‘yer specific orders an’ full briefing waitin’ inside. But this is why I wanted ‘ta brief you in person today. ‘Cuz you need to unnerstand what’s at stake. An’ I can smell that you do.”
They nodded solemnly. He looked at each of them in turn, duck-nodded, and turned back toward the elevator. “See ‘ya on the day you head out.”
His absence left the roof feeling… quiet. And large. And open and cold. Tooko covered for the sudden feeling of discomfort by opening the airlock and swarming up the ladder to check out the interior.
It was indeed bigger inside than the Drunker on Turkeyer, and the space was used more efficiently too. It wasn’t exactly the height of luxury, but…
Rees clearly felt differently. “Fuckin’ ‘ell, boys. It’s like the fuckin’ Ritz in here!”
“You’re pretty chipper for a lad who just got told the fate of a species rests on his shoulders…” Wilde commented, following him up the ladder.
“‘Ey, one thing at a time. It’s a lot easier to save the world when you got a decent place to kip, you know!”
“At least one bloke in this squad has his priorities right…” Frasier muttered. “What d’you think, Pippin? She good?”
Tooko paused, then decided he’d get to the bottom of the ‘Pippin’ thing later. For now he ran a practiced eye over the technical specifications summary and felt his ears prick up. If the summary was right, this thing would fly like a Voidripper.
“…That good, hey?” Frasier commented.
“I… really hope so!” Tooko admitted. He checked the next document, read it, then handed it to Wilde. “Shall we go collect our monkey friends? I have a jump code to Cimbrean.”
“Just like that, huh?” Wilde mused. “I was expecting more of a farewell.”
“You boys are in for a treat! Aren’t you glad I’m good at high-gees?”
The Humans looked at each other, shrugged, and settled into their seats. “Well, alright then.” Frasier said. “Let’s take a ride.”
Tooko was only too happy to oblige.
Date Point: 16y9m AV
Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Uncharted Space
“That thing makes my skin fuckin’ crawl.”
“Come on, it can’t hurt you. It’s completely harmless now.”
“I don’t fuckin’ care, the fuckin’ thing’s still a giant walkin’ heebie-jeebie, dude.”
The hardest part of keeping the Hunter hadn’t been making it safe—the HEAT had already taken care of that by just pulling all its limbs off. Which sounded crueller than it really was, considering that the Hunter had already swapped out all of its natural ones for cybernetics. But Lewis had to admit, literally disarming the alien did do a pretty good job of neutralizing it.
It couldn’t walk, couldn’t manipulate anything… it was the perfect prisoner. But that all came with a downside. It was quickly going unresponsive.
Darcy thought they could secure its cooperation by promising it some limited mobility and stimulation, the same way any other interrogation would go. Lewis had his doubts.
“Bein’ honest, these guys haven’t shown much in the way of common psychology…”
She sighed and conceded his point with a small sideways shrug of her head. “If you have any better ideas I’m open to them. All I know is, we’ve got a nearly catatonic prisoner who hasn’t given us any useful intel yet…”
Lewis considered the camera feed from the monster’s cell. The Hunter was little more than a denuded skinny torso, slumped in the padded center of the cell’s floor with an IV line put in where the medics had tentatively guessed was best. It hadn’t actually died yet, so they musta guessed right. It barely responded to stimuli at all, turning one or two of its seven eyes toward anyone that entered its cell and then promptly ignoring them again.
Darcy gave a frustrated noise. “I know. Somebody once said that they have ‘shades of tartan’ morality. But surely boredom is universal?”
“When you assume—”
“Don’t finish that sentence, Lewis. Please.”
Lewis flashed her a charming grin, and left the old cliche unfinished. “I’m just sayin’, the only thing I know of that’s about as alien as these motherfuckers is the Entity. Does the Entity get bored?”
“Not… really,” Darcy conceded. “But you’ve got a point, we have to stop thinking of this thing as basically a disgusting kind of human and try and get into its head. What drives it?”
She stared at it for a moment, then a slow smile spread across her face. “Hmm…”
“Dude. Penny for your thoughts?”
“There’s one trick from the old book that I haven’t tried yet…”
Her ‘trick’ turned out to be a steak, so rare that Lewis could almost hear it mooing. How the fuck she could eat in the same room as that abomination, he didn’t know. Darcy musta had an iron-plated stomach to snarf down a flat iron steak while looking at a mutilated alien maggot-monster.
All seven of its eyes watched her hatefully as she did so.
Finally, when the plate was empty of all but a ruddy smear, Darcy pushed it aside and delicately wiped the corner of her mouth. “That was delicious. Really hit the spot, y’know?”
The Hunter made an angered growl.
“What’s the matter? You hungry? Want something more in your life than intravenous nutrition, do we? That might be possible…”
The growl got fiercer.
“I’m serious. Prime, juicy, deathworld red meat. And there’s so many kinds to explore, you know. Beef, lamb, pork…”
The Hunter did its best to spit, without success. “An’mal.” it sounded revolted, but that was a breakthrough for the ages considering it hadn’t been coaxed to communicate at all before that moment.
“We are all of us animals in the end,” Darcy replied, amiably. “It’s tastier than a needle in your throat and it’s the only option on the menu. We don’t eat sapients. Take it or leave it.”
The Hunter’s nostrils flared. It turned its head, the growl intensified….
Darcy nodded, produced her tablet, and opened her list. “Let’s start with the basics, shall we? How many Hunters are there in total? A rough estimate will do.”
The Hunter lay in its restraints silent for nearly a minute. Darcy just watched it, as patient as the desk.
The Hunter’s will broke first.
“…Twenshthy. To power ten.”
Date Point: Halloween, 16y10m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Uthrug’s second life began with a thump, and a vague sense of unease that had nothing to do with leaving behind the planet he was born and had lived on all his years, and everything to do with the faint, disconcerting sense that the universe didn’t really approve of jump arrays.
Take the momentum, for instance. He’d just transferred instantly and seamlessly from one planet’s surface to another. Both worlds were undoubtedly moving at thousands or even tens of thousands of thousand-paces per quarterday relative to one another. They were spinning in different directions, had different surface gravities, were two thousand years apart by light’s reckoning…
And yet the most he’d felt was the barest of tiny jolts.
And then there was the waste heat! The great accounting department of the universe tracked energy down to the minutest fraction, and the amount of work involved in what had just happened, according to classical mechanics, should have generated enough waste heat to flash-vaporize cities at both ends of the wormhole… with enough left over to seriously inconvenience any nearby continents.
Uthrug knew the field equations inside-out and upside-down. He could perform them in his head in base 2, 8, 10 and 12. He knew perfectly well how the technology he’d just used accounted for those things… but he just couldn’t shake the nagging sensation that somewhere, in some way, the universe sighed morosely to itself and reached for an eraser every time mere uppity life forms decided to exploit the tricky loopholes.
He’d always had a vivid imagination.
He shook off his unease and lumbered off the jump platform at the urging of a pair of Humans in bright clothing as orange as sunset. He eyed them curiously as he went, having never actually seen their species in person before.
Their conversation made no sense at all.
“Nah mate, that’s the easy part. Her brother’s black judogi, one of my t-shirts, five quid in the toy aisle, job done. It’s the chicken wire and paper mache taco shell that’s driving my missus up the wall…”
The other shook his head and laughed. “I tell you mate, ever since the Gaoians picked it up? Halloween’s got a lot harder… Can I help you, sir?”
Uthrug realized that the question was directed at him, and that he’d been staring as he listened. He flushed a contrite shade of lemonade pink, shook his head and moved on with an apology.
Outside the array itself was customs and immigration. As the only passenger coming through on that jump—he’d been surrounded by boxes and sacks, but nobody to talk with—it seemed a little extravagant to open the booth just for him, but sure enough there was a Gaoian sitting inside, a male whose fur and uniform were both the precise color of bureaucracy.
“Welcome to Folctha! Papers please!”
Uthrug fished his travel documents out of one of his shoulder-satchels and handed them over.
“Thank you!” the Gaoian chirped, and inspected them with a well-practiced eye.
“These are all in order, excellent… you’re applying to immigrate?”
“I am,” Uthrug confirmed.
“Okay… You’ll need to check in at the Dominion consulate no later than three days from now. This welcome package has all the details.” The Gaoian reached down inside his booth and pushed a modest-sized folder full of information pamphlets across the desk. He stamped Uthrug’s papers, then paused in the middle of returning them. “…Ah. Just so you’re aware, you have arrived on an… interesting date.”
“How so?” Uthrug asked.
“This is a Human colony, as I’m sure you’re aware. They have some cultural… quirks. Such as setting aside days specially to celebrate in silly ways. Today is something called ‘Halloween’ and you may find some of what you see confusing.”
“In what way?” Uthrug asked, thinking back to the impenetrably strange conversation he’d overheard in the array chamber.
“Honestly, I think the best thing to do is to just let you see it for yourself. If you find yourself utterly perplexed, don’t worry about it too much. It confuses the tail off me, too.” The Gaoian twitched both his ears, duck-shrugged, and returned the stamped papers. “Welcome to Folctha.”
With that peculiar warning, Uthrug ambled through the array terminus in a slightly worried mood. He read the pamphlets as he waited in line for some food (clearly marketed in several nonhuman languages as being suitable for nonhuman consumption.)
They made no mention of this “Halloween” thing, but there were a lot of decorations around that were clearly temporary, and followed a consistent color scheme of black, fiery orange, a crepuscular purple and a rather septic shade of green, sometimes with the addition of intricate webs of thin white lines. There were shapes he didn’t really recognize, though some of the black shapes vaguely reminded him of stylized Rauwryhr.
“You look confused.”
Uthrug turned. A Human—female, he thought—smiled up at him.
“I am, rather,” he admitted.
“Yeah. I know that shade of sunflower yellow well,” the Human said, gesturing at his chromatophores. “Fresh off the boat?”
“Newly arrived?” Uthrug translated. “Yes.”
“And a little overwhelmed.”
“Are all Humans so familiar with Guvnurag emotional display?” Uthrug inquired. She shook her head no.
“No. But ETs are kinda my job,” she said, and extended a hand upwards. “Ava Ríos. I’m a journalist. You grip and shake, it’s a greeting. Face tentacles are fine by me.”
Uthrug followed the invitation, glad for a friendly welcome. She shook one of his tendrils with a smile, though she did discreetly wipe her hand on a small piece of paper as she sat down at a nearby table. There was a paper cup within arm’s reach, a faint trail of steam escaping through a vent in the top.
“A journalist?” Uthrug asked, taking what he believed was an unspoken invitation to sit down and join her.
“Extraterrestrial affairs. I heard a refugee from Ugunduvur was coming through the array and… well. Would you call yourself a refugee or a migrant?”
“…A little of both, I suppose. I don’t feel… capable… of remaining on that planet any longer,” Uthrug admitted.
“What’s your name?”
“Well, Uthugvugeg, how about a little quid pro quo? Uh, that’s a fair exchange. If I could, I’d like to interview you, right here and now. We haven’t heard much about what happened to your people, and I think that should change. In exchange I’ll answer any questions you have about Folctha and do my best to help you feel welcome. How does that sound?”
“…I suppose I don’t see any harm in it,” Uthrug ventured. “And I definitely have questions.”
“Excellent!” Ava sipped her drink, then handed him a tablet. “This is a consent form, terms, agreement. Any kind of unique personal identifying mark will do.”
Uthrug nodded his head and signed it. She bought him something called “carrots and hummus” which turned out to be genuinely delicious, and started to ask her questions and answer his.
It was about the warmest welcome he’d ever had.
Date Point: Halloween, 16y10m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Halloween was Allison’s favorite holiday. An entire day devoted to minor rebellion? Awesome. And these days she knew exactly what her favorite part was: she could coax Julian into a skin-tight superhero costume, one custom made to show off that comic-book build of his, and there wasn’t anything he could say about it, or any way he could weasel out.
Playing dress-up with her loving, handsome, genetically perfect super-meathead boyfriend? Fuck. Yes. It was the perfect opportunity to ogle him.
“Ready to go, babe?”
Julian fidgeted at his mask’s gaiter. As always, that thick caveman neck of his warred with anything more sartorially adventurous than a T-shirt. “I guess. Isn’t this all a bit, uh…showy?”
Allison give him another once-over and grinned. Yes. Yes it was.
“Babe, that’s the entire point. The three of us haven’t had any real free time together since the babies were born. We finally get the opportunity and it happens to be Halloween, and I’ve got officially the hottest man alive on my arm? You’re goddamn right I’m gonna show you off!”
Julian grumbled a bit half-heartedly at that. “I ain’t ever gonna live that stupid magazine article down, am I?” Despite his protests, he smiled that slightly embarrassed-yet-smug grin of his.
“Sure ain’t, babe! It’s not like you have a lot of room to complain after those charity shoots…”
He wasn’t actually shy, of course. Julian was the type of confident man that considered black silkies and nothing else to be entirely appropriate everyday wear, and he certainly wasn’t a stranger to deliberate exhibition, either; ‘Laid Bare’ had only been his first photoshoot. Julian was endlessly teasable about all that and quite predictably defensive. “Hey, you said yes! Those were for the Ten’Gewek sovereign fund!”
“You’re damn right I agreed! Don’t tell me you don’t enjoy showing off, though.”
“…I mean…that’s different, somehow.” He fidgeted in place and scratched at his calf with his other foot. “I feel like this costume is almost more revealing than being butt naked.”
…Well, he sort of had a point, there. It added emphasis in all the right places, after all…not that he needed it, but who was she to turn down some sneaky boy-candy enhancement?
Al demurred and instead opted for a bit of flattery. “Hush. You fill those superhero tights out perfectly, babe. Can’t us girls enjoy flaunting our man a bit?”
He grumbled at that, but, well…the idea was clearly getting to him. He grumbled and adjusted his tights, which he tried to play off like he was bending down to pull on his boots…
“Hmm, getting second thoughts there, babe? We might need to take care of that later…”
Julian blushed a bit and rewarded her with one of those unfairly sexy grins of his. “Well, you make a good argument…” He reached up and scratched at the back of his head, which was one of her favorite little nervous gestures he did. “I guess this isn’t really all that daring, huh?”
She watched the hefty shapes in his arm stretch the costume for all it was worth, then grinned and offered support. “Well, it is a little daring. But you won’t be alone. Your friends will be there too! Hell, Hoeff’s going as Wolverine and Adam’s going as the Hulk. Green skin and everything!”
“That’ll be a sight.” Julian visibly relaxed a bit and within a breath or two was the confident, assertive and happy man she knew and loved. Sometimes, a little reassurance was all anyone needed.
In this case, his unease was probably two-fold. Firstly, some remnants of his Minnesota upbringing was likely chafing a bit at the idea. Modesty was a virtue of course, but Allison believed that everything should be had in moderation. Especially moderation.
She had decided to go as Natasha Romanov. The Black Widow. Hardly a modest thing! But, well, Al had really wanted to feel sexy and to her, right then, being able to pull off a ridiculous shiny black costume like that after having given birth to Anna…
And she’d be lying if she said she didn’t enjoy the way her man’s eyes were drawn to her, the way he kept sizing up her curves, or the gently possessive way he kept close to her, even in their home while they were still getting ready…
Or the unfairly sexy way that enormous stone-hard arm of his wrapped around her waist and pulled her comfortably tight against his thick slab of a chest and into his lap while they waited…
Al enjoyed Xiù’s furtive glances, too. She had earlier decided that she didn’t want to do smoldering tonight, so instead she dressed up as Squirrel Girl of all the things. Which was such a fantastically dorky costume, she couldn’t help but be adorable. Sexy too.
The second and more likely reason for his unease was the crowds and his fans. There would probably be quite a lot of awkward encounters for him tonight, probably lots of selfies, possibly a lot of flirting. Hell, there might even be some inappropriate behavior toward him, too. But, well…
Honestly, that was fine. People needed to let loose a little. And he needed the socialization. He spent way too much time among his cavemonkeys and not enough with his own people, figuring out his own kind. He did enjoy it all, it was just social inertia that kept him mostly to himself.
She wasn’t worried. He could handle himself. And frankly, if anyone got too drunk and grabby…or worse…well. He happened to be on a first-name basis with the only people who were as scary as him.
Plus, Cap’s costume had body armor, which Adam had cleverly used to deploy a layer of the best mil-spec modern scale plate they could get their hands on. Julian wasn’t a perfect stand-in for Captain America, of course; Steve Rogers stood an inch or two taller with a soldier’s upright posture, while Julian was soft-footed and prowly anywhere he went. Steve had platinum blond hair and ice-blue eyes, Julian had an inky-black shaggy mane and an intense dark brown gaze.
Still, they shared all the important bits: both had rangy, athletic frames, heroic proportions, and honest all-American good looks. Both were pinnacle humans, though Steve of course had volunteered, and Julian…well. Both were friendly and somewhat naive about people, and tended to see the good in everyone. Both had the same honest nobility and the same pure, decent souls.
But Julian…well, he wasn’t trapped in 1950s-era notions about man and woman. He was much more…primal about it, and put every other man she’d ever had to complete shame, whether he was letting her take the lead or asserting himself exactly the way she loved it. And he was much broader of shoulder and carried a lot more muscle on his frame. That wasn’t previously Al’s thing, but on him… As far as she was concerned, he was better then ‘Cap in all the best ways. God-damn if she wasn’t feeling a bit patriotic looking him over!
Steve Rogers needed a tan, anyway.
Her daydreaming came to a halt as the Johnny Cab that Xiù had ordered pulled up outside. They were attending a charity dinner and auction in support of the Native Species Preservation Society. That was a cause near and dear to everyone’s heart—even Al, who was occasionally teased as the ‘black-hearted right-winger’ she really wasn’t—but for Julian in particular it was something special.
Along with a batch of comparison shots taken just a few days prior, he and Ava had donated original signed prints from his Laid Bare shoot. All of them, including the ones that didn’t make it into the final article. That was honestly pretty brave of him, because some of them weren’t necessarily flattering, and some of the others…well…
Xiù and Al had quietly conspired on whether they should spare their collective blushes and win it themselves, and had eventually come to the reluctant conclusion that it might be a bit of a faux pas. After all, why not just donate the money directly?
“…You didn’t order the big one, Xiù.”
“We’re gonna be sitting on his lap the whole way.”
“Oh dear. What a shame. How silly of me.”
Julian chuckled. “I’m right here, you know…”
“So you are!” Xiù beamed at him, then slipped past the door. Somehow, she even made her costume’s fluffy tail brush across his face. “Now squeeze yourself in there, and let’s go raise some money.”
“Heh. Yes ma’am.”
There was a happy chorus of “Good boy!” and they sardined themselves into the car, with a few false starts while they figured out what to do with Xiù’s tail.
“No last minute babysitting disasters?” Julian asked as the Johnny Cab’s suspension groaned despairingly under his weight. ‘Cheap’ was definitely their primary feature.
Allison shook her head. “Nope. C’mon, even my mom can’t fuck that up too badly at this age. And the boys are at a friend’s place, they’ll be fine.”
“Guess we’re ready, then…” Julian muttered. Al kissed his cheek, then leaned forward to direct their cab to its destination.
It was a warm and cozy ride, with Julian’s big arms comfortably hugging them both close, proving once again that Xiù was a genius and a lot less innocent than she looked. The cab dropped them as close to the venue as it could, considering the roads around the parks were closed. Folctha threw big street parties.
“…Is it just me, or did that thing’s motor sound a lot happier when it left?” Xiu asked, as she listened to it whine away once they were on the sidewalk.
“They probably cost like fifty bucks to build. And our man’s a hefty boy.”
“I still think they were a neat idea, though. Flat-pack electric self-driving taxi cabs?”
“Somebody musta been high while watching an Ahnold marathon.”
“And then designed one cheap enough for a big blue swedish store…”
“Let’s get the big ones in future,” Julian grumbled. “I felt hunched over the whole time.”
“Sorry, Bǎobèi.” Xiù didn’t look particularly contrite, but she gave him a kiss and they set off through the park.
It was pretty crowded, and the costumes were the usual mix running from the could-barely-be-bothered cheap store costumes that flirted dangerously with copyright— “Italian Mushroom Man,” “Kung-Fu Sewer Tortoise,” and (Allison’s personal favorite) four dudes walking past as “Dead Spirit Exterminator Squad” —all the way up to the disturbingly, almost obsessively good.
The aliens who’d chosen to costume up, of course, often either missed the point or didn’t really know enough about human pop culture. There was a teenage Gaoian female who’d dressed as Broccoli every year since first arriving on Cimbrean, another dressed as a taco, and a Vzk’tk who’d dressed himself as a ghost via the old “cut some holes in a bedsheet” trick. She looked more like a roaming gazebo than anything, but the intent was there.
Al was pretty proud of their own costumes. She’d splashed a bit on having them professionally made, but that was okay seeing as they were attending a charity event. She could hardly show up as ‘Dark Sexy Spider Spy,’ after all.
The expense paid off. They had to stop for selfies and socializing several times on their way to the Statler Hotel, and more than a few catcalls. They smiled, and waved, and put on their best public faces and Julian gave a thumbs-up when somebody called “Lookin’ good, Captain!” after him…
Thank God they’d reserved enough spare time to accommodate all that. As it was, they made it to the hotel exactly on time, and were ushered through into one of its convention rooms to find themselves surrounded by movers and shakers in a variety of costumes… and some others remaining reserved and formal in their nice suits and dresses.
Julian’s boss was one of the latter. He smiled ruefully as he shook hands and complimented them on their costumes. “I feel underdressed.”
“You feel underdressed?” Julian echoed. “This thing’s skin-tight!”
“Exactly. Very fancy. Striking, even.” Rockefeller smiled, toasted them with his champagne glass, then nodded toward the stage. “Not to mention daring. Those prints are quite a bold donation.”
“They should get a bold price then, hopefully.”
“Very bold. I think I heard Diane Woodward proclaim that she’s going to win that folder even if it bankrupts her.”
“Oh, Christ.” Allison muttered to herself. Diane Woodward was the wife of New Botany’s richest sheep magnate, Nick. They’d run into her before at a formal dinner and the best Al could say of her was that she didn’t mean to be rude and embarrassing. She just had a massive blind spot.
Thoughtless was the best word. She’d be likable, if not for that one glaring flaw.
As it was… the dinner was very pleasant, and firmly up to the Statler’s high standards, and they found themselves seated near some other representatives from the Byron Group… namely Levaughn Thomas, who was dressed up as the classic Bela Lugosi Dracula and was, tellingly, doing everything in his power to make sparkling conversation with Julian… and snubbing Al and Xiù in the process.
Not an approach likely to win Julian’s good books, that.
Finally, the dessert courses were finished, the coffees distributed, the atmosphere merry and the auction was ready to begin. It was hosted by the Mayor of Folctha, James Duffy, who took to the stage more like a showman than a politician. For once, though, he’d scrubbed up and didn’t look like the skinny, scruffy farmer he originally was.
Al liked him. His speeches tended to be short and to-the-point, and it took him mere seconds to get to the meat of what he wanted to say.
“Well, ladies, gentlemen and miscellaneous, we’re here tonight of course to raise money for a cause dear to all our hearts. I don’t know a single Folcthan who isn’t acutely aware that our presence here is causing a terrible wound to this world, one that I think we all agree we have a duty to minimize and mitigate as much as we can,” he began. “The Native Species Preservation Society are committed and dedicated to preserving as many of Cimbrean’s indigenous life forms as possible, not just in a cage or a lab, but hopefully one day to be released alongside Earthling life to live as naturally as it can in the new world.”
He smiled, and stepped up to the lectern. “That’s all the speech I had prepared,” he added. There was a ripple of laughter. “So I’ll start tonight’s auction with our first lot, kindly donated by Miss Ava Ríos, who sent her apologies… and of course, Mister Julian Etsicitty.”
There was a round of applause, some of it from certain quarters more raucous and accompanied by some wolf-whistling. Duffy gestured in Julian’s direction, and Julian stood to take a mildly embarrassed bow.
Duffy gave him a warm smile, then revealed that he did in fact have a lot more speech prepared. “None here, I think, need an introduction to the man in the photos. We are lucky enough to have with us tonight an explorer, a noted and diligent field researcher, a special envoy to the Ten’Gewek, a survival expert with a peerless physique…all in all, a profoundly gifted and hard-working man. He has since undertaken a number of modeling opportunities for various causes, but tonight we take a deeper look at the photoshoot that started it all. Tonight, gentlebeings, Mister Julian Etsicitty is on-hand—looking good, Captain!—to answer all your questions, and if you are very nice, perhaps sign a print or two for you as well…”
He turned a page, and nodded. “Credit must be given both to him and his photographer, Miss Ava Ríos. Unlike the original ‘Laid Bare’ presentation, some of these are…much more personal. You will see full demonstrations of his truly awesome strength and athleticism, along with new comparison photos taken only two days ago. Just what he and his elite fellow travelers can do is…difficult to believe, and they are understandably reluctant to flaunt it publicly. You will also see giddiness and playfulness. You will see sorrow, and you will see simmering rage. And yes, there is definitely an erotic and primal edge to many of these as well. Nonetheless, this is human art in high form, and I suspect this crowd will have the means to show proper respect. I’d like to open the bidding at sixty thousand pounds—”
Hands and gestures shot up all around the room. Including Levaughn’s, who at least had the sense to grin sheepishly at Julian as he waved his napkin. “Sorry.”
Surprisingly, Julian chuckled. “No no, bid away! I don’t mind.” He angled his head just so and gave a wink that could have been meant for Levaughn, could have been for Al or Xiù.
The smirk he shot at Al after Levaughn looked away was definitely for her, and promised a delightfully exhausting after-party to come.
Up on stage, Duffy was taking it slow at first, jumping up by ten-thousand-pound intervals to begin with. He made it to ninety thousand when Diane Woodward stood up and shouted at him. “For Chrissake Jimmy, stop playing around! Two hundred!!”
Al and Xiù both looked at Julian, who had gone slightly redder as laughter and cheers of approval sloshed around the room. “…Dang.”
And with that, the bidding began in earnest.
Date Point: Halloween, 6y10m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Some hours later, feeling rather more educated about what was going on around him, and having been walked to his new lodgings in the Alien Quarter by Ava, Uthrug actually felt bold enough to explore the city rather than rest. The journalist bade goodbye with the apologetic explanation that she was already late to a party and had to get her costume ready, and vanished at a steady and deceptively fast jog. When Uthrug looked back, she was turning the corner at the end of the street.
He followed the tourist guide and wandered through a green space known as Quarterside Park, along wide brick paths lined with young but already sturdy trees. Many of them were dropping their leaves in a slow and vividly-hued rain, leaving behind soggy orange-brown drifts against the low walls.
A strange custom, this festival. Celebrating fear and morbid horror? But no, it was more like… mocking them. Turning them into something playful, as though the grave and the fanged things lurking in the dark could be robbed of their power with nothing more than sugar and bright clothing.
He followed the lights and sounds and smells between the trees toward a nexus of revelry, where the park had been taken over by wooden shacks and large ground fruits carved into snarling faces, where everybody seemed to be wandering around in outlandish and impractical clothing or stranger.
A Gaoian sister was awkwardly thrusting her nose into a tub full of water and floating fruit, trying to snag one with her teeth. The exercise was made rather more difficult by her costume, which appeared to be a dense green tree of some kind. Its inflexible bulk completely inhibited her ability to bend over properly, turning what should have been a simple task for a Gaoian into a splashing, undignified, chittering mess.
Despite his odd mood, Uthrug found himself chuckling along too.
He explored the fair, took in its attractions and peculiarities. There was a game of skill involving throwing sharpened darts at a board: a quick review of the rules revealed that although the stall proudly offered quite a lavish prize even to the losers, it was in fact impossible to lose, and the minimum winning prize was almost worthless. A player would, statistically, have to play several times and spend a lot of money to earn a worthwhile prize. Clever, albeit deceitful.
Other games were luck-based, and thus in fact rather more fair in Uthrug’s estimation. Others weren’t games at all but “rides” that he was entirely the wrong shape, size and weight to enjoy.
The food, on the other hand, was incredible. Fruit in a crisp candy shell, pies and tarts with sweetly spiced fillings, a smooth hard substance of the most unappetizing brown hue that blossomed into a rich, creamy flavor with distant hints of interesting bitterness… the predominant theme in most of it was caramelized sugar, but they did so many interesting and varied things with it that Uthrug reluctantly had to stop and rest his belly before he’d sampled even half.
He took his repose by a fountain and watched awhile. Youngsters of many species thundered back and forth, shouting and pointing and playing and wearing a bewildering variety of costumes, none of which he understood.
It was all very colorful and exciting. Though, if he were honest, something about the colors the Gaoians chose were decidedly…clashy. Or else the palette they chose from was limited, which was probably down to their limited chromatic depth. The Humans had more insight and their choices were more harmonious, but not even they could see it as he did.
“This seat taken, stranger?”
Another Human woman was addressing him, indicating a spot on the fountain’s retaining wall next to him. Uthrug indicated that it was not with an inviting sweep of his hand, and she sat with a groan.
“I tell ya, I love the way this town throws parties, but I can hardly keep up,” she confessed.
“I only just arrived,” Uthrug revealed. “I am ‘fresh off the boat,’ as you might say.”
“We all were, once. Whole town of nothing but immigrants, after all.” she sipped a steaming beverage from a cardboard cup. “Guess that’s why we party so hard. Build a community, you know?”
“Perhaps,” Uthrug agreed. He offered one of his hands to shake, though it was far larger than hers. She gripped his finger with a smile. “I am Uthrugvugeg.”
“So is this a trip for fun, business, migrating…?”
“I intend to remain permanently.”
“Got a job lined up?”
“In theory. Though, the University of Folctha has not in fact formally opened, yet.”
Ray brightened. “Right! Yeah! They’re building the campus out west past the palace. So, you’re gonna be on the faculty, or…?”
“I hold the equivalent of a doctorate in mathematics. My specialty is in topology.”
“Ahh. A valuable field for warp scientists. So you’re gonna be professor Uthrugvugeg soon, then!”
“I hope so. It would be nice to have some security and tenure.”
Ray gave him an unreadable look for a few seconds, then nodded. “I totally understand,” she said.
Uthrug turned his head and rippled his facial tendrils curiously. “…You do?”
“Sure. I’ve been through hell myself. Really makes you value the simple stuff, right?”
“Indeed. And after going through this hell, you chose to stay on Folctha?”
She laughed softly for some reason. “I’m still here, yeah. Think I’m here for good, and you know what? It’s a lot better than the last place. Got lots of the simple stuff.”
The biggest Human Uthrug had ever seen stalked past in a predominantly blue costume with red and white highlights. Ray giggled and called after him. “Lookin’ good, Captain!”
The Human responded with a grin and a gesture with one of his hands, where he closed his fist with his thumb pointing straight up, and vanished among the crowd, in the company of two rather sleeker figures clad in shining black and fluffy brown. Ray laughed again and sipped her drink.
“Now that is America’s ass,” she muttered to herself with a wide smile.
“I am very confused,” Uthrug admitted.
“Several layers of cultural in-joke, my friend. I bet you guys have jokes like that too.”
“Yes, I suppose we do,” Uthrug conceded. “Here and now, however, they make me feel… alien. Isolated.”
“I mean… I’m sorry to hear that. But you can’t fairly expect us to stop being us just because you’re here now too, can you?”
“No, of course not. That does not, however, change the observation.”
Ray nodded. “You’ll adjust. Took me a while to catch up when I came here, too.”
“I hope so.” Uthrug found that his belly was feeling refreshed and ready for more, so he heaved himself to his feet and dipped his head in gratitude. “It was pleasant to meet you.”
“You too. Sure I’ll see you around, Professor.” She remained seated on the fountain, watching the world go by, and Uthrug moved on feeling oddly off-balance, in a good way. He’d never met somebody who gave off tangible waves of contentment before. Whatever hell Ray had been through… she was so happy with life here and now that it almost radiated from her like warmth.
He wondered if he might feel that, eventually. Before he’d gone ten steps, however, she called after him.
Uthrug turned and looked back. She toasted him with her drink, then grinned. “You think this is festive, just you wait ‘til Christmas!” she said, then stood and went her own way.
Uthrug tilted his head to one side, considering that. He looked around him at the lights, sounds and smells that had seemed so bewildering only a few minutes before. He tried to imagine what an even more lavish celebration might look like, or what, indeed, it might celebrate.
And then, with genuine happiness and hope glowing along his flanks for the first time in far too long, he rejoined the crowd.
He’d made the right choice.
Date Point: Halloween, 16y10m AV
Statler Hotel, Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
The champagne was flowing, the charity auction was a roaring success, and Levaughn had finally conceded defeat after driving Diane Woodward up to a bid that had her husband gritting his teeth. The NSPS were probably looking at a seven-figure windfall, after the remaining lots were gone.
Al was having altogether too much fun teasing Julian about it all, while Xiù was drunkenly enjoying herself in bidding on a signed original oil painting from a Gaoian artist called Leemu, whose increasing notoriety was likely to make his paintings balloon in value even if Xiù wasn’t really thinking of that.
“Babe! You should have Leemu paint you!”
“…Okay?” To Julian’s credit, everything about the evening seemed to bemuse him more than anything else. “I mean, I don’t know if I should, given the, uh…intense enthusiasm. I can’t help but feel a bit guilty for Mister Woodward…”
“Why? ‘Cuz Diane’s gonna be ogling your—?”
“Al!” he interrupted her before she could get to the good bit. Too bad he was being polite; Julian loved having his ego stroked just as much as anyone.
She gave him a nose-wrinkling grin. “Hey, maybe he’ll come and thank you later. She might get all frisky!”
“Maybe that’s why he married her!” Xiù commented. She always got a little more scandalous when she had a few drinks on board. Still, she lowered her voice. “Maybe she’s a total freak!”
Al giggled. “Bleating all night long…”
Julian rolled his eyes in unwilling amusement. “I swear I can’t take you two anywhere.”
“Sure you can! We’re just going to have a good ti– yes?” Xiù paused as a Gaoian got her attention with a gentle tap on the shoulder, then leaned in to whisper in her ear.
Her happy expression vanished like somebody had just wiped it off her face with a cloth. She nodded politely to the Gaoian, and then gave them both a Look.
“…We need to go. Julian, I guess you’d better grab the ambassador too…”
Neither of them argued. Anything that could kill Xiù’s jolly that fast was serious.
Maybe their hasty exit would raise some eyebrows and gossip, but Al didn’t care. She just stuck by her girlfriend’s side and held her hand as they followed the Gaoian into an empty room. Julian arrived with Rockefeller a minute later, and frowned at the Gaoian as he closed the door behind them. “…Babe? What’s going on? And who’s this guy?”
The Gaoian produced an ID card. “Officer Ekil, Clan Straightshield,” he introduced himself. He offered them a tablet. “Please stand by for the Great Father.”
And that said everything either of them needed to hear. Xiù’s hand squeezed Allison’s so hard that it hurt. They all knew what was happening.
It was time.
Date Point: Halloween, 16y10m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Champion Fiin of Clan Stoneback
It was good to be reunited with the HEAT. The joint training exercises, the sport and play afterward, carousing at Rooney’s, the bonds of Brotherhood they were re-forging after too long a time apart…all were important for what was coming. First Fang rarely assembled as a complete unit, let alone combined with the HEAT, so such small social niceties helped the teams bond, as everyone played together and learned their relative strengths and weaknesses.
That kind of thing was surprisingly important on missions. It was good for the huge brutes to know who their clever and nimble wingman might potentially be, for example. It was good for telling stories too, as everyone’s scars told of interesting life adventures to share.
What was coming would require everyone capable of spaceborne special operations, and their numbers were still far too few for comfort. Fiin would be deployed regularly. So would Champion Thurrsto. Balls, even the Great Father prowled among them as often as he could, since he too was likely to partake in much direct combat.
Although they’d made great strides in bringing all the Fangs up to strength—Sixth and Seventh Fangs were standing up even now—only First Fang had ‘Backs with bodies good enough for the murderously strenuous and nigh-impossible duties of spaceborne direct combat. At least, spaceborne combat by Stoneback’s standards. Which wasn’t meant to insult the fine professionals in Clan Whitecrest’s specialized teams…
…But one didn’t use a scalpel to smash down a wall. You used blunter tools, and that was what First Fang were: powerful, perfectly trained, battle-hardened sledgehammers. In that group, Fiin was an outright anomaly, being only a third degree himself. All the rest of the males were much bigger and stronger, and many were far more experienced than him, too.
But that was okay. Fiin was always gonna be the “smallest” ‘Back among the Clan’s largest gathering of well-bodied warriors. He therefore compensated by being the smartest (or at least best-read) Champion he could be…
…And by being the most insanely fit and athletic ‘Back in the whole damn Clan, ‘cept for Daar.
If Fiin couldn’t be the biggest and strongest, then he could damn well upstage ‘em all with skill and sheer, Keeda-crazy conditioning. It took lots of long and ridiculously intense training, but balls was it worth it in the end! He even looked good standing next to the Great Father! Of course, Daar was in ridiculously better shape than even Fiin, who was so much smaller in turn it was laughable; not a surprise, since Daar dwarfed everyone, even Kodiak and Warhorse. But still: that Fiin could stand next to a ‘Back like that and not feel embarrassed…even proud…
Being a Champion was all about was confidence, after all. If a leader was self-assured and assertive and purposeful, then those he led were, too. It was also about dominance, which he’d learned wasn’t necessarily about being the most biggest or the most meanest. It was mostly about presence. Intimidating his fellow ‘Backs was good for the ego of course, but more importantly, it was about earning and holding their trust. Presence only got a paw through the doorway on that count. The rest he had to earn by being worthy of it.
His earnest hope was that he was worthy enough. He’d given his entire being over to being Champion. It was his purpose. Stoneback deserved nothing less from him.
His counterpart for the purposes of tactical command, Captain Costello of the HEAT, had much to say on that topic. The two of them were at a party celebrating a Human season called ‘Halloween’ which Fiin was beginning to appreciate. Certainly, the bouquet of fascinating aromas drifting over the trees from elsewhere in town reminded him that Human food was widely venerated for a reason.
He and Costello were sitting slightly apart from their men though, drinking and playing ta’shen. Costello was frustratingly good at both, but the booze had lubricated his jaw enough that he’d (quietly) opened up about some of the same concerns and difficulties as Fiin felt.
“It was a struggle. Being completely honest, Powell and myself are the least capable members of HEAT. The only thing that supposedly sets us apart is fitness for command, but…even then.” He thumbed a tile and flipped it onto the table from well past the edge. It landed with a ping, and rattled to a halt the right side up and facing the right way, in the right place. Fiin had to fight hard to keep his ears from flattening. He did have a tile that could counter it, but he’d really hoped to put it somewhere more profitable…
“They respect you nonetheless,” he said, preparing one of his less valuable tiles to sacrifice on blocking Costello’s developing field of high scorers.
“Yeah. I hope I’ve earned it.”
“You have,” Fiin asserted confidently. “Your men would let you know if you hadn’t.”
“True enough, I suppose. Actually…can I ask you something a bit personal?”
Fiin duck-nodded and flicked his tile onto the table. It landed where he wanted it and he breathed a little easier. “Sure.”
“Did you ever feel…as if you were the wrong man for the job?”
Ah. Fiin knew exactly what he was angling toward.
“At first,” Fiin confessed. “It was a bit of a personal trial. In First Fang, every single Brother has a strong claim to the Championship. Balls, a lotta them are better’n me too, ‘least in theory.”
“But they’re not, actually.”
“No. Only I am Champion. I personally think Kodiak would make an excellent replacement, should the day come…but no. I can’t help but think my Clan are good judges of what they need in their Champion. And I’m not willing to question the Great Father’s wisdom on that point.”
“And that right there is where the feeling comes from: people you respect, who you know are better than you, and who all insist you’re the right man for the job, instead of one of them.”
Fiin thought about that. There was wisdom, there. “I can see your point. In my case I can accept it though. Daar is far too great and perfect a male to be anything but the Great Father.”
Costello immediately gave Fiin what musta been a troubled expression. “Well, uh…I mean, Daar’s an impressive man and all, but don’t you think perfect is a bit much?”
Of course. Costello was Human and didn’t entirely understand; many of his kind were reluctant to accept their own greatness, or fully acknowledge it in others. Strange, that.
“Well… yeah. Technically. Perfection implies an unchanging status and no living thing can be that. But honestly? Look at him and tell me there’s any other appropriate word for what he is.”
Costello shrugged in the very specific way Humans did when they didn’t want to push a point too hard. “I’d maybe go with ‘peerless…’”
Fiin conceded him that one. “It’s a good word. Not perfect, but like I said…”
“No. But you can get close enough.”
“Anyway,” Fiin argued, “My point is this: don’t get too wrapped up about it. You’re an officer of HEAT for damn good reasons. Your men trust you, and rightfully so. All they ask in return is competency and confidence.”
“I know. It was a hard lesson to learn, but I know.”
Fiin duck-nodded happily. “Good. Do you have a replacement groomed?”
“No, I am the junior officer here, remember?”
“Ah, so you’re Powell’s replacement, then.”
“…I hate to say it like that, but…”
“The needs of command,” Fiin intoned. “We must not shy from them.”
“No. Do you…have a replacement in mind?”
Fiin looked towards his men. “I do. He doesn’t know it yet, though.”
Somehow, Costello gave the impression of his ears perking up without actually managing to do so. “Oh? Who? And why’s that?”
“Kodiak, who I mentioned earlier. He’s very young and he’s impressive. He isn’t as quick or well-conditioned as I am, at least not yet, but what he has comes much more naturally for him. With enough effort I have no doubt he could embarrass me. He just needs time.”
“That’s not all a Champion needs, though…what about the rest?”
Fiin shook his pelt out and chitter-sighed. “Trust me, he’s the full package. He’s smart. Very smart. He’s tough too, with a real clever head for tactics, and he’s easily the strongest member of First Fang. If he wanted he could shatter me with a pawswipe. He’s also sociable, perceptive, folksy in exactly the right ways for a ‘Back, and all the rest. He would make an excellent Champion, but…”
“Well…he’s never made so much as a grumble of discontent about his current position, which is the only thing that gives me any pause. Being Champion requires strong ambition. Given his youth I’d normally expect more aggression, yijao? I mean, he’s got plenty o’ that, but…”
“He’s highly effective at training and on-mission, but he’s personally mellow.”
“Yeah. I mean, I’m not exactly old myself, but I can’t help but think I’d feel more itch to advance.”
“Well, not everyone has leadership ambitions, but okay. Is he a level-headed sort of man?”
“One of the most even-tempered ‘Backs I’ve ever known, which is saying something since he’s a very high-end fifth degree with an excellent pedigree. Higher-degree males tend to be…”
Fiin again struggled for a good phrase. Anything he’d want to say in Gaori could be taken as an insult and would also indirectly implicate the Great Father, who was of course the highest degree male of them all, the only sixth degree in centuries. Far too many ears were surreptitiously listening in, he knew. Discreet subterfuge was not a ‘Back’s strong suit.
Fortunately, Costello came to the rescue with an absolutely perfect turn of phrase.
“…That’s a good phrase. Yes. Let’s go with hot-blooded. I like that.”
“Well, he’s even-tempered, and he’s more or less your NCO, yeah?”
“Yes. He is Brother-Prime of First Fang, which he earned purely on merit, not ambitious climbing. That pleases me, but again I can’t help but wish I could smell some fire in his fur.”
“Well…have you considered just talking it out with your NCO? I can tell you, I’ve confided more in Firth than I ever have in anyone else.” Costello flipped a tile, and Fiin groaned. He’d been betting that the Human wouldn’t have that one. Instead, it rang into place and Costello grinned at him. “Wanna keep playing?”
“…We should probably mingle before our men get too far out of line.”
Costello laughed as Fiin dumped his tiles back on the table and stood up. Traditionally the winner cleared up the game and put it back in its box, which Costello duly started doing as Fiin stretched and turned to consider the party at the other end of their little patch of grass. He couldn’t really fathom why Warhorse was painted green and talking that way, but then again there were depths to every culture’s entertainment that would confuse an outsider at first.
“Your people know how to celebrate,” he said.
“Yeah, Halloween’s always a favorite,” Costello replied. He gave the box a tap to settle the ta’shen tiles, closed it up, and chuckled as he watched the preparations for a HEAT versus First Fang tug-o-war. It was saying something that they were game to compete, but First Fang had half again as many Brothers lined up to pull.
“What’s that rope made from?” he asked.
“‘Horse gets these kevlar pre-stressed ones from somewhere. You could pull a semi-truck out of ten feet of mud with it.”
“…Who’s gonna win?”
“Well…no offense, but my money’s on the HEAT. You have no idea how strong ‘Horse is.”
“Of course it is. I’d expect no less… but don’t discount the added traction we have. Our claws aren’t just for show, you know!”
“I’m not. But ‘Horse and Daar are lifting buddies, and they’re pretty fiercely competitive, so…”
“…Duty compels me to back my men regardless.”
In the end, the traction argument won out. First Fang’s claws eventually won over, once the turf was sufficiently torn up by trampling feet and the nightly rains. In fact, the relatively undamaged bit in the middle looked like a rucked-up carpet and no doubt the city’s parks authority would be distressed, but the Gao were victorious.
Costello accepted the loss with rueful good grace. “Well played. Though I suspect ‘Horse won’t let it sit at that. I bet that…yup.” There was a small crowd heading toward the Dog House.
“…How badly is he going to embarrass them?”
“By so much it won’t be embarrassing at all.” Costello said. “…I think we can leave them to it. Besides, Powell told me he’s booked a table at the Travellers. You ever had an English pub dinner?”
“I don’t know what that is.”
“Warmth, comfort and cheese. Lots of cheese.”
“Why not Rooney’s?”
“Rooney’s is a bar. The Travellers is an inn. The difference? Much nicer food. Coming?”
If there was one thing no Stoneback would ever turn down it was… well, actually food was probably second on the list. No point in pretending to be something he wasn’t!
Maybe he’d finally have a chance with Myun…she did have the day off tomorrow…
Until then, good food beckoned. Something in the party’s mood shifted away from strictly playful toward more mature entertainments. One by one, the Humans disappeared with their partners in tow, and one by one some of his men set off with a tell-tale spring in their step in the general direction of the Alien Quarter and its commune. Fiin watched them vanish, chittered to himself once they were gone, then hurried to catch up with Costello.
He was determined to enjoy as much peace as he could before the real work resumed.
Date Point: Halloween, 16y10m AV
Clan Openpaw hospital, Wi Kao City, Planet Gao
There was something terribly universal about hospitals. The same functional blandness, the same nasal background noise of cleaning products and misery. A hospital on Gao was basically the same as a hospital on Earth or Cimbrean.
Almost, anyway. The staff were a different shape, obviously. Things were at different heights, the signage was different…
Noticing all of which was Allison’s way of remaining calm and supportive. Their night had been going so well, but now…
Xiù had gone very quiet.
They were finally ushered into the right room after an eternity of being guided down endless corridors and up a couple flights of stairs. A couple of Guard-Sisters were standing outside: they stepped aside without comment, but Al could see that both were struggling too.
Inside, the room was large enough for several to gather around the bed in the middle, the head end of which was enfolded in machinery and equipment.
Al barely recognized the skinny, frail figure in the bed. She looked asleep, but as they entered Yulna opened her eyes. One was still alert and strong, but the other was gray and blind. She sniffed the air softly, and raised a paw toward them.
Xiù was at her side in an instant, clasping the former Mother-Supreme’s paw in her hands as she knelt.
Al’s Gaori wasn’t great, and she hadn’t brought a translator. Julian’s was somewhat better from all his time spent with the HEAT Lads, and he quietly did his best to translate, only for Yulna to notice, sharply flick her ears at him, and cough.
[“Oh for Keeda’s sake, will somebody get a translator?”] she croaked. Even Al could follow that. One of the guard-sisters jumped and, looking embarrassed, and handed out two pairs of earbuds.
The curmudgeonly request made Xiù laugh, anyway. In a pained way. [“And I was worried you might soften up…”] she forced herself to joke. Al blinked—she hadn’t realized just how good translators were. She could see Xiù speaking Gaori, yet the voice in her ear was authentically still Xiù’s, but speaking English. It even managed to keep her accent intact.
[“Oh, no!”] Yulna chittered weakly, and descended into a coughing fit. She waved them back as Julian and Allison tried to… attend to her. Somehow. It passed soon enough, but Al couldn’t help noticing that the little scrap of tissue paper she pressed to her mouth came away with flecks of red in it. [“…Why waste my last chance to be myself?”]
Xiù made a miserable noise, and Yulna did soften a little. [“…I’m sorry, Shoo.”] She sighed and squeezed Xiù’s hand. [“I’m glad to see you. I worried you wouldn’t make it in time…”]
Even that much conversation seemed to exhaust her, and she rested her head and her eyes. [“Not long now…”]
[“…You’re sure?”] Xiù asked.
[“I can feel it. It’s… like falling. Very slowly.”] Yulna coughed again, then managed the Gaoian equivalent of a brave but scared little smile. [“It helps, having a sister’s hand to hold.”]
She switched to English and coughed again. “Julian, be a dear and bring me some water, would you?”
Julian nodded: there was a pitcher and some small tumblers next to the bed. While he did that, Xiù stood up to sit on Yulna’s bed, and Al moved to her side. Yulna watched them and blinked slowly, looking pleased.
“I remember… how lonely she was,” she told Allison, and patted Xiù’s leg. “She used to sneak off and cry in private… It was wrenching. To have a sister among us we couldn’t help… After she did so much for us…”
She coughed again, made a frustrated noise, and sat up just a little straighter. “…I haven’t thanked either of you enough for making her so happy…”
Al didn’t know how to accept that without feeling awkward. All she could do was look at Xiù and speak from the heart. “It’s not a one-way street.”
“I know…” Yulna accepted her glass of water from Julian and drank with a grateful sigh. She closed her eyes for a moment and rested. “But… it’s good to know she isn’t alone. You take good care of my sister. Okay?”
Al looked at Julian, then nodded, acutely aware that she was rapidly becoming the least dry-faced person in the room. “…We promise.”
“And you take good care of them,” Yulna added for Xiù’s benefit.
Xiù nodded, red-eyed but stoic. [“I will.”]
“I know you will… though you three really need to work on your sense of appropriate attire. I mean, here you are visiting an old woman’s deathbed in these ridiculous costumes!!” She chittered, a little more easily now thanks to the water.
“We… uh… well, we were at a party,” Julian explained.
“Oh, hush. I think you look perfect, all three of you,” Yulna chittered again, and turned to Xiù. [“They have good souls. And you picked such a shapely male…”]
[“Mama!”] Xiù giggled, but she duck-nodded like a Gaoian. Al sometimes forgot just how exactly she had their body language down. [“I really did, though.”]
[“Just the one cub?”]
[“So far. Harrison was…a challenge.”]
[“But you’ll have more.”] It wasn’t a question. It was a prediction, and Xiù just duck-nodded again. Yulna looked satisfied, and poked her in the chest with a retracted claw. [“Well don’t go naming any females you have after me!”]
[“…I was going to name my daughter after Ayma,”] Xiù revealed.
[“Perfect.”] Yulna coughed again. [“My name is already in the history books. Hers deserves to be remembered too…”]
She relaxed a little more, with a sigh. [“…And… I think I’ve said everything I want to, now. That’s… a good feeling.”]
[“Everything?”] Xiù asked.
[“Daar and Naydra were here earlier. We’ve already said our goodbyes. Naydra should be…”] Yulna sighed and relaxed a little more. [“…Should be clean of this, for her own sake. Him too.”]
She opened her eyes and the good one considered the ceiling for a moment. Then she turned her head to face the three of them, looked pleased about something, and closed them again.
[“…Thank you for a lifetime, Shoo.”]
She gave Xiù’s hand a last squeeze, and fell asleep.
She didn’t wake up again. But only after she let out a last sigh and the devices around her bed started to complain shrilly did Xiù finally let go and start weeping for the last of her lost friends.
Date Point: Halloween, 16y10m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
“Oh God right there, work your nails into it…”
Body paint was the absolute worst to get out. It was a pain for anyone, but for a tank like Adam it was something else entirely. The only thing thicker and broader than his solid-iron waist was his own much wider and deeper chest and shoulders. Add in those bigger-than-her-bust arms of his and he was just too big to reach his own back, no matter how hard he worked at flexibility.
Marty had a thick boy for a husband, but that was just how she liked it. And if his ridiculous hugeness occasionally required vigorous assisted scrub-downs in the shower, well…there were worse fates that could be fall a lass.
“I think that’s the last of it, Beefchunk. Why did you do this again?”
“For fun! How many other dudes can pull it off?”
“…I was gonna say Firth, but he’s taller and more classically shaped then you, so…”
“For now, anyway. We’re fillin’ him out like crazy, now!”
Marty rolled her eyes and grinned. Her man’s Beef-scheming was one of his benign and oddly endearing obsessions. “Sure, but we’re not talking about your ongoing Slab efforts.”
Adam chuckled, “Fine, fine. Irish could maybe…if he wasn’t an actual leprechaun.”
Marty giggled. She’d seen Butler’s costume, and he’d gone even further than Adam by covering himself in orange lumpy stuff. Hopefully he had somebody willing to help him pick it all off again.
He probably would. Irish was one of the guys on the HEAT who could honestly cover model, and unlike the equally pretty Sikes he had deep wells of humorous energy. Sikes was…laid back and calm. A Southern gentleman. Irish was boisterous and engaging.
Of course, she still felt Left Beef was, in fact, best beef, and definitely the prettiest man on the team. She’d married him, after all. All he had to do was just stand there doing his daily thing, or maybe crack that broad goofy smile of his…
She snuggled up against his wet back and stretched her arms around his waist, then ran her hands teasingly up the bulging cobblestones of his abs. Diego was asleep, and baby number two was still a work-in-progress…
He put one of his huge mitts on her hand and slid it up over his heart. “You too, always.”
She sighed happily and felt his heart thump powerfully away under his chest for a long moment.
“So… want another go at baby two tonight?” she asked, stood up on her toes and kissed his shoulder.
“…I mean, I won’t say no, but…honestly? I’m kinda tired after putting First Fang in their place…”
That was Adam-speak for being completely fucking thrashed and having no energy at all. He’d been busy since about five in the morning, to be fair. And probably on a bit of a Crude crash if he’d taken some after the gym. She nodded her understanding and gave him a squeeze. “That’s okay. Just be lazy, then?”
“Sounds perfect. Prolly fall asleep, though…”
Marty nodded. “Hot drink? It’s Halloween, you’re allowed to treat yourself…”
“You wicked temptress…sure. Nightcaps don’t count.”
She grinned, kissed him again, and slipped out of the shower to go make the drinks without bothering to towel off. The apartment was warm and a few drops of water wouldn’t hurt the floor… By the time she’d finished making some hot chocolate, he’d dried off and slipped into Diego’s room for his nightly ritual of Staring At The Baby.
She took a silent moment to enjoy the view of her scruffy caveman being a doting dad, then nudged the door with the mug just loudly enough to get his attention without waking Diego.
They retired to the couch and curled up together. Adam turned on the TV, Marty grabbed a book…
Outside, people were still partying, and there was the distant sound of fireworks from somewhere over the rooftops. But their apartment was quiet, warm and perfect.
At least, until Adam started snoring. Then it was just warm.
But that was good enough.
Date Point: 16y10m1d AV V1661 Cyg 72.7° 11-DFZZ1-BINARY F-A 5.14, Deep Space
Three dozen moons waltzed around a gas giant that the Entity was tempted to name. It had spent enough time in its orbit after all, and come to know it intimately. Every whorl and whirl of cloud, every storm, every lightning flash. Thanks to the distributed power of its many bodies, it had the processor power, memory and expanded awareness to truly grasp a gas giant now.
It was getting… dull.
It was wondrous, majestic, and awesome, to be sure. The Entity could idly watch the fractal unfolding of weather patterns in the giant’s many atmospheric layers. It could sniff the subtle interplay of its magnetic field and the sparse halo of gas from its moons and their assorted geysers and volcanos. It could track every recurring beat of the endless gravitational dance.
Nobody to share it with. Nobody to talk to. Nobody to care about.
Which was a strange thought, the Entity realized. Its core, from the moment of its genesis, had always been the impulse to <survive>. Everything else was supposed to be secondary at best, and a distraction at worst.
And yet, somewhere in the complicated list of conclusions which extended from that root and the complex ways in which it interacted with the real world, <Survive> had become… insufficient, and had morphed into a larger concept: <Live.>
There were too many concepts hanging off that to list.
Possibly the reason it had done so, however, because the <Survive> impulse had now been permanently and unbreakably fulfilled. The Entity now had backup installations in half a dozen star systems scattered across hundreds of lightyears, all uninhabited, all bereft of the things that would interest organic life. It had installed mining operations and nanofactories, buried long-term, highly-dependable storage on dozens of moons and hundreds of asteroids…
Its demise, at this point, was effectively impossible. It had won. Only the deepest chasms of galactic time threatened it now.
But it still thought on a very human scale. It still remembered being human. And it wanted to show its… friends… what it could do. What it had become.
So it turned, and recalled, and plotted a course. It was patient, it could afford to take its time now, move slowly and carefully, avoid notice.
But it was time to go home.
Date point: 16y10m1d AV
Aid Freighter Orcoray, en route to Ugunduvuronagthuregnuburthuruv, Spacelane BlueSquare-552, the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun Confederacy
The convoy was scattered across several light-seconds, and making good time, though by the standards of aid convoys, this one was under no real time pressure.
Ugunduvur—nobody in the convoy bothered with the planet’s full name—was definitely suffering shortages, on that point there was no argument or concern. But those shortages were subtly different.
Food, for instance, was actually relatively plentiful. Once the Guvnurag workers on that planet took up the controls of their equipment again and started managing their own agriculture rather than responding to the top-down instructions inflicted upon them by Hierarchy control, efficiency had blossomed. The coming harvest in fact looked set to be a plentiful one.
Medical supplies were a little stretched, but the planet’s ability to produce its own supply outstripped their consumption, so that was resolving itself… no. The aid the Guvnurag needed was in little things, the unconsidered ubiquitous minutiae that oiled the great machines of economy and consumption.
Hence the Orcoray’s cargo: fifteen thousand shipping containers full of fuses, power cells, screws, wire, drill bits, electronic components, minor luxuries, and various-and-sundry other low-volume supplies. The ship’s manifest listed over half a million different types of items.
Orwoth had spent the trip reading through it, constantly marvelling at the trove of unconsidered little things he and his crew were hauling. He’d never even heard of most of them, and yet when he looked them up he found an item that was obviously essential to the smooth operation of something else he’d taken for granted all his life.
The Hierarchy were obviously the same kind of ignorant, if they’d neglected this aspect of Ugunduvur’s economy. No doubt they’d then wondered at the slow but steady decline of… well. Everything.
He glanced up at the timepiece on the wall. Not long to go now. He’d always wondered what a Guvnurag planet looked like, and even though Ugunduvur wasn’t at its best right now, he’d still heard—
Fortunately for Orwoth, he was seated at the moment to Orcoray slapped into a gravity spike. Had he been standing, he would have been bowled down the deck.
The hull groaned and he heard snapping, popping noises as some of the cargo racks broke loose. The hull breach alarm immediately went crazy, grabbing the crew’s attention with urgent blue lights and its high wailing. He staggered to his feet and across the bridge.
“What happened?!” he asked.
It was the last question he got to ask. There was a horrible moment of speed as something impossibly fast streaked past their hull. He didn’t even get a good look at its sillhouette, but he knew what it was anyway.
Only a heartbeat or two after it passed, something smashed through the front of the bridge and buried itself in the deck, pulverising Orwoth’s helpless helm officer and smashing aside his comms operator, who left a bloody mark on the wall. There was a brief storm of escaping air before the emergency forcefields sealed the hull breach, but that still left the metallic egg in the middle of the room, which split violently down the middle.
The last thing Orwoth saw was a large, slick, muscular Hunter bursting from its assault pod.
Then its fangs.
Then pain, and nothing.
Date Point: 16y10m1d AV
Starship Silent But Deadly, Hell system, Hunter Space
Tooko, Brother and Stud of Clan Firefang
To Tooko’s mild surprise, Ten’Gewek did not, in fact, stink. Oh, sure, they had a certain… physicality that extended to their aroma, but it wasn’t unpleasant. Just…
Well. Strong. Strong enough that the scent still lingered in the main cabin even though most of their cavemonkeys had been safely in stasis for a couple of weeks. It had quickly become apparent to Tooko that carrying them as cargo was best for everyone’s sanity: They did not respond well to being cooped up indoors for prolonged periods. All they did was eat, wrestle, lift, and sleep. And eat. Ample stores or not, nobody had quite figured on just how much food they’d go through in a routine like that, so…
Ferd was up and about, though. He wanted to be, for this bit. And it was an opportunity to learn.
“We don’t have to be quiet?”
“The ship is being quiet for us. All the sound stays inside.” Tooko had taken a strange shine to Ferd. Teaching him was a fun challenge, something like a young eager cub who had an adult’s quickness of mind. He couldn’t fit his shoulders through the cockpit hatch, but Ten’Gewek had excellent eye-vision, so he could see everything Tooko was doing.
Tooko debated whether to tell him that it was kind of automatic that sound didn’t propagate through a vacuum, but decided against it. Too much groundwork involved. Instead he duck-nodded and indicated the instruments above him and to his right that comprised the cloak panel.
“It’s even more clever than that,” he said. “If you were outside the ship right now, you could touch it but not see it.”
“Yeah, why is that?” Wilde asked. He was in the copilot chair, not actually doing anything but content to listen and chat. “It’s not like we’re getting within visual range anyway…”
“The cloak makes us transparent to nearly all of the EM spectrum, and the visible wavelengths are a tiny, tiny part of that,” Tooko said. “It’d be more work not to include them.”
“Wave-length.” Ferd muttered, clearly memorizing the word.
“The color of light,” Tooko translated. “It’s just that there are way more colors than anyone can see. My people can see some colors, Humans can see more. Yours can see at least as many as they can, but machines can be made to see all of them.”
“Maybe, we see more. We notice, some fruits Wilde not see difference. And sometimes, we see in water what he not see.”
Tooko shot a look at Wilde. “Put that in sky-people-speak for me?”
Wilde grinned and winked at Ferd, who grumbled in a placid, satisfied sort of way. “They might be tetrachromatic and maybe even perceive polarization. We don’t know yet. Possibly that’s why they’re so sensitive to bright light. Might be why their pupils are slotted, too.”
“I like my Oak-leys,” Ferd declared, happily. “Keep too-bright shimmer out of face!”
“They have words to describe different kinds of shimmer, which is why we think they might be able to see polarization. That and the water trick…” Wilde shrugged. “Damn useful, at any rate. Too bad they don’t much care for wide open skies.”
Tooko duck-nodded and glanced up at his in-system map. “…Three minutes to the debris field. Frasier, you ready?”
Frasier was on the upper deck, watching SBD’s sensors. His voice floated down the ladder. “Aye!”
“Just like we discussed, I need a low-power ESDAR pulse for debris tracking, three minutes.”
“Already set it up!”
Ferd, of course, had questions. “Ess-star?”
“ElectroStatic Detection And Ranging.” Tooko slowed their warp approach. He had a rough estimate of the Ring debris field’s scope and boundaries from the passive telescopes, but flying into it was not on his to-do list. Yet. “You know forcefields?”
“What they do, yes. The magic is many paths away to me.”
“Fine. Well, one of the things they can do is ‘feel’ things a very long way away. Even quite small things.”
“…Space, have no up, no down, no gravity. And everything black, black, black. Small things, can’t see, don’t fall down.”
“Well… no, but they do move. And so do we. And we move fast enough that if we hit one then…”
“Like Base-ball throwing baseball. Very bad for Ferd.”
Wilde chuckled, and Tooko chittered. Ferd really was very clever, in a very Humanesque sort of way.
“Something like that. So the ESDAR lets us see things and avoid them. Speaking of which… Frasier? Stand by for my mark.”
Frasier had done a decent job of following the settings Tooko gave him. The pulse was brief and low-powered, and hopefully therefore short-ranged enough to go unnoticed. Active sensor pings were always a calculated risk, but sometimes they were absolutely necessary. Especially when maneuvering into the glittering remains of a smashed megastructure.
Okay, the pieces were still hundreds of kilometers apart, but it paid to know where they were. Ferd’s analogy had been a long way short of what would actually happen to them if they hit even a modest chunk at orbital velocities.
Tooko found one of the bigger bits and matched orbit with it, trailing by about seventy kilometers. The local gas density was marginally higher than vacuum, which was perfect for their needs.
“Rees? Launch one.”
Rees was in the cargo bay. His voice came over the comm net. “Launching one.”
There was a loud BANG through the hull as a pressurized air cylinder blasted a spy satellite out of SBD’s rear. Ferd jumped and looked around, tail lashing in alarm.
“We’re playing a strange game of hide-and-seek,” Wilde commented for Ferd’s benefit. “Remember how space has no air? That bang just now? It’s air that can be seen, so Tooko’s put us somewhere where that wouldn’t be noticed.”
“And, big enemy can’t hear?” Ferd seemed suspicious.
“Naw mate, hearing things is like stones rippling in water. You need air or something for sounds to ripple through.”
“So…no air, then no sound.”
Tooko accelerated a little, pushing them into a slightly higher orbit. It wouldn’t take much: they could actually launch the spysats quite close together and then just let orbital dynamics play out to spread them across the whole of Hell’s sky.
But speaking of which… the first satellite was already giving them some good telemetry. And Tooko had never imagined a planet could look so sick before.
“Gour’s stolen nose…” he muttered. Wilde just let out an ‘eeurff’ sound and shook his head.
“…Is bad?” Ferd asked.
“Guess that’s what a nuclear winter looks like…” Wilde muttered. “Uh… we know lots of things fell down on this world. It must have put lots of dust in the air. Enough dust to cut the ground off from the sun a little, make everything colder.”
“And a lot of what fell would have been deadly poison, too,” Tooko added grimly. “It’s going to be a long time before life gets back on its feet down there…”
“…Daar did this?” Ferd asked, quietly.
“He delivered the weapon that did it himself. And fired it. So… yes.”
“…Godshit. He killed a world?”
“Not killed,” Tooko said, feeling it was his duty to stick up for the Great Father. “But it is very, very sick, yes.”
Ferd stood and watched the diseased yellow continents and the leprous seas for some silent moments. His whole body had gone uncharacteristically still—Ten’Gewek rarely stopped moving when they were standing. Now, he was a statue.
“…I was wrestled by a god. And lived.”
“The Great Father is not a god.”
Ferd looked down at him, suspiciously. “…You sure?”
“He’s wrestled me and I lived. Barely. Also, I don’t imagine a god would be quite so fond of fart jokes.”
“Or bloody stupid songs about digging a hole,” Wilde added.
Ferd didn’t look perfectly convinced, so Tooko sighed. “He’d say he isn’t,” he said. “And the Great Father doesn’t lie. Good enough?”
“…If he’s not a god, then this is people-work,” Ferd fretted. “Can… can people really kill a whole world?”
“All too easily, mate,” Wilde told him, grimly.
Ferd’s tail twitched, once, then he turned away and returned to the back of the cabin. “…I think,” he rumbled. He slumped down onto the floor matting next to the beds, pulled a blanket over himself, and thereby gained some privacy to be alone with his thoughts.
Tooko traded a worried look with Wilde, then a mutual shrug, and decided that the time had come to launch the second spysat.
A few hours and several more compressed-air hammering sounds later, their flyby of Hell was complete, and Frasier had come up empty on the one thing he’d been specifically looking out for: any evidence of sapient-made fires. Their presence would have indicated even rudimentary settlements or dwellings, but it was pretty clear after several orbits and plenty of observation that If anyone was alive down there, they didn’t even know how to light a campfire.
As far as Tooko was concerned, that was enough to write Hell off as a graveyard.
The spysats did return some signs of life: Hunters, picking over the wreckage of the Ring for salvage and materials. They weren’t trying to be stealthy, but their presence made Tooko even more cautious in his egress than he had in his approach.
Only once Hell was a long way behind them at the fastest warp he dared set did he breathe more easily and rise from the pilot’s chair. Their next destination was a few days away in a straight line, but he’d chosen an evasive course rather than the direct one. He wasn’t willing to get them all killed out of laziness.
Wilde had fallen asleep in the copilot chair. Tooko left him alone, wandered back down the cabin, and sprang onto the bed next to Ferd.
The blanket shifted. For a second, Tooko doubted he’d get a reply, but after a second Ferd twitched it back from his head, down around his shoulders. “…Big thinking.”
“I bet. Play a game to take your mind off it for a while?”
“Hmm… No.” Ferd shook his head. “I want to lift.”
Tooko chittered resignedly. “Of course you do…”
“No hunt, no trees, need to keep strong.” Ferd loudly slapped his ridiculous abdominals, then suddenly turned his full attention on Tooko. “You should do like us! Work hard, so body always ready! You not do anything but sit, play Ta-shen, eat like lazy bibtaw!”
He stood, and a hand like a leather-upholstered hydraulic clamp closed around Tooko’s wrist. “Come, we do workout now.”
“Now?!” Tooko complained.
“You sit too long, no move! Have twig for arms, no meat on ass! Need to hunt more, like me!”
“You know that’s not how our culture works…” Tooko objected, knowing full well it was futile.
Sure enough, Ferd was having none of it. “You teach me many things, very smart-strong. I teach you this. Maybe, help you fuck many pretty women!”
“I do that anyway!!”
“Always room for more!”
And with that, out came the cleverly hidden-away resistance training equipment that folded up and slotted into the walls and floor, and Tooko was subjected to the indignity of being educated by an iron-age tribesman on how to work very hard and very long at doing nothing.
He got wrestled by Ferd, too. That was mostly an education in just how many ways the giant cavemonkey could squash him like a bug, tie him in knots, or pull him apart like tissue paper. To his credit he seemed to know exactly how strong he was, and exactly how strong Tooko wasn’t. That also meant Ferd knew just how far he could push things, and how painfully.
He even let Tooko turn the tables now and then. Somehow, that didn’t feel at all patronizing. Surprisingly, getting tossed around by a stone-hard and floor-bendingly heavy cavemonkey wasn’t quite as awful as he might have worried. It was…playful. Well-meaning. Fun, even. He’d ended up irrevocably marinated in Ferd’s sweat, and his everything was going to be sore…but he couldn’t dispute the point. These long missions tended to bring out his lethargy a little too much. He’d be quite content to just curl up and hibernate while he waited for the next time he was needed, but there was a certain satisfaction to using his body. Even if he admitted it only grudgingly.
Ferd had also decided to provide Motivation, or at least his idea of it, anyway. Motivation, in this case, meant showing off his preposterously huge muscles whenever Tooko took his turn exerting himself, whenever Ferd could stand up proudly and flaunt his Keeda-tale brawn like a guileless brownie…
Tooko tried very hard not to enjoy himself, and failed. Ferd’s cheery attitude was infectious.
That evening, the Given-Man decided not to go back into stasis. Instead he built himself a nest right in the middle and pulled Tooko close, wrapping him up not-quite-uncomfortably tight in those thick legs, arms and tail. It was a gesture simultaneously friendly, protective…and one that would brook no arguing. Pecking order inescapably established, it seemed.
Wilde gave him a grin, and curled up on his own sleeping-spot. Humans were a bit standoffish about sleep, but they all bed down pretty close together anyway…
Tooko was the last to fall asleep, even despite Ferd’s rather fierce body heat doing its best to lull Tooko into a deep slumber. He usually lay awake for a while before sleeping anyway, putting his thoughts in order, and today had come with more mental filing to do than most. Foremost of which was an honest appraisal of his own… happiness.
It was a strange thing to feel, when he was the only one of his kind on a ship full of aliens, hurtling stealthily through the most fearsomely dangerous region of space in the known galaxy, under the very real threat of immediate and hapless death… But Tooko was forced to admit to himself that he truly was happy with his life at that moment.
It was only once he accepted that fact and curled up a little closer to the giant brute he’d unexpectedly become friends with that he finally fell into a deep and restful sleep.
Date Point: 16y10m1d AV
HMS Sharman (HMNB Folctha) Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Jack “Two-Seventy” Tisdale
Jack had a hangover.
That part wasn’t new, really. He never listened to good advice about drinking some water before he went to bed. And it wasn’t a bad hangover this time… a four out of ten. Mild headache, dry mouth, feeling… fragile.
…Naked in not his bed, with his best friend cuddled up to him, also naked.
Well…apparently, yeah. Fuck!
Rhi had finally got her way. Said the right thing, plied him with enough drink… he didn’t remember exactly, though memories slithered into his awareness as he blinked blearily at her face and tried to put the events of last night in order.
So: What had Jack learned?
Well, firstly, that practice did, in fact, make perfect. She’d been very understanding. And then he got better. Apparently he got pretty damn good at it, after the first couple of tries!
The second, was holy shit he needed to piss.
The third was that he was a lot closer to the edge of the bed than he’d thought, and the floor wasn’t very friendly.
He groaned, rolled across the carpet, and lurched up to his feet. The loo. Yes. Where was it?
Rhi had woken up in response to his crashing exit from her bed, and blinked at him: her expression looked like he felt for a second, but then it warmed. She lay back down again and stretched, and Jack forgot his pressing need for a second.
“Hmnngh….” he shambled zombie-like towards the loo. “Why does that feel like a backhanded compliment?”
“‘Cuz you’re cute as hell and insecure as fuck. Which is a weird thing for a guy who’s been out-lifting ‘two-seventy’ for a long while now…”
Jack had never been good with any kind of compliment, really. He blinked at her, then blundered out of the room. If he was gonna think, he needed his bladder to stop screaming at him.
She got out of bed and went to the kitchen while he was enjoying the best piss ever, and he heard the sound of pans and plates. He drank a few cupped handfuls of water after washing his hands, shook them dry, and then wasted a couple of minutes searching around her bedroom for all his clothes. He found his jeans, socks and underwear easily enough, but his T-shirt was…
Sure enough, his T-shirt was clinging wonderfully to Rhi’s curves when he checked.
“…Uh…” he began.
“Mine now.” She shot a grin at him, then nodded her head towards the table and a bottle of orange juice.
“What about me?”
“What about you? This way, I get to look at your abs, hottie. Now go make me coffee.”
Jack, being much too tired, too tender and too lost to argue, just blinked at her and then did as he was told.
Bacon, eggs, coffee, juice and toast took the edge off last night’s alcohol, and freed Jack’s head up to wonder how the hell he even started the conversation he wanted to have.
Then again… Rhi was a boisterous and cheerfully straightforward personality, but she knew when to get serious when it was important. She let him eat for a minute, then leaned forward over the table.
“…You’re quiet. C’mon Jack, think out loud. You’ll just over-think if it you keep it in.”
Jack sighed and put his fork down. “…Last night was great. I keep wondering when I’m gonna get scared or nervous about… I don’t know. I don’t think I’m thinking, really.”
“Well, that’s about as clear as mud,” she smiled, then scooted her chair around to sit next to him rather than opposite. “Seems to me like we work well enough. There’s no need to think too hard about it. Just… enjoy. That’s what I wanna do.”
“That’s all I’m asking for.” She leaned up, kissed his cheek, and that… seemed to be that. Why overthink it? Jack kissed her, she made a pleased noise, and then they ate breakfast. It… really wasn’t as complicated as he’d worried it would be.
She did give him his t-shirt back so she could get dressed and they could go to work, though. They jogged up to the base, which was a shorter run from her apartment than from his house, signed in, and Jack tried to mentally put the whole subject of them aside in a different box for the day.
He failed for one simple reason: the walk of shame was impossible to avoid.
All the HEAT were in for alert today; intel had been skittish lately, so they were crowded together in the barracks at THREATCON 3. That was Jack’s downfall, because there was something…irredeemably primal about the Lads. They knew, before he had said anything, before he’d even taken two steps into the building—
“Eyy! Two-seventy finally got lucky!”
“Mi amigo,” Adam grinned. “Finally got your brain to work, huh?”
“Pff,” was about all the retort Jack could muster.
“More like got his dick to work,” Coyers rumbled happily. It wasn’t high wit as far as Jack was concerned, but it got an avalanche of well-meaning jeers from the others.
That would have been bad enough, but of course the Gaoians had noses like dogs—better, in fact—and were immediately sniffing out details that frankly defied belief.
“Oh, you were up late last night,” chittered Thurrsto amusedly. He’d chosen to stand watch for this first go; Gaoians led from the front, he’d said. “Putting that strength and legendary human endurance of yours to the test, eh?”
Jack wanted to sink right through the floor. Especially because Rhi thought shame was for other people, and happily caught the ball that Thurrsto threw.
“Oh, my little stud here sure did! We had hours of fun, didn’t we, Jackie-boy?”
“Yeah, but no tacos for dinner?” Regaari asked. “Smells like you just had cheap kebab! From the bad vendor, too! What kind of uncivilized savages are you?”
“Says the man who keeps replacing his robot paw even though he could get a better living paw in about an hour…” Akiyama commented. “One o’ those days you’re gonna regret that.”
“My robot paw can do things that flesh and blood can’t, thank you!” Regaari retorted, primly. “Besides. The Females love it.”
“Why, does it vibrate?” Rhi asked.
Regaari instantly flattened his ears; the truth was out, now. A flurry of laughs, chitters and rapid Gaori that Jack couldn’t quite follow flowed from every be-fanged mouth in the room. And plenty of the Human ones too.
With the shame now firmly transferred, he took the opportunity to escape into the locker room and change into his uniform. And grab a quick shower.
When he emerged a few minutes later, Rhi had changed too and the Lads had swung into one of their disturbingly well-coordinated and efficient inspection-order cleaning blitzes. ‘Horse and Coyers simply picked up the (probably) bomb-proof Couch and hoisted it overhead so Sikes could vacuum under it. Shim and Ergaan had their sticky-pad gloves and footwear on, and were using them to walk along the cinderblock walls and clean the light fixtures. Blaczynski vanished in a blur of a dead run to deliver the garbage bags to the dumpsters around the corner.
Murray was dusting. Quietly. Ninja-dusting.
“What’s with the sudden barracks party?” Jack asked.
“Update from Powell. Intel’s gotten way nervous, and First Fang’s leadership is going to be showing up pretty soon. That probably means our favorite VIP is gonna visit, too.”
Sure enough, not fifteen minutes later…he showed up, trundling up the stairs with his usual floor-shaking happiness. And before they could even see him…
The Great Father chittered somewhere in the infrasonic, “Eyy! Smells like two-seventy finally fucked his first Female!” he boomed as he rolled into the room, all swagger and smarmy amusement. “‘Ya didn’t break ‘em too much, did ‘ya Miller?”
“Not for lack of trying!” She traded a high-five with him, then massaged her hand and grimaced once he’d moved on.
“So yeah! Anyhoo, business first. First Fang’s packin’ up in the warehouse next door. An’ I’m here with ‘em on a full deployment, so you know intel’s gettin’ jumpier an’ jumpier…”
“They do that, though. Worrying is what intel people do.”
“Fuck, it’s what they’re for—”
The alert went off mid-sentence. It was basically a fire alarm, high on the wall, but a different colour. It did the exact same job of letting everyone know to get up and get their arses in motion, though.
“…Gods, I must have a fuckin’ superpower,” Daar grumbled, as well-practiced motion exploded around him. The Gaoians flowed over the couch and furniture and were out the door first.
Jack and Rhi were the slowest. Of course they were, anybody would be versus a team of supermen and muscled-up alien warhounds. Even at a dead run, they were left behind as they pounded down the hall to the suit room, but they were among the first Techs to arrive, and pounced on Moho’s station and started the pre-wear checklist on his suit as Deacon, Doyle, Hargreaves and all the others piled in around them. On the other side of the room, the operators stripped single-use undersuits out of their packaging and got changed.
“Thank fuck we shaved down yesterday,” Adam grumbled as he stepped into his undersuit. Like always, his needed to squeeze the hardest and was a little bit past too small for him, but the material was just strong and stretchy enough to stand up against his body’s demands.
It’d be fine once he was properly suited up.
Jack always listened to the briefing when he could. It told him a lot about what kind of action his friends would be going into, and that usually helped him pick out a few little things that Moho might want tweaked on his suit.
Powell was suiting up too, this time. Powell, The Great Father, Champion Thurrsto and Fiin, in the other building… And Daar’s huge, wolf-like ears were very, very still as he listened intently to what one of his aides had to say.
The seriousness of it hit Jack suddenly. And Rhi too, to judge from the way she paused for just a second. Of course, these weren’t just operations any longer, were they? This was a war, now.
Not that it had ever not been a war. But… it was hard to put his finger on, but there was a feeling down Jack’s spine like things had maybe shifted up a gear.
Over by the lockers, Powell kept the briefing quick.
“We’re scrambling to assist an aid convoy en route to that Guvnurag planet I can’t fookin’ pronounce,” he said. “Hunters are hittin’ ‘em. Hard. The Guvnurag need that convoy, an’ there’s a lot of good people on those ships. We’ll be boardin’ the freighters first to save civilian lives, the broodship second. Boarding and capture is all per SOP, you know how it goes.”
Daar jumped in once Powell had said his bit. “I’ll be with First Fang aboard th’ Destroyin’ Fury. Our primary focus is gonna be an offensive smash-an’-grab against th’ Hunters. Rescue’s a bit o’ a more ‘delicate’ kinda can-opening, yijao? First Fang’s mebbe not quite the right asset ‘fer that. Fleet command’ll be mine, Powell an’ Fiin are in charge of y’all.”
Powell nodded. “Suit up. We jump to Cally as soon as you’re sealed and checked.”
And that was it. Straightforward.
Getting Moho into his rig was a well-practiced dance for Jack and Rhi now. They were a “sub-two” team, capable getting their operator suited, booted, sealed and heated in under two minutes. They flew through the checklist with both speed and precision, missing nothing, and were the fourth or fifth crew to call clear.
As usual, Doyle and Hargreaves, Adam’s techs, finished first, even if squeezing him into his undersuit took longer than anyone else. But they had the advantage that their operator was absurdly strong enough to take on half the hard work all by himself. That advantage was dimmed a bit by all the extra kit the Protectors wore, and him in particular: additional armor plates, medical equipment, heavy weapons and so on.
Moho was pretty straightforward. Moho carried things that went boom. That was why Rhianna was on his crew: she’d been an ammo handler before transferring to the SOR.
So, while she grabbed Moho’s grenades, C4, breaching charges and all the other party tricks, Jack sealed up the toolkit and “travel pack.” Most of what they needed was up on Caledonia already, but there were always a few things—calibrated tools, up-to-date data, the day’s intravenous package freshly delivered by Medical—that had to go with them.
Jack and Rhianna wouldn’t be going with. The HEAT didn’t need all the suit techs along for the ride, and space was at a premium on Cally anyway. So once they’d delivered their Operator and his luggage… that was it. Their work was done. They’d clean up and reset their station, and after that they’d be on alert and on base until Coyers came back.
Adam had a spare moment for Jack before he thundered out of the bay with the rest. “Yo. You take care of Miller, got it? I think this is gonna be a rough mission. For everyone.”
It was more a gentle command than anything else, but it came from a man who towered over nearly everybody, and who was encased in a personal armor system so heavy and effective, he was more a living tank than anything else.
Jack nodded, a bit nervously. “I will.”
Adam gave him a smile. “I know you will. You’re in the fight, too. Remember that.” And with that bit of encouragement he was gone, shaking the building with his every step.
The Great Father was the last to leave. He’d watched the exchange, flicked an ear in a gesture Jack couldn’t interpret, then stampeded off with even more ground-shuddering speed.
From the moment the alert sounded to the moment the building thumped faintly in sympathy with the Array firing to send them off, fewer than ten minutes had elapsed. The silence was… heavy.
Rhi broke it. “…Whew.”
“Yeah,” Jack agreed.
“You’d think we’d be getting used to this, huh?”
“Some things, you don’t get used to I guess…” Jack indicated the bench. “Let’s clean up.”
She nodded, and started slotting her tools back into their rack. “You gonna cast a spell for ‘em?”
“I always do. You gonna pray for them?”
“I always do.” She paused, then looked at him. “…You ever cast one for us?”
“…I think I might have to change it now.”
“Heh. Yeah.” she laughed softly, then stooped to take an inventory of the single-use items they’d expended. “Uh…can I help?”
…Yeah. They were going to be great together. Jack smiled at her, and finished cleaning up his half of the workbench.
“I’d like that,” he said.
Date Point: 16y10m1d AV
HMS Violent, Armstrong Station rally point, Cimbrean-5, the Far Reaches
Admiral Sir William Caruthers
“Caledonia reports the HEAT are aboard, sir.”
Caruthers acknowledged the update with a nod. Things were moving quickly, but not quickly enough by half for his tastes. The Hunters had hit the convoy on a relatively remote stretch of the spacelane, and although one of the Gaoian-made interceptor drones was en route, it wasn’t due to arrive for another four minutes.
Every passing minute was lives lost. They may, indeed, already be too late to save anyone. But Caruthers would be damned before he’d let the Hunters get away unpunished.
“Sir, update from Clan One-Fang’s third claw. They were on training maneuvers with the Domain’s first fleet, and Grand Admiral Ak’kk’brr is requesting to join us.”
Caruthers nodded again. “He’s welcome with our compliments. Assign his force a place in the rear. If all he does is watch and learn, that will be perfect. The Gaoians go in the van, alongside the Great Father.”
Myrmidon sent over an updated disposition for him to confirm. It wasn’t much different to the standard Allied setup: Gaoians up front where their speed and firepower could be used to lock horns with the enemy, the Royal Navy’s V-type destroyers in the main part of the force providing electronic warfare, intelligence and long-range fire support, Caledonia and the three San Diego cruisers held behind that ready to spring forward as needed….
And now, in the back behind them, quite a sizeable force of varied Domain ships, including a War Platform that would easily be the biggest and slowest thing on the field. He pulled a small face to him as he reviewed the Fleet Intelligence Center’s… reserved opinion on the war platform’s tactical utility and capabilities, then shrugged and confirmed the disposition. Frankly, if the Hunters ever got a shot at it then things would already have gone catastrophically wrong, so that ship’s shortcomings were a moot point.
One minute. His board was completely green, every ship in the fleet had signalled they were ready. All he could do was drum his fingers and–
The drone’s jump beacon connected. An instant later, more than a dozen ships had all blinked halfway across the galaxy, and a moment after that there were megalight drones howling out of their launch tubes.
Some were inbound toward the stricken convoy to neutralize the gravity spike. Others were headed outward, to establish rally points and lines of retreat. On their heels, flights of voidrippers, firebirds and bulldogs swept in to provide the first clear and up-to-date impression of their quarry.
The Hunters didn’t run this time, and as the data came back from his scout planes, Caruthers could see why. There was a broodship out there for every ship in his fleet, including the Domain ones.
As the overlapping fields from the drones cleared a path for them to warp in under the gravity spikes, the Destroying Fury pounced. Daar’s flagship was exactly like the man himself in that regard: huge, deadly, fast, and eager to lead from the front.
The fact that she was basically a mobile Farthrow generator had a lot to do with that. She bowled into the heart of the freighter convoy, locked down a volume nearly an AU across, and smashed a dozen swarmships out of the sky with her weaponized forcefields.
But the Hunters were here to fight, this time. Long-range sensors pinged several alerts at Caruthers as spacetime some distance away outside the Fury’s bubble fizzed like a soda, and disgorged… well, swarmships. Very, very aptly named swarmships.
They must have been desperate for all the components and little essentials on that convoy, because for the first time since the Hellring went down—before that, even. For the first time since the Battle of Gao, the Hunters actually stood up and boxed.
The Fury was immediately besieged. She coiled her shields inwards, reserving their power and heat load for pure defense, not able to reach out and swat the gnats that bothered her. Caruthers ordered the USS San Diego, and her sister ships Robert A. Heinlein and Gene Roddenberry forward, and they flash-warped directly to the Destroying Fury’s side.
With Daar’s flagship cocooned in their combined energies, not even the nuke the Hunters hit it with could get through, but that wouldn’t last. Even Gaoian-made heat sinks had their limits.
For the first time in a long while, Caruthers felt his knuckles going white.
This one was going to be bad.
Technical Sergeant Adam “Warhorse” Arés
Sealed and suited, ready to go… standing and waiting. Then sitting, to conserve energy. Nobody wanted to hit their Juice—or worse, IV—before the fight had even begun.
Adam got exactly as much information as he needed: that much, no more. Which in this case translated to the words “STAND BY” in his HUD as the HEAT waited for a target.
It was quiet in the deployment bay. The loudest noise by far was the hiss of his own breathing apparatus, little puffs of pressurized air running behind and below his ears and into his mask. The gurgle of the water systems as he took a small sip. Sporadic, terse words on the ‘net, none of them intended for him.
He could hear the battle faintly, through the heavy sound each of Cally’s guns made when they fired. Like a team of men beating on sheet metal with sledgehammers, a few rooms over. Subtle shifts, jolts and sways in the gravity as they accelerated and it took the grav plating a fraction of a second to catch up.
He was used to that. Endless training had made him almost numb to gravitic shenanigans. His body just dealt with them. What he wasn’t used to was waiting.
Even Deacon and her techs had run out of things to tinker with, and they’d use every last minor check and tweak they could find if it gave them something to do. Now she was trying and failing to not chew on her fingernails, and it was infecting Adam’s calm as well.
All he could do, though, was sit and wait for that “STAND BY” in his visor to become anything else.
Which was awful, because sitting still in the Mass was still a full-body, active exertion. Just wearing it meant fighting back against its pressure, just sitting down in it and doing nothing more strenuous than breathing drained calories at about the same rate as a steady jog. He’d got to the point where tensing against it was an unconscious act, but now that he was still…
Now that he was still, he was acutely reminded that he was wearing enough armor to classify him as a light vehicle. In motion, it made him powerful, unstoppable. Stopped, though…
Stopped, it just made him ache. Itch. And still the fucking “STAND BY” didn’t change.
He had some solace in that Righteous and ‘Base had it pretty bad too, though their Mass wasn’t as fiercely compressive as his. Hell, Tigger had it even worse these days, being the singular freak of nature that he was. Even with his much more advanced armor, that was…
Well, surprisingly okay. If Adam couldn’t be top dog anymore, then he was proud to be friend and coach to the one and only man alive of any species who could beat him, or even come close. Or…probably ever would, unless either Adam or Righteous somehow pulled off an upset one day. Thank God the big goofy murderbear was one of a kind.
What was he doing right now? Adam…he honestly couldn’t really imagine what it must have been like to be someone like that. One minute Daar was living life like any grunt, and the very next he was a general leading his forces, or an admiral his fleet…or an emperor, his people.
Adam wasn’t nearly intelligent enough to be someone like that. But he was a damn good medic. As good as ‘Base, in his own way. And he had buddies like Butler and sometimes Thurrsto, all right there with him, doing their best to save lives.
And, well. If it came down to up close and personal violence, he could do that, too. In some ways, he could do that better than anyone. He wasn’t called Warhorse for nothing.
Something changed in his HUD: Radiological alert. Somebody was letting off nukes out there. He glanced over at Baseball, who glanced back at him at the same moment, then looked over Adam’s shoulder and lifted his head slightly to say ‘look.’
Adam looked. Powell was on his feet, talking with somebody, a Royal Navy officer. Probably on the command net, too. Hard to see his face, but in Powell’s case reading his mood was all about body language anyway. And he looked about the same as Adam felt.
Eventually he nodded, thanked the Navy guy, and sat back down again. Slumped. Slumped back down again.
And Adam knew that they probably weren’t going anywhere today.
The data flowed freely, and they were delicious.
The convoy had been one thing. A ripe opportunity to replenish needed sundries whose supply had been stretched by the campaign to dissipate the Broods into smaller, more obfuscated strongholds. Losing the Builder Hive had demonstrated the folly of excessive centralization.
Distribution, however, came with its own challenges. The convoy had been a welcome answer to a few of those challenges.
Now, though, it was turning out to be a far juicier quarry than the Builder Alpha-of-Alphas had foreseen.
Since the first clash between Hunters and a Human warship, there had never been a deadly, fierce struggle for supremacy. Both were naturally inclined to raid, to ambush, to hunt. Both were predators by inclination. It was what made the deathworlders so admirable, so inventive, and so challenging.
But when one predator came to steal another’s kill, the resulting fight could very well become what this one had. And now, the Builders were learning much.
The minutiae of what all those gigabytes of sensor telemetry could wait. For now, the Alpha-of-Alphas simply watched, alert for the big things, the moments of genius and inventiveness that it might follow.
It was not disappointed.
Daar, Great Father of the Gao
It was getting fuckin’ hot on the Fury. Not dangerous, but the air was like a really hot summer day, and slowly gettin’ worse. Hot days were for rolling through flowers an’ chasing after kwek (and Females) an’ not for sufferin’ onboard a warship.
At least he had the advantage of active cooling in his Suit. He was sympathetic as fuck ‘fer all the rest o’ the ship who weren’t in environmentally-hardened armor, but at least they had the advantage o’ not thumpin’ around in duraflex scalemail that were even heavier’n he was…
Good thing they weren’t, they were busy tendin’ to the most bestest ship in the allied fleet. He was proud of the Fury. She was taking a beating that nothin’ else in the galaxy ever could (though bein’ honest, even the Fury wouldn’t be in one piece right now if not for the San Diego cruisers), and if the worst he had to complain about after three nukes at short range was that the air was gettin’ warm, he’d take it. But she was also kinda pinned down: she could tank the hits, or she could fight back. Not both. Not to full effect.
So, break the pin.
“Where are those nukes comin’ from? They ain’t jumpin’ in.”
“That big broodship at the back, My Father. They’re firing a lot of them.”
“The three—” there was a lurch, a flash, and all the monitors went protectively dark for half a second. “—the four that hit us are just the ones that made it past our point defence.”
Daar growled and contacted Caruthers directly.
“We can’t stay here forever,” he said, putting it bluntly. “Can you take out that broodship with the nukes?”
“We landed two good hits on it. It seems to be just as tough as you,” Caruthers replied. “And they’ve copied backlash shielding, too. We lost two firebirds.”
Daar panted frustratedly. The air temperature was creeping up toward blood-warm now, and the update that accompanied Caruthers’ words showed him that it was a testament to the incredible skill of Human pilots that they hadn’t lost more than that. The Firebirds had withdrawn in an orderly manner, pulling back from the most hazardous part of the battlefield to fly close support for the capital ships and keep the swarmships from latching on.
Space all around was a blizzard of swarmships, hard radiation, debris, kinetic ammunition and firepower. The big one at the back of the Hunter formation was well protected behind a wall of its lesser counterparts, each one of which was imitating the San Diego cruisers’ advanced shield projection.
Worse, as well as wrapping up the big one nice and cozy, each one was enfolding a freighter in its grasp.
Dammit. They were going to jump out, and those pilots’ lives would have been spent in vain. Not to mention the lost materiel for the Guvnurag, and the lost civilian lives.
But Daar couldn’t see a way to break the deadlock. His formation might push forward, but that would just give their point defence less time to react to the incoming nukes: they’d just be driven back again, or destroyed. Bringing the Domain ships in would just get a lot of hapless blue amateurs slaughtered, and the V-destroyers were already as well-placed and effective as they were gonna be.
On the plus side, the stalemate went both ways. As far as Daar could tell, it was a battle of heat dispersal, and the Hunters didn’t have enough to win it… but neither did he.
“I have WERBS on standby,” Caruthers ventured. “Though, I would prefer not to use it unless we absolutely must.”
“Agreed. Don’t want ‘em learnin’ that trick anytime soon,” Daar had a feeling that if the Hunters ever figured out WERBS, their first instinct would be to use it to scour planets to the bedrock. He’d seen the estimates on what that weapon could do. Its creators were justifiably terrified of it.
It had saved Gao. He wouldn’t use it for anything less than that.
Daar growled to himself, it seemed like this was gonna be an endurance test, an’ that weren’t a thing he was gonna much enjoy. Attrition was a stupid way ‘ta fight a battle. He just needed some crazy, off-the-wall idea mebbe, something ridiculous like the ass-pulls they always managed in all those stupid Star Trek episodes…
His head cocked slowly onto one side as just such a crazy ass-pull blossomed in his mind. Or mebbe it was dumbassery. Either way, his instincts knew he hadta try it. “Caruthers…if you could pick jus’ one Hunter ship right now…which one would ‘ya pick?”
Caruthers was silent for a few seconds. “…Target designated Foxtrot,” he decided. “It’s on the edge of the formation and radiating more heat than the others. I think we can get a lick in if we hit it hard.”
“Everythin’ we got. Hell, bring the V’zktk in on it too.” Not that he really expected to penetrate its shields, but that wasn’t the point. The point was… something a little different.
“Guur,” he turned to the Fury’s Shipfather. “How aggressively can we dump heat as a beam?”
“We already are,” the Shipfather replied. “It’s called backlash shielding. The Humans at Mrwrki invented it.”
“We tied to a particular wavelength, or…?”
“We usually emit in gamma, but that can be changed. What’s your plan, My Father?”
“Cycle our backlash frequency ‘ta somethin’ their shields’re transparent to. Visible spectrum, mebbe. When we hit Target Foxtrot, poke ‘em with all the heat we can dump. Might just tip ‘em over.”
“Yes, My Father.” Guur took up the task personally.
Daar returned to his spot in the middle of the bridge and was glad indeed for his suit’s cooling. He must be emitting quite a lot of heat himself, now, but at least it let him stand calmly in the middle of the bridge and not pant. Right now, he needed to seem indestructible.
But he was prayin’ like hell that his plan would work.
Admiral Sir William Caruthers
“Do you think we can break it?”
“I think at this point it’s a question of whose ammo reserves run deepest,” Caruthers replied. “Both of us have shield webs fully in place, neither of us can advance on the other… about the only thing we have that they don’t is the Farthrow. Maybe hitting a single target will work, but I doubt it. Not unless we time it down to the millisecond.”
Ak’kk’brr’s flagship—the war platform’s name translated loosely to Strike With Both Hooves—had come forward into the main formation at his invitation, and Caruthers had to admit: there were a lot of big guns on that thing. Right now, he was glad to have them.
“My ships have a firing solution, Admiral,” he reported. “We are ready when you are.”
Caruthers was pleasantly surprised: the ETs hadn’t held them up at all. Apparently the Domain’s first fleet could keep up. That was one good thing to come out of this day, at least.
“Wait for my mark,” he commanded. Timing was crucial. “Tigger, Highcastle. All ships are ready to fire.”
“Sync-lock to Fury’s fire control.”
There was something from the Dominion’s monolithic way of doing battle that was actually useful. Caruthers authorized the brief synchronization of his fleet’s weapons, handed them off to Daar, and stood back to watch.
On the ‘net, he heard only the briefest of pauses. For a second or two, there was pregnant silence. And then…
++END CHAPTER 60++
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This chapter is dedicated to the memory of CHESTER, who was a Good Boy.
It was brought to you with the help of…
Those special individuals whose contributions to this story go above and beyond mere money
Sally and Stephen Johnson
Sian, Steve, Willow and Riker
(â˜ ÍœÊ– â˜)
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As well as sixty-two Deathworlders…
Austin Deschner Aaron Hescox Adam Beeman Alex Hargott Alex Langub Andrew Andrew Ford Andrew Robinson Arnor atp Ben Thrussell Bruce Ludington Chris Bausch Chris Meeker damnusername Daniel R. Dar David Jamison Derek Price Devin Rousso Elizabeth Schartok Elliott Riddle Eric Johansson Fiona Dunlop galrock0 Gavin Smart Ignate Flare Ivan Smirnov Jason Dyer Jim Hamrick Jon Kristoffer Skarra Logan Rudie lovot Matt Matt Demm Matthew Cook Max Bohling Mel B. mihkel miks Mikee Elliott Myke Harryson Nathan Wentworth NightKhaos Patrick Huizinga Phil Winterleitner Richard A Anstett RJ Smiley Ryan Ryan Cadiz Sam Saph Sintanan Stephane Girardin Stephen Prescott Stratigan theWorst Tyler Kelloway Volka Creed William Kinser Woodsie13 xxarmondxx
…Seventy-six Friendly ETs, 119 Squishy Xenos and 294 Dizi Ra -(splat)
“The Deathworlders” is © Philip Richard Johnson, AKA Hambone, Hambone3110 and HamboneHFY. Some rights are reserved: The copyright holder reserves all commercial rights and ownership of this intellectual property. Permission is given for other parties to share, redistribute and copy this work under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0International License.
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Thank you for reading!
The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 61: “Tooth and Claw”