Chapter 64: Survive
Date Point: 16y11m10d AV
Hierarchy Cleansed Session 508
++0020++: Full retreat. Every Hunter asset in the system is being withdrawn or scuttled.
++0004++: <Aghast> So quickly? The Gaoians only launched their invasion days ago!
++0020++: Correct. Their maximum leader personally intervened on a key asset in close orbit around the star, and this was apparently enough to convince the new Alpha-of-Alphas that their objective was lost.
++0004++: I hadn’t expected the new Alpha-of-Alphas to be such a coward.
++0020++: It isn’t. It is in fact a good deal bolder, more intelligent and more decisive than its predecessor. It has also utterly locked Hierarchy assets out of the core Broods and their leadership. The Hunters are less controlled than ever, and their economy is growing increasingly self-sufficient as more and more of the “Eaters” enter long-term stasis. It appears that the Builder Alpha-of-Alphas simply regards the loss of that star system as, at most, an inconvenience.
++0009++: It’s those system containment fields. Ever since those escaped the Guvnurag and became available to the deathworld species, the nature of war has changed dramatically.
++0020++: The Hunters seem to have developed a counter, assuming they can establish their new class of stellar station. In combination with wormhole suppression technology however, you are correct.
++0009++: Our strategic situation is looking increasingly untenable. Substrate levels are in rapid decline. We have lost control of the Hunters, we have no insight whatsoever into what either the Humans or Gao are doing except what they leak onto the galactic communications networks, and Cynosure’s success at re-infiltrating Sol was utterly ruined by the loss of the Irujzen relay.
++0004++: Assuming we would have had access to those assets in the first place…
++0023++: They may be active, actually.
++0023++: The Injunctors Cynosure used were loaded with the old automated survey and index case AIs as a backup. In theory they are capable of infiltration, abduction and basic biodroning, and could then load up their archived Agent onto the biodrone. A Human provides plenty of Substrate.
++0004++: And then what? Without Relay contact, with the whole planet wormhole-suppressed and with no other agents in contact, they would not know what to do.
++0023++: There…is also the question of Cynosure’s status. I do not believe him to be terminated.
++0003++: Every indication we have is that he and Metastasis destroyed each other, and given their problematic status, we have terminated their archived versions to avoid any possibility of re-instantiation. They are dead.
++0023++: I do not believe Cynosure should be written off. He was always a step ahead of us, and those Injunctors represent a perfect place to archive himself beyond our reach. If he is on Earth, then–
++0004++: Then we cannot touch him for now. But he may yet do our work for us…
++0003++: We shall see. Given that there is nothing constructive that can be done about it, I see no reason to continue to expend time and resources on this discussion. Closing session—Return to your duties.
++SESSION 508, TERMINATED++
Date point: 16y11m12d AV
The White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth
President Arthur Sartori
Sartori was… torn.
His time in office was drawing to a close. That much was inevitable, unavoidable and right. He wasn’t about to argue against Presidential term limits. But…
But he didn’t feel ready to go, and that was the truth of it. And as election night dragged on and the results rolled in, it was starting to look like the old pendulum-swing of US politics wasn’t going to change this time around. Red-blue-red-blue, tick-tock-tick-tock. He’d hoped to break the cycle.
But the public were fickle, and sick of an expensive war that had effectively zero impact on their daily lives. San Diego was a distant memory and the economy was resurgent after the difficult years that had followed, driven by offworld development and industry. What people wanted now was less spending on nukes and warships and hyper-expensive HEAT operators, and more spending on welfare, schools, healthcare and social programs.
For once, Sartori had managed to secure some credit for his party’s accomplishments. That in itself was a uncommon and strange turn of positive news, and he was leaving office as one of those rare Presidents who wasn’t openly loathed by over half the populace. So, naturally, the counter-message had changed.
“We’ve worked hard.”
“We’ve done our part.”
“Let’s take care of the folks back home.”
And…all the short-term, vote-buying nonsense that panderers of all persuasions had been peddling since the dawn of the Republic. Teams might change, colors might run different, but the same craven will to power was still there.
And the voters, bless them, always wanted to believe the best of any sunny-side-up message. So they voted, and Sartori sat back and watched with his chin on his hand as his chosen successor Margaret White’s presidential campaign slid toward a narrow but convincing defeat.
Ironically, to an old, wealthy white male. The same old games, same old prizes. There would no doubt be accusations of voting fraud and all the usual, but he sincerely doubted it in her case.
His party controlled the Senate. There was a check against the new government, at least. He’d had two full terms and a bit more besides to aggressively reform departments and place his favored personnel. But the opposition took the Presidency, and utterly swept the House after the previous two years of scandal-plagued leadership by the Speaker.
To be fair, Sartori was a partisan. The very definition of a partisan, being the goddamned President of the United Fucking States after all. And it wasn’t like his opposition was quite as…well, times had changed. Passions had grown red-hot and then cooled considerably in his lifetime.
But that history wasn’t something he could ever forget, or really forgive.
No matter. History was just that. Sartori resolved two things: firstly, that the transition would be as flawless and smooth as humanly possible. His successor would know everything about what they were facing, and know it to the core of his being. And secondly…
He would go tell Daar in person. He deserved that, at least. Because President-Elect Chambliss was the very opposite of a kindred spirit to either Daar or Sartori. He’d run in no small part on his anti-war credentials, filling his campaign with old imagery of himself at the front of protest marches, flags and banners and drums in hand.
And he was a compulsive fabulist, too. Sartori needed to drill into Chambliss’s head how utterly dangerous that would be with the Great Father. And that, right there, was the biggest and most dangerous part of the entire transition.
The fate of the human race may in no small part rest on a small number of personal relationships with the most powerful being to ever cast his gaze across the galaxy. After all, it was the might of the United States and the fighting spirit of her closest allies that had saved the Gao, an act for which the Great Father was deeply grateful. But they were a resilient and industrious people, who held vast technological advantages and who had an extremely well-developed spaceborne infrastructure. With the post-war recovery and even with the impending population shortfall, the United States was already the junior partner in the relationship, and that was a fact virtually nobody outside of the policy wonks understood.
Daar knew it, though. And one false step by the President-Elect could severely damage things.
There was no point in staying up late, anyway. In the morning he’d have to stand in front of the cameras and congratulate Chambliss, and after that he had a little fewer than two months to finish what he could and step away gracefully into whatever role he could find for himself. So, Sartori excused himself, bade his people good night, and went to bed comparatively early knowing he’d likely only get four hours to sleep.
He’d find a way to stay in the fight. But that was a problem for tomorrow.
Date Point: 16y11m12d AV
Dataspace adjacent to Hunter territory
Ava Ríos had briefly met Blaczynski a few times before her fateful trip to Egypt. She’d liked him, despite herself. Ava had thought of him as hot. And funny.
His death left a knot of anger and sadness in the Entity’s core that it couldn’t quite explain. It was slowly accepting that in a sense it was Ava, or at least a distorted reflection of her. Different in every particular, but nevertheless…
His death—or rather, the circumstances of his death—had given the Entity an impetus beyond <survive>. <vengeance> and <justice> were both flashing their fangs, eager to be satisfied.
The Hunters’ networks and data coverage were sprawling, connected to dataspace in deep and insecure ways. Infiltrating their periphery remained trivial, even if the deepest strategic core had hardened impressively since the Entity’s last visit.
And they were quiet. Eerily so. Previously, they had thrummed with the mental activity of billions of networked Hunters, each scheming and jockeying for position amidst their own Broods, and each Brood doing the same among the others… Now, the closest point of reference the Entity had was city streets in the darkest hours of the morning on a rainy day. The titanic evidence of Hunter achievement was everywhere, but the Hunters themselves were conspicuously silent in a way that made the occasional trace of activity seem all the more sparse and threatening. Like a car slipping by as just a wet hiss and some anonymous blur lights before the street became empty again.
Retrieving basic information about the events of the last months from their network was relatively straightforward. Security was much tighter than it had once been, but the Entity had transformed itself over the years, from a scared and weak thing that fled from any contact, into a fearsome living weapon. Its ability to pass undetected was unmatched, it could ransack data archives and leave them seemingly undisturbed, and only the most stringent measures posed any real obstacle to it.
It simply avoided those obstacles. There was no need to confront them, not when it could learn what it needed without unnecessary risk.
It did not like what it learned.
Somehow, the Hunters had created the same kind of solar focusing array it had invented itself. That rankled. It had created the weapon in desperation to avoid pursuit, but now it found that the Hunters were building four in each of their remaining star systems, surrounding their stars with a tetrahedral arrangement that guaranteed there was practically nowhere in the system that could not be scoured with focused radiation.
Each such station was protected by wormhole suppressors and gravity spikes. Each system, therefore, was a fortress. An impenetrable prison for the Hunters’ slaves. Assailing them was rapidly becoming…
Well, the only viable method the Entity could see would be overwhelming numbers. So far, the Humans and Gaoians had achieved what they had through the precise application of a small number of exceptional ships and individuals. And the Hunters, not being stupid, had taken their surprise victory over the HEAT and rapidly applied their new-found knowledge.
They had, in fact, possibly found the hard counter to Deathworlder tactics. And that simply would not do at all. So the Entity withdrew from their networks, and the tiny ship-body it had made for this scouting mission slipped away into the interstellar black.
The Entity planned to pursue <survive> indefinitely… But it had no intention whatsoever of doing so in a universe that contained the Hunters.
Date Point: 16y11m12d AV
Native library warrens, planet Mordor
Professor Daniel Hurt
As far as Daniel was concerned, Ukusevi might have been his perfect ideal colleague in another timeline. She had the rare ability to really think, to methodically pick apart every word and concept, explore every nuance of meaning, every preconception, every precursor and every successor. In a less tragic environment, she might have been the kind of scholar he adored.
As it was, she was a tortured theologian whose whole religious foundation was collapsing around her.
“…What do you mean, ‘over?’”
“I mean the war is effectively over,” Daniel told her. “We won. The enemy have fled, and the forces they left behind are cut off, unsupplied and leaderless. Any other species would surrender, but the Hunters won’t. They’ll fight until they’re all dead, which is probably going to take months, but at this point I’m told that victory is certain so long as we don’t make any stupid mistakes.”
He listened to the faint scratchy noise of the translator faithfully rendering his words for Ukusevi’s ear. The E-Skurel-Ir language, or at least Ukusevi’s dialect, wasn’t exactly terse. English certainly had an advantage in brevity, there.
A strange quirk, that. They were otherwise a spare and efficient people by necessity. Every page in Ukusevi’s journal that she’d so far filled was crammed to the edges with her dense, tidy handwriting. No wasted space, no wasted food, no wasted things. The Librarian’s clothes were tough, hard-wearing, and much-mended.
She looked, Daniel felt, rather like a hunched, lanky Franciscan monk with leporine ears and a face that was arranged much like a human’s while being inhuman in every important particular. Her eyes were too large and too widely spaced, facing somewhat outwards rather than the binocular forwards. Her nose was wide and as flat as a table with a total of four comma-shaped nostrils, and her mouth was almost human, if one ignored the fact that the natural shape of E-Skurel-Ir lips looked rather like a bilateral cleft palate with a pronounced underbite.
He was beginning to get the hang of reading her facial expressions and body language without needing the translator’s help, at least. If he was right, then she was badly conflicted. The desire and hope that her species were finally released from their great punishment was at war with the healthy skepticism of somebody who’d long ago internalized the old adage that anything which seemed too good to be true probably was.
“Of course, this opens a lot of questions for your people,” he prompted, kindly.
“Yes. and it opens them more quickly than I…” Ukusevi stopped herself. She glanced down at the journal in her hands, a nervous habit Daniel had noticed in her a lot. “…I had thought we would have more time to think. You know that not all of my people believe that the Punishment would just… end. Not like this.”
“Your people have a sensible streak of skepticism in them,” Garaaf said. Ever since Daniel had been brought on board for this delicate first contact situation, the scarred old Whitecrest had increasingly insisted on letting him take the lead.
Ukusevi’s ears flopped back and forth as she jerked her head in her version of a strong headshake. “That is not the reason. I want our Punishment to be over, truly I do. I just struggle to reconcile it with the Long Chant. Our history and our present don’t quite…” She paused, and chattered her teeth thoughtfully as she assembled her thoughts. “What was and what is don’t flow easily into each other.”
Daniel nodded. He’d been expecting this conversation.
“My people have wrestled with this problem at length,” he said. “The closest thing we have to a Long Chant contains accounts of histories that, uh, don’t necessarily line up neatly with the evidence of our own eyes.”
“For example?” Ukusevi asked.
“…For example, one account holds that in the beginning, the Almighty made only two humans, a man and a woman, who are the ancestors of all humans since. The story is true in that it contains truths, deep insights into our condition and our nature…But it is not historically accurate. Nevertheless, there are people out there—a rare few—who hold that in order for it to be true at all, it must be completely true. They think that for any part of it to be false would make the whole thing false, and they can’t stand that idea.”
He let her think about that. Honestly, watching her think was an unexpected pleasure. He could see the process of it in how she flicked through her journal’s pages, muttered snippets of the Chant to herself, fidgeted with her hands and ears.
“I suppose I… hmm.” she scratched her left ear. “The Chant has always just been truth to me. It is a record of our past, and the lessons we learned. We study carefully and cross-check with each other, use the meter and rhythm to aid our memories. Our first duty and effort is to make sure that it is a true and accurate record of events that really happened.”
“But you said it yourself that it also records the lessons you learned and the conclusions you drew,” Daniel pointed out. “It isn’t just a dry record of who did what, when and where. It’s a moral history, as well as a record of events.”
“All history is moral history,” Ukusevi asserted. “There’s no reason to record history except to learn from it.”
“I agree. But is there only ever one correct lesson?” Daniel asked.
“…Surely there is.” Ukusevi didn’t sound entirely convinced by herself.
“Maybe. But I suspect only the Almighty knows which one is the correct lesson. Mere mortals have to fumble our way toward the truth, and all too often we get it wrong. The Long Chant faithfully records your history…”
Ukusevi glanced guiltily over her shoulder at the heavy steel doors that sealed off the warrens. A sensible precaution for people who lived on a planet with such a polluted atmosphere, and in this case a useful source of privacy.
“…But it may not faithfully record Truth,” she finished. “That’s…”
“Many of my people will think so.”
“Many of your people aren’t here. Do you think it’s blasphemy?”
Again, Daniel watched her think. This time, she did so in silence with her brow furrowed in a very human way.
“Well… yes. I do. But… I don’t think it’s wrong.” She closed her journal and set it aside, which as far as Daniel could tell was a pretty solemn gesture coming from her. It meant what she was about to say was going to stay firmly and permanently off the record.
“I keep telling myself I don’t know what to think, but that’s just not true,” she said. “I know what’s true in my belly. I feel it in my soul. I know that the Punishers, the Hunters, whatever we call them… they’re evil. Even if they’re an instrument of divine will, they’re evil, and I know of no history in the Long Chant that justifies our suffering… Maybe that’s a truth I can come to live with. But what about everybody else? Are we to be delivered from them only to tear ourselves apart because our lives don’t make sense any longer?”
She gestured at Gaaraf. “You said that helplessness is a blanket, and it’s time to wake up. Well we’re not ready. I might be. Others might be. But most of my people…” her negative head-jerk was slow and morose this time. “Destroying the Punishment might just destroy us too. Look at the world out there! The air is poison, the land is barren, the rivers will give you sores if their waters splash you… We didn’t have anything left except the Punishment! Take that away and we’re… nothing. There’s nothing left of us. Just a history I devoted my life to that teaches me things that aren’t true…”
She stared for a long time at the closed journal, then picked it up and pressed it to her forehead, eyes closed, ears flat along the back of her head. In any species’ body language, it was a posture of the most profound pain and loss, and Daniel knew there were no words to make it better.
The only thing for it was to gamble on a hug.
He scooted over and put his arm around her. She stiffened and gave him a look of obvious surprise, but didn’t shrug him off. After a second she heaved a heavy sigh, lowered the book into her lap again, and leaned against him. She was very different to hugging a Ten’Gewek, who mostly felt like a slightly softer rock. Ukusevi was bony, thin and fragile. But clearly the hug was still a universal, and clearly she was glad for it.
Daniel gave her a minute or so of quiet before making his suggestion.
“The Chant isn’t untrue,” he said, quietly. “Just like my story from before about the first humans. It’s not completely true… but it contains truth. You don’t need to throw the whole thing away just because it’s not all truth.”
She sighed. “The bits that aren’t are important, though.”
Daniel nodded. “I know.”
“…I don’t mean to seem ungrateful. Gao and Human didn’t do this to us. All you’ve done is brought about the moment when we finally have to…” Ukusevi looked across at Garaaf. “…Get out of bed.”
“For what it’s worth,” Garaaf replied, “I think we’ll all be richer for having your people awake.”
“Why?” Ukusevi’s ears lifted slightly. “We’re a broken people. We’ve lost everything we had. Now, we’ve even lost the tale that held us together through that. What do we have to give you?”
Daniel retrieved his arm and scooted away, sensing that he’d given as much comfort as was appropriate. “We’re not doing this for what your people are now, Ukusevi. We’re doing it for what we hope you will be, now that you have your chance.”
Garaaf duck-nodded. “You may be broken now. But it is within your power to become more than you are. It won’t be easy, but it’s possible, which is more than you had before.”
“But… Where do I begin?”
To Daniel, there was only one possible answer. He put his hand on her journal.
“With the truth,” he said.
Date Point: 16y11m12d AV
Industrial complex, Planet Mordor, Liberated Hunter System
Ginn, Foot-soldier first class, Grand Army of the Gao
Ginn flinched and hunkered down behind his gun shield as it deflected a brief shower of sizzling Hunter flechettes. He’d really hoped that being flattened by an RFG strike would have emptied the factory complex his unit was clearing of Hunters, but the nutless monsters were definitely not gone.
He squeezed the trigger in his right paw and, with a staccato bang-bang-bang from his weapon, raked the ruins with bullets. Dust, stone chips, and a few gratifying bits of Hunters filled the air, and the shooting stopped.
His comrades took advantage of his weapon’s suppressing effect to maneuver, gaining ground to the left and right where they could encircle the Hunter position and deny them any cover. A few grenade rounds bounced into the rubble and detonated, adding to the carnage.
That was how you dealt with Hunters. Big, overwhelming firepower, without any let-up or second chance. If you shot one and it dropped, you shot it several more times for certainty. Ginn had no intention of being slashed in half by a Hunter that had merely been winged.
More Hunters boiled out. Obviously, there was some sort of underground refuge that survived the RFG, and now Ginn and his buddies were quite possibly screwed.
The radioman was already calling for reinforcements. But Ginn and his unit could only throw so much ammo downrange, and they were increasingly outnumbered. He fought on, because it was the only option, and because he would never let a Hunter take him alive.
He may as well have aimed a garden hose at a forest fire. His gun reached the point where its barrels were glowing faintly and if he hadn’t been wearing gloves then his hands would have burned, but he kept firing…
Right up until he ran out of ammo. The gun sizzled as he twisted it aside, grabbed his SMG and poured on the pressure, acutely aware that the magazines he had left weren’t going to—
Now there were two blessedly welcome words. Ginn pulled his head into the Growl, and not a moment too soon. His helmet had barely cleared the turret lip before there was a sound like the sky being ripped in half like a sheet of dry canvas, and something else that wasn’t so much heard as felt.
It went on for a while. Probably only seconds, but it felt longer, and when it was gone and Ginn popped up with his weapon ready, he could feel the heat through his PPE. The hole the Hunters had been pouring out of was a twisting inferno, and the few still standing on the surface were staggering, bleeding, confused. Ginn dropped the nearest one with a burst to its torso, and a second burst to the head to be certain.
Around him, his comrades regrouped, pulling back toward the Growls. Ginn’s driver tapped him on the leg, handed him a new ammo can. Gin ducked inside, grabbed it, hoisted it up, and busily set to work opening and feeding his mounted gun.
He was certain of two things: one, that the strike had bought them a welcome reprieve, and two, that there were more Hunters still to come and it was only a matter of–
Sooner than he’d hoped and feared, they attacked again. There were no tactics involved in what they were doing, just a fearless blood-frenzied rush to descend on Ginn’s unit. It would have been easier to fight them if they’d been using sensible tactics or showing any regard for their own lives, but sheer swamping crazed aggression made them dangerous. They couldn’t be suppressed, couldn’t be awed or demoralized. They just… rushed. And there were enough of them to make it.
Deliverance came in the form of a wall of Stoneback’s finest: heavily armed, heavily armored, and utterly unstoppable. They were of course a Clan essentially bred to purpose, but something that was by all accounts a bit weird about the Gao relative to other sapient species was that they’d never had suitable draft animals in their primitive days. They had to do all the work by themselves, and it was the brownfurs–and especially the Stonebacks–who did the bulk of it. That served them well here, because the Stonebacks didn’t exactly fight the Hunters…
…Rather, they simply plowed right through them, and trampled them underfoot. Regular Hunters snapped like twigs as the enormous Clan-Brothers pounced on them, ignored fire with their ridiculous shields and armor, and just…kept going.
With the ‘Backs now charging forward, Ginn and his fellow gunners shifted their fires to perimeter control. Ginn’s assigned field of fire left him able to watch the fight unfold and it was…
…It was glorious.
The fight wasn’t over until every last Hunter was dead, and it wasn’t bloodless for the Gao either. After all, once the ‘Backs had broken through, Ginn’s unit had to charge in behind. That wasn’t his task this time–he was an excellent gunner, so he wasn’t often on-foot these days in the mud–but he and his fellow gunners kept the greasy fucks from leaking out, until the ‘Backs had slaughtered them all and it was time for post-op recovery.
Ginn had survived again. He felt a good deal calmer this time around. Checked his weapon, reloaded, kept his eyes open, but the news that filtered back to him was pretty clear that the underground warren the Hunters had been hiding in—once a native village, sadly—was now empty and secure.
The thumping sound that came from underground was the Stonebacks, destroying the breeding pools. Not that a bunch of unaugmented Hunters would have been a big deal necessarily, but they could breed fast if they had access to meat.
“Hey, I know you!”
Ginn looked down from his turret at the enormous Stoneback brute standing up against his Growler. The voice behind the mask sounded familiar…
Sure enough, it was the same huge ‘Back that had saved him from the cloaked Hunter attack, and who was friendly with him at chow. Now, here he was again except with a hundred of his Brothers, once again saving Ginn’s tail.
“It’s a small world, I guess.”
The big ‘Back wagged his armored tail. “Din’t I tell ‘ya to stay outta trouble?!”
“Getting in trouble is our job.”
Big-Back chittered darkly and wiped some of the blood off his armor. “Yeah. This should be ‘bout th’ last of ‘em ‘round these parts, we reckon. An’ we haven’t had ‘ta respond ‘fer y’all inna while! ‘Yer gettin’ good at this stuff!”
“This one turned out to be bigger than we thought.”
“That’ll happen,” the ‘Back said, sagely. “Still, try an’ learn from this, yijao? ‘Yer lucky we were online ‘fer taskin’ today.”
“You’re talking to the wrong trooper, really. I go where I’m told, I do what I’m told, I try to do it well. If there’s anything to learn from this…” Ginn didn’t finish the thought out loud, but he did angle his helmet subtly in the general direction of the officers. “They’re not entirely useless…”
Big understood his meaning entirely. “Mhmm. Mebbe I can have a chit-chat an’ see they don’t deploy y’all so stupidly next time, ‘kay?”
“I’d owe you.”
“Naw!” Big raised a paw to shake Ginn’s. “Don’ worry! Also I never got ‘yer name!”
“Ginn,” he said, finding his own completely encircled by the ‘Back’s massive paw. “Yours?”
“Grandfather Vark o’ Stoneback! You keep ‘yerself alive now, ‘kay?”
“Eh. I s’pose.” The hulking Grandfather shrugged his shoulders. “Clan’s always got one an’ it’s my turn now. Now I gotta git, I got some occifers ‘ta educate, so, y’know… Stay outta trouble.”
Ginn chittered. “No promises.”
An hour later, they were on their way back to the Clawhold. Apparently, when the Grandfather of the most prestigious military Clan there was decided to ‘educate the occifers’ he actually meant put the fear of Daar into them, in a good-humored way.
Well. Good-humored from the Grandfather’s perspective, anyway. Things probably didn’t look quite the same to those officers from their lowly positions on the ladder of power. From Ginn’s even lower perspective, however, it all looked pretty funny. He kept that carefully to himself, and even managed to relax a little once they were on the move. The prospect of actually having a few days to rest beckoned.
He vowed to make the most of them.
Date Point: 16y11m13d AV
Atlanta, Georgia, USA, Earth
President-Elect Beau Chambliss
“…And it’s about eight AM in London right now, so there’ll be a call from the Prime Minister later today to congratulate you… He’ll probably be the first, really.”
Chambliss groaned and massaged the back of his neck, which always got sore when he stayed up late. A relic from an old whiplash injury from his youth. “Business already? I’m not allowed to relax and just enjoy the win?”
He’d hoped to be celebrating a successful election campaign with a few drinks alongside his family and staff. They’d done all the rigmarole with trotting out on stage, giving his speech, standing there beaming and smiling while camera flashes sparkled around them in all directions… It had given his wife Catherine a headache, and she’d gone to bed the moment they got back to the hotel. The kids—Bradley and Lacey were both coming up on their thirties, but he still thought of them as ‘the kids’—had gone to bed before him too, which was unheard-of.
It was well into the small hours of the morning, and Beau wanted to get at least a few hours of sleep before he had to dive into the long series of briefings, meetings, introductions and tours that were sure to be his full-time job until the Inauguration, and for the years to come after that.
But he had campaign staff to thank and celebrate with for a little while first. Chief among them his campaign manager, Oliver Mack, who apparently didn’t know how to stop being at work.
“It’ll just be congratulations, Beau,” he promised. “Steve Davies is going to want a lot more than a phone call with you, and he’ll want it long before the Inauguration, but he’ll wait until you’ve had a few days before he discusses the big issues with you.”
“Oh, come on. There’s only one thing on those warmongers’ minds: It’s been in all the news since you won the primary. He’s worried about all that military funding he can’t afford.”
“Mm. And look where that funding got got him. Hundreds of Royal Navy sailors killed.” Chambliss sighed and set his champagne aside, suddenly losing his appetite for it. “What a waste.”
His foreign policy advisor, Sandra Nguyen, made an uncomfortable noise. “I have it on good authority that Davies was genuine when he called Caledonia’s fallen crew heroes. He probably won’t appreciate that sentiment,” she cautioned.
“Well I wouldn’t be so dumb as to say it to him that way. But the war for Gao was over two years ago. The system is secure, Jump Arrays and forcefields are going up all over the galaxy… pretty soon the Hunters will be withering on the vine, and good riddance to them. Why throw away lives prosecuting a war we already won? It’s time we looked to our own people.”
“Preaching to the choir, sir.”
“I’m going to take a lot of phone calls tomorrow, huh?”
Mack grinned, with a certain sadistic glee. “Inevitably. And you’ll probably have a couple of extraterrestrial calls too. Have you ever met an ET, Beau?”
“There’ll probably be a formal written message from the Dominion in a few months, after the inauguration. The Rauwrhyr Republic and Corti Directorate will probably be in touch sooner. And the Gao will be calling you. Probably the Great Father himself, unless he’s soaking his fur in blood somewhere.”
“Let’s not be unfair,” Chambliss cautioned him. “Daar doesn’t leave himself out of the fighting, which is an honesty I can appreciate.”
“Neither did Genghis Khan.”
“Keep that to yourself,” Chambliss advised. “Whatever we think of him, his relationship with Sartori and America is important. Most of our extrasolar trade is with the Gao.”
Nguyen nodded fervently. “And I should note, we’re no longer the big fish in the pond as a result. Most Americans don’t realize that yet.”
“We’re still the biggest fish on Earth, and so long as we have a close relationship with the Clans we’ll keep our edge there. They buy our food, we buy their technology, and except for the other nations with Cimbrean colonies that’s a market we have exclusive access to.” Chambliss smiled at Mack. “So let’s be careful about insulting their grand dictator, even in private. He has big ears.”
“And a sense of smell that shouldn’t even be possible. You will need to…consider how you speak to him.”
“I know, I know, I read the briefing,” Chambliss grumbled. “He only respects brutal straightforward honesty, and he can smell when he’s not getting it. He’s going to be…”
“Challenging,” Nguyen suggested.”You’ll have an uphill battle with him, sir.”
Chambliss nodded, and decided he’d given them enough time to be polite. His neck was really beginning to ache, and his eyes and limbs felt heavy.
“That’s all for tomorrow,” he declared, and stood up with a groan of tired exertion. “Sorry to kick you out, but if I’m going to be ready, I should really get to bed. And so should you.”
They parted with a few good-nights that told him they were just as drained as him. Alone at last, he shuffled through into the suite’s bedroom, changed into his pajamas in the dark, and slipped into bed, where Catherine half-turned and gave him a sleepy half-awake kiss.
“You should have come to bed hours ago…” she told him.
And with that, President-Elect Beau Chambliss put his head down, and didn’t notice falling asleep almost instantly.
Date Point: 16y11m2w AV
HMS Sharman, (HMNB Folctha) Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Commander Kieran Mears
The HEAT coped with grief by throwing themselves even harder at their training, in whatever form it took. Every man among them was an extreme case, a being of enormous passions, and in any other context the degree of pain they put themselves through would be distinctly alarming.
In their unique context, however, it was probably the healthiest they could possibly be.
Not all training involved titanic weights and loud music, however. It was an often-forgotten fact that the HEAT were all qualified astronauts, which meant their scientific education had to be on par too. And a keen understanding of forcefield geometry had just become all too important to them, so the whole unit was refamiliarizing themselves with the latest developments in that field.
When they could focus, anyway. Mears had seen a lot of Firth and Murray over the last few days. Less of Arés, who was usually his most regular visitor, but Arés had promised that he wasn’t avoiding Mears’ office, just trying to put into practice a long-standing promise to reach out to his family and friends.
“I’m making progress on a lot of stuff right now,” he’d said. When Mears had pressed him the particulars, and if that meant something besides the gym…
“Oh yeah, I’m making big progress there again too!”
Healthy, in a particularly Arés alpha-meathead sort of way…but healthy, nonetheless.
That left Firth and Murray.
Firth was understandably devastated. He and Blaczynski had been something of a modern-day Achilles and Patroclus, and as fashionable as it might be to imagine those mythic Greek figures as having been lovers, that was a foible of modern shallowness. Men could love each other deeply without invoking the spirit of Eros. Admittedly that idea was the subject of much of their locker-room humor, but that was also true of Arés and Burgess.
So, Firth’s grief ran deep and raw. But it was, in the end, relatively straightforward.
Murray’s problem was more complex. He’d been very fond of Blaczynski too, and the pair had been two sides of the same coin when it came to pranks and shenanigans. Blaczynski’s had been big, bold, loud things, whereas Murray’s were invariably subtler, sneakier, could take months or years to discover (and there were probably a great many undiscovered ones still lurking around the base) and had often been pulled off under the smokescreen of Blaczynski’s bigger, brasher antics. So straightforward grief was obviously a component for him, too…
But that wasn’t where he was struggling.
“I feel like a fucking coward for even considerin’ it…”
Mears’ office was one of the few places that Murray’s usual quiet demeanour flipped and he got talkative. That particular breakthrough had been the work of years, and it had helped a lot.
“Retiring?” Mears checked.
“…Aye. It’s… Fuck, it’s prob’ly easier for the others, right? They took the homesteading deal an’ the full course signup, so they’ve got tae deal wi’ it. An’ I thought I was bein’ so bloody clever in leavin’ mesself wi’ options, right? But now it’s havin’ the option that’s bloody torturin’ me…”
“Why are you considering it?” Mears asked.
“…I always figured, in this gig, if ye get killed, it’s gonny be quick, right? I mean… shot, blown up, whatever can get through the MASS is prob’ly gonny splat the man wearin’ it before he’s even noticed. One minute ‘yer fightin, the next—” he stuck a finger in his mouth and popped it out again, then sighed heavily, leaned forward, elbows on knees, palms together as if praying, forehead resting on his thumbs. “…I never thought I’d see a man die like Scott did. And… fuck. I’m shit scared of it.”
“Well, that’s understandable.”
“Aye, it might be…”
“But you’re comparing yourself against the other men’s reactions, if I don’t miss my guess.”
Murray nodded slowly. “…Seems like they all got pissed off. Me, I’m just pissin’ meself. Learnin’ all the nasty things a forcefield can be made tae do…”
Mears needed to shift him off of self-loathing. “It’s hard to say what anyone might truly be feeling, unless they honestly tell you. And if I’ve learned anything in life, none of us are truly honest with ourselves.”
“I would…caution you against rash action. Not that that’s much your nature, but decisiveness assuredly is. Have you considered where retirement would leave you? How would that feel?”
“Well, that’s just it. I’m good at what I do. Fuck, I’m one of the best of the very bloody best or I would’nae be here! An’ I’ve got the vigor of a man half my age! So on the one hand, like, I’m where my talents are best used. But if I moved on… Could be I could make it. Find a new career. Shit, I’m an astronaut. Could go do that ‘fer a livin’…”
Mears chuckled mirthlessly despite himself. “A colossally large astronaut…”
“Eh. Maybe I’d go be a PE teacher, or a personal trainer, or a bodyguard… Maybe none of those sound good. But… I mean, I’m gonny retire someday. So that’s a bridge I’ve got to cross, eventually.”
“And when you do, you’ll still be as effectively young then as you are now. Or quite possibly, even better.”
Murray nodded and lapsed into silence. Mears considered whether to let him be or prompt him for his thoughts, and settled on rising from his chair and making some drinks.
“Got anything stronger?” Murray was kind of an average-looking man, at least in the company he kept, but he had a disarmingly handsome smile when he was joking. It was good to see. “…Tea’s good. Thanks.”
Mears made two hot cups, and they drank in silence. He didn’t prompt the conversation to move forward until Murray set his empty cup down.
“What are you thinking?” he asked, once he felt the time was right.
“I’m thinking… You said I’m decisive.”
“…I think… I think if it was time for me to go, contemplating’ the idea wouldn’t feel so wrong.”
“I can’t recommend anything for you either way. You know that. But…well, the mission would be diminished without you. I think that’s reasonable and fair to say. We all want the best for you, even if we’d feel a selfish desire for you to stay.”
“But if you worry what your departure might do…they’re good men. The mission would go on. So whatever else you consider, please don’t torment yourself over thoughts like that.”
“Aye. I’m no’ a bairn, despite my dashin’ youthful good looks. I know they’d muddle on wi’out me, but…”
“But?” Mears prompted.
“But I think that’s what I need. I feel… sick thinkin’ about leavin’ and that tells the tale, I think.” He shook his head, massaged his temples, and then swore quite loudly. “Ffffuck!”
Mears gave him a curious look. Murray gave him a complicated shrug and shook his head. He’d obviously said all he wanted to, for now. Whatever dense emotional knot had been untied with that expletive was going to remain unexplored for the time being.
Well, that was fair. “I think Technical Sergeant Arés has you scheduled for combatives in a half hour.”
“Aye, go be the giant fucker’s wrasslin’ dummy…” Murray laughed suddenly, albeit bitterly. “Well… There’s worse things in life.”
“Just an observation, but you do have some leave saved up. Use it or lose it,” Mears reminded him.
“Right, yeah… Thanks.”
“Actually…that’s something I’ve been suggesting to everyone. So I’m not suggesting you and some of the Lads might coordinate your vacations…but none of you are solitary creatures. And we have a full three sub-teams in staffing, so…Just saying.”
Murray nodded, thanked him again and departed, taking a chocolate biscuit with him.
Mears grinned to himself. Woe betide Murray if Arés found out about that little cheat! He recorded the session in his notes, reviewed the latest psych-evals from the HEAT selection and entry training center in Huntsville, and then, reluctantly, concluded that he had nothing else to do for the day. It had been a busy week, but he was all caught up for the moment.
He cleaned up his office, signed out as on-call, and went home.
He took a chocolate biscuit with him too.
Date Point: 16y11m2w2d AV
Leadership’s Gymnasium, Stoneback Chapterhouse, High Mountain Fortress
The Great Father was in a bad mood from the word go. That was easy to tell of course, partly because Daar wasn’t one to hide his feelings, but mostly because aside from his many noble and civilized qualities, in his heart of hearts he was the predictable type of working-man alpha meathead who preferred to gym-beast his rage and frustrations away, rather than talk them out.
He had, apparently, been doing a hell of a lot of that lately, and was just finishing up yet another round of apparently rather intense lifting when Sartori arrived. What greeted him was a creature pumped up into something almost cartoonishly muscular and borderline feral, who was barely straddling the line between physically exhausted and desperate to do more…which made the Great Father’s personality somehow even more on-the-sleeve than his usual.
He was still extremely happy to see his friend, though. That naturally resulted in a great big spine-crushing, feet-off-ground hug while Daar momentarily flashed into his genuine personality, and simply enjoyed saying hello to a friend. His fur was damp from a plunge into the cold pool that Gaoian laborers used, because although Gaoians did sweat, it wasn’t as efficient (or hygienic) a process as it was for a human’s comparatively naked skin.
Arthur had needed to get his back popped straight anyway.
Daar’s bouncy joyousness at reuniting with a friend didn’t last long, however. They set off on the long walk from his gym up the twisting, ancient and uneven staircase that led to his private apartments, during which time neither of them said anything to each other.
Daar broke the ice as soon as he’d squeezed himself through the apartment door and closed it gently behind them. He may have been in a bad mood, but he didn’t shirk from the civilized arts of entertaining.
“Y’ain’t gonna win ‘em all,” he commiserated. “‘Least you kept the Senate, huh?” Daar took the time to busy himself with…a wet bar? Since when did he mix drinks?
Sartori found a tired smile inside himself. He liked the way Daar cut to the chase, even on painful or difficult subjects. “At least we kept the Senate,” he agreed. “And you’re right… But this one’s hard to swallow. I really had hoped that San Diego and the war on Gao would live longer in people’s memories.”
“In a way it’s not so surprisin’ I guess. How big is SOR, anyway? An’ the associated units, when ‘ya really add it all up? Couple-ten thousand people or so? That’s ‘bout what First Fang’s total chapter-holdings add up to.” Daar picked up…yes, a Boston shaker (or something like one, anyway) and set himself to vigorously mixing some kind of iced drink. “In the grand scheme o’ things that ain’t so big, yijao? Most folk remember San Diego, but it ain’t like they got a personal connection to th’ ongoin’ fight.”
“We’re a victim of our own success. We kept the war so far away from Earth that the American public didn’t really feel it. What they felt was the APA pulling off successful terror attacks.”
“An’ ‘ya fuckin’ smashed the APA. I ‘member ‘ya got lotsa good press ‘fer that, too.” Daar opened the shaker and poured out…something that smelled sweet and very herbal into two tall, well-iced glasses; it was a cloudy drink, and slightly green. He then turned around and fiddled with his record player…
…Quiet death metal. On vinyl. He was definitely in a strange mood.
Not totally humorless, though. “I figger’d I’d spare ‘ya my legendary singin’ voice today…”
“It’s certainly memorable, but thank you. I’m not really in the right frame of mind.”
“No. Drink up, it’s good ‘fer you.”
Sartori accepted it, gave it a sniff, then sampled it. The concoction was something like if a mojito had been made with absinthe and a healthy dash of watermelon. It wasn’t bad at all! He took a deeper sip and decided he liked it.
…Hell of a high-proof drink, though. It wasn’t noticeable at first but that alcohol snuck up like a freight train. He probably ought to nurse it carefully.
“Like it? That’ll put fur on ‘yer balls an’ give ‘ya a nice thick chest ruff!”
“It’s a dangerous one. You could drink these all night, stand up, and wake up at home with the worst headache ever.”
“Naw. One o’ my Human contractors taught me this ‘lil number, real sharp guy I met at the beginnin’ o’ the War. An’ talamay ‘parently’s pretty good ‘fer not givin’ hangovers.”
“Mm. Reminds me of a drink we used to make in college.”
Daar grumbled in something like a dry amusement. “Well, enjoy it ‘fer me. Ain’t like I could get blasted these days even if I wanted to, way too big an’ way too gaoian ‘ta get dizzy offa any amount o’ booze. Balls, it don’t even help me relax much no more.”
Sartori nodded, sipped the drink again, then rested it on his knee as he sat back on the couch. Being made for Gaoians, it was a little short in the leg for him, so the result was like sitting on a well-padded and surprisingly comfortable pew.
Daar had his own built-for-his-hugeness couch opposite the table, which he promptly ignored, opting instead to plop himself down comfortably on the floor nearby. That still left his head about two feet above Arthur’s. The effect was very much like a small boy sitting next to his pet dire bear. Except the bear wasn’t the pet.
“You’re trying to be in a jolly mood, and I appreciate it,” Arthur said after a brief silence that would have been comfortable if not for the palpable emotion rolling off Daar.
“…No. You misunnerstand. I’m tryin’ to enjoy a friend’s visit an’ not rage out in front of an ally.”
“…I was briefed on the situation in Mordor. And the mission. I hadn’t appreciated you were so close to the HEAT.”
Daar sighed sadly. “I’m as close wit’ them as any Brother or Cousin I got among my own people, Arthur. We’ve killed together, cried together… They’re special, an’ I’m special, and we’re together special inna way ain’t nobody else is. But fuck that. It’s more’n bein’ the bestest. It’s ‘cuz, when things were movin’ super fast, nobody managed ‘ta think with our gods-given thinkers ‘bout jus’ how fucked up th’ mission could get. An’ maybe it ain’t anyone’s fault…but that don’t change th’ feelin.”
“And you feel personally responsible.”
“I am personally responsible. It were my orders that sent ‘em in, an’ I was right there wit’em.”
“Our experts said that the configuration of shield tech you encountered was unique,” Sartori offered by way of consolation. “Something about shield geometry, power draw and a lot of other technobabble I barely followed.”
“I know all that. Has to do with a 4-space entanglement an’ some other big science words I won’t pretend either of us really unnerstand.”
“The short version being, shields can’t normally do that.”
Daar sighed heavily. “Still ain’t saying anythin’ I don’t know. And I ‘preciate it,” he was quick to add, “but think ahead. Any ship we encounter now that’s got space enough to fit entangled the right kind o’ field interaction nodes is basically unboardable now. An’ ‘ya wanna know what the most fuckedest part o’ the whole thing is? There’s a reason ain’t nobody done this before. Surgical suites have their own fusion reactors ‘cuz any time ‘ya make a field more complicated, it’s power draw grows geometrically! Y’know what that means, here?”
“…I suspect I won’t like the answer.”
“Nope! It means that if the greasy fucks had caught Guruum too, together they might’ve overpowered the restraining forcefields an’ escaped! Which is such a fucked up thought ‘cuz now the Hunters’ll make every field geometrically optimized ‘fer killin’ and build ‘em way overpowered, ‘cuz now they really know what they’re up against!”
Sartori considered his ally and friend for a long moment, then sipped his drink and put it aside. “There are traps that all of us can fall into, no matter how wise or clever or experienced. And I’m not talking about the literal physical trap that claimed now Senior Master Sergeant Blaczynski. I’m talking about in here,” he tapped his forehead. “You’re the most powerful individual in the galaxy. You take charge, you lead from the front. You always have, and you always will. But the built-in trap that comes with that kind of power and leadership, and it’s one I think you’re uniquely vulnerable to, is the trap of believing that because you manage so closely, every last thing that goes wrong must be your fault.”
“…I know. ‘Yer right, I know it ain’t only my personal burden t’carry. Starfall signed on the dotted line too, jus’ like I did way back when. But not every trap out there denies us total access to an entire domain o’ the battlespace like this evil lil’ idea jus’ did. What I fear is that those brave, beautiful men jus’ got made useless, an’ now we lost the only way we had ta’ fight these fuckers where they actually live.”
“Hmm.” Sartori picked up his drink and thought. He wasn’t sure if he was naturally an optimist or a pessimist for himself, but here and now he felt what Daar needed was an optimist. Somebody to at least show him a spark of light in the tunnel ahead.
Then again, usually he had one.
“Seclusion ‘fer the moment ‘cuz we jus’ contracted an’ bred ‘fer another cub. She’s in the sensitive first few weeks an’ healin’ up nice…an’ she’s also waitin’ on the election, which is gonna be pretty soon now. An’ also, I don’t wanna be a terror ‘fer her, neither.”
Sartori suppressed a grimace at the word ‘healing.’ That hinted at aspects of Gaoian mating that he didn’t really want to contemplate, so instead he got back on track.
“I can pretty much guarantee that the HEAT won’t be useless,” he said. “They can do things that nobody else can, there will always be need for that. What you’re worried about is that they’ll no longer be the speartip in this fight. That they’ll be relegated to hostage rescues on Earth or search and rescue after industrial asteroid mining accidents, and that we’ll permanently lose a major strategic option.”
“Careful. That’s all worthy work, Arthur…”
“But there are other very good men who can manage. It’s not what HEAT is trained for.”
“…No. Men that good who have given so much don’t deserve ‘ta have their mission kicked out from unner’em. But the thing that galls th’ mostest is pro’ly waitin’ on our big-brains out at Erebor ‘ta see if they’ve got any kinda solution, yijao? …‘Nother drink ‘fer ‘ya?”
“Sure. Thanks…” Arthur finished the one in his hand and watched Daar stand to make another one. “Isn’t this technology we can use for ourselves too? As I recall, we’ve had some nasty situations when the Hunters boarded our own ships…”
“Yeah. In the end this may hurt ‘em more’n it hurts us, ‘cuz raiding ‘fer food is a lot harder now, theoretically. No bets on if the Dominion’ll actually implement this time…”
Arthur nodded and thought for a moment as the drink was made.
“It seems to me…” he said, just as Daar was putting the finishing touches on his creation, “that there’s a whole species who are no longer living under the Hunters. That the Hunters retreated from a whole planet and star system, which has got to be a painful loss for anyone or anything, that we now have technology of theirs to build on and exploit, and that your Grand Army has been given the purpose and project they so desperately needed. To me, all of that sounds like a victory. Not a flawless one, but not pyrrhic, either.”
“Y’can’t just let a guy be mis’rable, can ‘ya?” Daar grumbled, handing over the drink.
“Can you afford to be?”
“I mean…no.” He grumbled again, and then a flicker of his usual humor crept back into his tone. “Though I gotta say, I ain’t gonna knock the gains I’ve been gettin’ outta all this stress liftin’…”
…And the giant furry wall of meat flashed a feral grin, and did exactly what he stereotypically always did.
Sartori sighed, but couldn’t suppress his grin. “Jesus Christ.”
Daar didn’t chitter, but he did perk his ears up a bit and thumped down next to the couch again. “I ain’t gonna pretend ‘ta be anybody but who I am. ‘Sides, ‘ya ain’t really here ‘ta cheer me up. I can smell ‘yer feelins’, ‘ya know.”
“If you weren’t so notoriously honest, I’d accuse you of exaggerating a little.” Arthur sipped the fresh drink, and hoped that it wouldn’t make him pay too hard in the morning. He got the impression there was at least another one in his future. “I have… well, I wanted to discuss my successor with you. That’s the official business between us. Unofficially, as your friend, I wanted to make a request.”
“I want to see this fight out. One way or the other, I don’t want my contribution to history to end with the moment I step out of the Oval Office for the last time.”
“An’ you don’t trust ‘yer successor ‘ta finish the job.”
“…I worry, let’s say.”
Daar tapped his snout with one of his gigantic, chest-ripping claws. “‘Yer more’n worried, friend. An’ I think ‘yer right to be. Chambliss is prol’ly a good person I bet…but he’s naive, he ain’t ever really faced up to evil, he’s made big promises to th’ voters, an’ he’s got people in his orbit that ain’t so nice, who won’t let ‘em break those promises without a cost. That ‘bout cover it?”
“I try not to think of anybody as being truly evil,” Sartori said. “Everyone thinks they’re the good guy. But Chambliss’ advisors include people who think power is its own end, and a couple of them are… they’ve condemned the APA’s methods while not condemning the message. Global politics can’t afford for my voice to vanish yet.”
Daar sniffed. “Y’know…that’s a heckuva arrogant thing ‘ta say, but I think it’s true. An’ it’s good that you believe it.”
“We’re moving into a delicate moment. Every military advisor I have tells me that the war’s at a tipping point. We haven’t heard from the Hierarchy in months, the Hunters just lost a sixth of their territory—”
“An’ they’re heavily reinforcin’ the ones they got left, I bet,” Daar replied.
“No doubt, but I don’t need to tell you that nobody ever won a war by staying on the defensive. We’re winning, Daar. Hell, if Presidents got a third term, I bet I’d be able to step away in four years and feel like it was a job well done. But right now I can’t, and I won’t. I’m not willing to retire until the job is finished.”
Daar looked at him carefully. “…Careful what ‘ya wish for,” he advised. “Some’a us don’t have th’ luxury o’ choosin’.”
They stared at each other for a while, until Arthur finished his drink and set it aside. Daar’s ear flicked, and he made a rumbling sound somewhere in his chest that might almost have been a kind of purr. Sometimes, Gaoian nonverbal language could be very alien, but Arthur got the impression he was pleased.
“Fine,” Daar said, and took the glass to go make a third drink. “What d’ya have in mind?”
Date Point: 16y11m2w2d AV
The Clawhold, Planet Mordor, liberated space
Ginn, Foot-soldier first class, Grand Army of the Gao
No more gunfire. That was the major difference. Ginn had grown so used to the sound of weapons fire and explosions just during the first days of the campaign to liberate the planet—which was probably going to be renamed to whatever the natives preferred—that he’d started being able to sleep through it, if it was distant enough and not coming his way.
But tonight… silence.
Rumour had it that there’d been a victory in the spaceborne side of the war, albeit a costly one. Details were sparse, but it seemed that the Hunters had just… quit. They’d salvaged what they still had access to, sabotaged what they had to leave behind, and jumped out their ships and stations.
On the ground, RFGs and airstrikes had destroyed Hunter materiel, stockpiles, bases, infrastructure and command posts. Every Hunter line of communication was cut, their logistics network was in tatters, their leadership nonexistent, and their magazines empty. In just one week, the Hunters had collapsed dramatically.
They were still out there, lurking in the hills and forests, still armed with their teeth and fusion claws, still raiding the native warrens for slaughter, but the natives had plenty of experience with such raids. They knew how to fade into their tunnels and minimize the casualties. A few were even setting up traps to get some long-overdue revenge on their tormentors, but most just fled. Apparently they were having some kind of a religious schism down there.
Ginn neither knew the details nor wanted to. He’d only been on the planet for a few weeks, and already he was feeling… frayed. Maybe it was the constant smog, the low clouds that meant he hadn’t seen blue sky or stars since he arrived, or the constant deadly threat always out there waiting to kill him… he had no idea how the E-Skurel-Ir were still sane.
So the silence of a night without any shooting or explosions, or sirens and the flash of the overhead shields intercepting an attack, was a moment of such relative peace that it actually grated on his nerves. He couldn’t relax. He kept expecting an alarm and shouting, or the distant rattle of a patrol in the nearby hills making contact. Something.
Quite against the wisdom of any soldier anywhere, instead of sleeping he got up from his warm nest-bed to go prowl.
He stayed inside the sealed base environment at least. The air outside was only marginally cleaner than breathing exhaust fumes, and he didn’t really fancy a lungful of carcinogens just because he couldn’t sleep. So instead he decided he may as well get some food in his belly.
As it turned out, there were Humans in the food hall. A tall, elderly, dignified one; a short, extremely broad and powerfully-built fighter; and a third man who stood taller than the first, and looked like a scaled up, stockier and even more heavily-built version of the second.
They were eating pizza, and Ginn’s nose twitched enviously. It smelled incredible.
The big one noticed and beckoned Ginn toward them with a cheery grin. “Oh hey, fella! You look hungry! Want some? It’s pepperoni, fresh from Folctha.”
“Good thing you brought enough for that generous streak of yours…” the short one grumbled, but didn’t actually object. He scooted aside on his bench. Sure enough, there was a whole stack of warm, flat boxes on the table.
“Oh shaddup. You’ve always been a food vacuum. Don’t mind him,” the big one said, turning his attention back to Ginn. “He’s a jerk with a heart of gold, I promise.”
“I resent that remark. My heart is cold, black and frozen, and you don’t get to tell anyone otherwise.”
“Mhmm. So scary.”
The older stately Human rolled his eyes. This was apparently normal.
Ginn took the invitation and sat down. “Ginn,” he introduced himself. “Seventeenth armored.”
“I go by Julian. This little boulder of sunshine and happiness is Hoeff, he’s our personal security. Nice guy, s’long as you ain’t on his bad side…”
Hoeff grunted. Somehow, it wasn’t entirely unfriendly.
“…And the skinny one is Professor Hurt.”
Ginn didn’t think the Professor looked particularly skinny at all. But Humans were, well…the original Deathworlders. All three were more substantial than Ginn himself was, and probably Hurt was only ‘skinny’ relative to his present company. Maybe a good brownfur would make Hurt look skinny…but Julian would put most any Stoneback that Ginn had ever met to shame.
“Pleasure,” Hurt shook Ginn’s paw, a little too firmly. “I apologize for my meathead colleagues. They mean well…”
“It’s true and you know it, Julian.”
“I’ve never met Humans before,” Ginn confessed. “I didn’t know we had any here, except the JETS team.”
“We’re here on a consultation with the natives.”
“Their environment is fucked,” Julian said with so much dripping distaste, it actually managed to flare Ginn’s anger at the Hunters’ rapacious evil.
“I thought some Whitecrest Father was handling that?” Ginn asked, before maneuvering a beautifully greasy slice into his mouth and savoring it. The best part of a pizza was the crust, as far as he was concerned, in that it was about the perfect combination of chewy and crispy. But to get the best out of it, you had to get all those nice cheese and tomato and spicy meat flavors on the tongue first.
The best pizza could only be found in Wi Kao, though. Sure it was originally a Human food, but the Gao had perfected it. Sweet-herb was so much better than basil. Add a little kwek roe, maybe a bit of sooba paste…
Pepperoni was still the best topping there was, though. Closely followed by anchovies.
Hurt nodded. “Garaaf. He is. But the natives are a… complex problem. He asked Champion Gyotin for some advice, and Gyotin brought us in.”
“Brought you in,” Julian corrected him, modestly. “I’m just here to do a quick little exploration, grab some samples, and get my opinion down on their options. Which, uh…aren’t. I don’t think there’s any saving this. The whole planet is a Superfund site.”
“Is it reversible?” Ginn asked. He’d been wondering that himself, out of self-interest. If he was going to be assigned to this poisoned wasteland long-term, it would be nice to know if one day he’d be able to go out on patrol without the PPE.
“…Give it a couple hundred thousand years maybe. Let speciation and evolution do their thing. But the only crops on this planet are the ones the natives grow in the warrens in hydroponics farms, or in clean soil they’ve managed to preserve or make for themselves. Honestly, we could learn a thing or three from ‘em about farming in confined environments.”
“You only just arrived bearing hot pizza, and you already know all that?” Ginn asked.
“Well…” Julian reached up and scratched the back of his head, which turned out to be a weirdly satisfying gesture to watch. “That’s, like, where I’m starting from with the briefing documents and that stuff. I’m looking forward to meeting some of ‘em tomorrow and maybe learn a few more things.”
“He’s good at what he does,” Hurt said wryly. “Don’t let his meathead caveman routine fool you into thinking he’s any kind of stupid.”
That wasn’t at all the impression Ginn was under, but there was apparently a long-running joke at play, given the two sturdier men’s reaction.
Julian’s for instance, was embarrassment, more head-scratching, and a change of subject. “So. Seventeenth Armored? What have y’all been up to?”
“Killing Hunters, and getting killed in turn. We seem to be winning now. Rumor has it that the Great Father himself was involved in some important mission.” Ginn made to shrug. “I dunno.”
Hoeff nodded solemnly. “Yeah.”
That said all Ginn needed to know; the “little” one knew exactly where he was coming from. The other two…didn’t.
That was okay, though. He chittered quietly, and snagged another piece of pizza. Heaven.
He did have one question for them, though. “So… what’s gonna happen to the natives?” he asked, after a minute or so of comfortable silence. “I mean, we came all this way and did all this fighting for them, and now you’re saying this planet’s fucked for thousands and thousands of years.”
“I’m gonna say we gotta find a way for them to get off-world,” Julian said firmly. “…Not that my word will necessarily mean much. So, yeah. Actually, I think that’s the best use of my time here, y’know? Take some basic measurements, see if I can figure out what their climate is supposed to be, match their bio-type against the Corti database…”
“See? He’s plenty smart. If only I could convince him to read more…”
Julian ignored him. He seemed to be thinking out loud in a distracted way. “They’ll probably be anomalous, actually. If they’re as resistant to toxins and stuff as I think they are…”
“I’ve never bothered with that stuff,” Ginn admitted. “So the Corti like to put numbers on things. You’re anomalous, we’re anomalous, the natives here are going to be anomalous… It must not be a very good system.”
“Nah.” Hoeff said while swallowing a bite. “Anomalous things mean careers at universities. Anything not-Corti or not-Dominion is therefore anomalous, so the Corti can make money off it.”
That got a kind of snorting sound out of Professor Hurt, which morphed into a laugh. “I didn’t know you were so au fait with academia.”
“There’s a lot about me you don’t know,” Hoeff said, plainly. Ginn thought he smelled just the faintest hint of menace, but probably not. Neither of the Humans seemed to notice. He slid one of the pizza boxes along to Ginn. “Here. Big bastard brought too much anyway. May as well share it with ‘yer buddies.”
Julian grinned in a strange sideways sort of way no Gaoian could ever match. “I brought him two pizzas ‘cuz he normally demolishes ‘em both by himself. I think Hoeff here likes you!”
“Shuddup.” Hoeff stood up. “Hey, where’s the latrine in this place?”
“Back that way,” Ginn indicated with his paw, back in the general direction of the barracks. Sensing that the conversation was over, he scooped up the gifted pizza, gave Julian and Hurt a duck-nod of appreciation, and left them in peace.
Hoeff ambled along next to him.
“Too quiet, huh?” he murmured, once they were around the corner.
“Done a whole lot of what ‘yer doin,’ over the years.”
“…Does it get better?”
“Mostly, for most people. Gonna take a while, though. Still got any friends?”
“Most of the people I was close with died in the homeworld war. I…don’t exactly keep a distance with my unit, but…” Ginn trailed off. He didn’t really want to say it aloud, but he’d always stood slightly apart from what should have been his Brothers. Too many painful losses had made him shy about getting too close, especially after the casualties they’d taken fighting the Hunters.
But it suddenly occurred to him that maybe he’d fallen into a different trap without ever seeing it was there.
Hoeff nodded. “Well…I ain’t a gaoian, if you somehow didn’t notice. So I don’t know if it works the same. But the thing about this shit? The best friendships I’ve ever had were all people I served with. And in a weird way that includes that huge fucker back there. So, y’know… How are they sleeping?”
“Better than I do.”
“Yeah. That’ll happen.” Hoeff tapped the untouched pizza box in front of Ginn. “Here. Go make friends.”
“…I will. Thank you.”
They parted ways. Ginn returned to his dormitory, where the scent of fresh hot pizza woke several of his squadmates up and had them clustering around like curious cubs before they were even properly awake.
And an hour or so later, when he went back to bed feeling a little warmer and a little more secure, Ginn found that the quiet was a little easier to bear.
Date Point: The opening days of the first year of Liberation. The deep tunnels, a freed world
Ukusevi, Librarian of the archives at Old-Bent-Leg and Keeper of the Long Chant
Keepers had to meet occasionally. How else could they share and discuss their proposed additions to the Long Chant?
Such meetings had always posed a grave danger, before. If the Punishers—the Hunters—had found the gathered Keepers and devoured them, then much of the Penitent People’s history would have been lost. Even though it was all written down… It took a certain kind of skilled mind to organize the archives, to winnow through them in search of important details, to memorize the shape of it, to know where to search and what to keep in the mind, and to know how to shape it all into the Chant.
So, the meetings were rare… but necessary.
This one was more necessary than most, but also safer. Their chosen meeting spot was a deep tunnel, far below the territory now controlled by Gao forces. Once, it had been a mine, clawing the valuable lifeblood from their world to go to the Hunters. Once the rich seams had run out, the vicious overlords had left them behind and never looked back.
Now, among long-abandoned machines, deep under the surface, Ukusevi laid eyes on her fellow Keepers for the first time in half a year.
They began with a round of warm, fond embraces, welcomed the new young faces who were attending for the first time, and mourned for two who had not lived to see this moment. But by tradition, these gatherings were brief.
Ukusevi felt compelled to take charge as soon as they began .The moment they were all seated, she stood and surprised her fellows who had always known her as one of the quieter listeners.
“I must be bold this time,” she declared, stepping into the middle of their circle. “As you know, the Almighty saw fit to give me the duty of meeting these Gao and making what they call ‘First Contact.’ My mind has been greatly troubled since, and I fear we must discuss things which would normally be taboo. There are hard questions of faith and the nature of the Punishment to resolve.”
To her relief, Keeper Selkis immediately raised a hand to agree with her, and his voice was about the strongest ally Ukusevi could have asked for. He was the oldest, and the most learned, and had contributed more to the Chant than anyone else present.
“The end of the Punishment is here, and it hasn’t been at all like we hoped it would,” he intoned. “Ukusevi alludes to doubts I’m sure we all fear. Those doubts are historic fact. We must face them and record them.”
“Then I shall give voice to them,” Ukusevi replied. She took a deep breath, shut her eyes, and immersed herself in this last moment of sure footing before she leapt into the void. “What it… what if the last four hundred and seventeen years were not divine punishment?”
There were a few shocked noises, but it wasn’t the collective hurricane of outrage she’d feared. A lot of the Keepers bowed their heads and flattened their ears along their backs.
Emboldened, she pushed on. “What if the creatures we called the Punishers this whole time were just… conquerers? Malevolent evil mortals who found us and, being stronger than us, did this to us for their own selfish reasons. What if the reason we and our predecessors have struggled for so long to identify the Great Sin is because…” she had to pause and take a deep breath to summon the courage to speak the next words. “…Because there never was one?”
Keeper Umilivi stood up, trembling with rage and disgust. Ukusevi didn’t know if she was about to storm away into the tunnels, or level an accusatory finger and start shouting.
She did neither. In fact, it took her three attempts just to coax a sound out of her throat. “You want all that suffering… to be for nothing?” she asked, in a voice knotted and tangled by emotion.
“I want the truth,” Ukusevi replied. “Isn’t that what we are? Isn’t that what we’re for? Recording and remembering the truth, whatever it happens to be?”
“You’re saying that we’ve failed in that duty up until now. All the Keepers, and the Long Chant itself!” The logjam in Umilivi’s throat seemed to have cleared a little.
Ukusevi shook her head, feeling more confident in her thoughts now. It was strange: waiting for and anticipating this argument had been so hard, but now that she was here and having it, now that she had committed to it, the fear was ebbing away to be replaced by… not certainty, but conviction.
“No,” she said. “We’ve always recorded what we thought was true. But the core message of the Chant has always been humility, and our own ability to fail. Now we have the chance to see the truth we already recorded in a new light!”
Selkis’ head bobbed in agreement. “Are we going to be so arrogant as to think that we could do no wrong?” he asked. “We who have lived our whole lives preaching that the Almighty is punishing us for our wrongness? We of all people have no business pretending to infallibility.”
“Unless these Gao are agents of doubt!” Umilivi insisted. “How can you know this is not a test? How can you know you are not failing that test?”
“How can you know that we are not passing it?” Selkis retorted. “How can you know anything? Here and now, in this time and place, is exactly the moment for doubt!”
Ukusevi injected her own, quieter voice into the echoes of his outburst. “In the end, we cannot know,” she said. “That’s what it means to be faithful. And frankly, I refuse to believe in a god who is capable of wanton, purposeless cruelty.
“We never did!” Umilivi replied. “The whole point of the Punishment is that it is not wanton or purposeless!”
“Then why are we being punished for a crime we cannot identify, in an age so long ago?”
“Maybe we were still committing it!” One of the few who’d been nodding frantically along in agreement with Umilivi suggested. His voice was shaky with uncertainty, though.
“Your tale grows less tenuous as you tell it, and I think you know it,” Selkis told him.
“A story must be believable, and belief is the first step toward faith,” Ukusevi added. “I find…I cannot believe such a tale, anymore. Not in the face of the Gao and how easily they brushed aside our tormentors. Not in the face of what they and their friends the Humans have said… One of them said something I have meditated on at length. Garr-avf of the Gao said ‘Helplessness is like a heavy blanket: It smothers at the same time as it comforts.’ He meant that we have been asleep, and that it is time to wake up… but that we will not want to.”
There weren’t nods around the circle, but rather a lot of thoughtful looks. Umilivi reached up and scratched at a sore on her ear as she considered that sentiment.
“…You say that as though you believe it should go in the Chant,” she said after a quiet moment.
“I do.” Ukusevi turned and picked up her journal. “I have written a stanza. Will the Keepers hear it?”
A quick show of hands indicated that they would. For a moment, Ukusevi’s nerves returned. She had never contributed a stanza to the Long Chant before. Nothing of sufficient import had ever happened at Old-Bent-Leg to warrant inclusion.
She quieted her jitters with a deep breath, put a finger to the first line of what she had written, and read the Chant.
Date Point:16y11m2w2d AV
Mrwrki Station, Erebor system, Uncharted Space
Nanofactories could do incredible things, when used properly.
They weren’t the most efficient way to build things, as such. A specialized assembly line designed to produce a specific item could produce that item much faster than the nanofactory would. But when it came to assembling a small number of novel, new or experimental things, nanofactories were the proper go-to. Prototype satellites, for instance, were exactly the sort of thing they were perfect for.
Given that the satellites in question were designed to trace down the characteristic energy signatures of the Hierarchy’s relay network, they were technically Darcy’s responsibility. She’d be the first one to get a look at the data they generated, the first one to write a report and make a recommendation…
Which was why she was the one who got to figuratively press the button that turned them on.
It wasn’t a moment of much fanfare. She sat at the desk, she put her hand on the mouse, moved it, clicked once…
“…How long should this take?”
“It’s a big-ass sky, but first results should be in by tomorrow morning.” Sergeant Lee looked pleased with himself. He’d set up a little animation to show off the satellites as their delivery drones hung them in a concentric series of massive orbits around Erebor. Each of the satellites was about as big—and about the same shape and general appearance—as the monolith from Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001, and consisted mostly of field emitters.
After all, when it came to absorbing and emitting energy, forcefields were basically the supreme technology. They could handily do both, and could function-switch in milliseconds. The satellites could, on a human timescale, simultaneously power themselves by absorbing solar radiation, trawl the skies for the subtle signs of the Hierarchy’s strongholds, and transmit the gathered data back to Mrwrki for analysis.
Darcy nodded, glad of that answer. She’d had her head down on the observatory project for a while, and suddenly found herself with nothing to do but wait for results. Rather than leaving her off-balance, it was an honest relief to be able to set the project aside at least for one night.
“Drink?” she suggested.
They retired to the station’s small bar, Kirk’s. Named for the owner and proprietor, who seemed genuinely happy to have bowed out of making the decisions and being a driving force, especially now that he was getting old.
Well. “Old” was a relative term. Kirk had been in his prime twenty years ago when he’d been involved in the Outlook on Forever incident. His political career and his time on first Sanctuary and now Mrwrki had consumed his middle age. He probably had another twenty or thirty years in him, but he was definitely slowing down.
Darcy wondered how he managed to stay so upbeat and positive considering he hadn’t seen one of his own kind in several years, but in that regard the Rrrrtktktp’ch were genuinely alien. They lived solitary lives, remaining aloof from their Vzk’tk cousins and keeping each other at four arms’ length except for mating. Kirk claimed to have fathered a child at one point, in his youth. Just the one. He’d shrugged when the conversation came up, as though that wasn’t particularly important.
In short, if Kirk was typical for his species, then Rrrtk didn’t really need each other. Whatever social itch he may have was adequately scratched by the humans around him.
And it had to be said, once he’d got his eye in, a being with four arms and natural ambidexterity could make for a pretty deft bartender.
“You two look pleased with yourselves,” he commented as Darcy and Lee entered.
“Project phase complete,” Lee announced.
“Well, that is good news. Care to celebrate?”
Lee glanced at Darcy, who nodded, and a few busy moments later Kirk was preparing two drinks at once. An old-fashioned for Darcy, and a beer for Lee.
“Have you been following the election news?” he asked conversationally as they settled on bar stools.
“Too busy. Who won?”
Darcy tutted in irritation. “Well, there goes half our funding…”
“C’mon, it won’t be that bad will it?” Lee ventured.
“Half is optimistic,” Darcy declared, suddenly grateful she’d ordered a strong drink. “The man’s a pacifist.”
“You make that sound like a dirty word,” Kirk observed. “Surely everyone likes peace?”
“A pacifist isn’t just ‘somebody who likes peace,’ they’re somebody who believes that war and violence are inherently unjustifiable. Which in the face of a war against not one but two foes who’d happily see us all dead, that we’re currently winning, is just… Ugh, never mind. I’ll give myself a migraine if I get all political.”
“Yes. I left politics behind for a very good reason,” Kirk agreed. “Winning, you think?”
“Hell yeah we’re winning. Come on, you watch the news, you have to know about that Hunter system that got liberated…”
“Mordor,” Kirk’s head slowly dipped in his version of a nod as he handed over Lee’s beer and peeled a slice of lemon peel into Darcy’s drink. “That makes two systems named for the works of Tolkien, I believe. I wonder how many there will be eventually?”
Lee shook his head. “Nah, Mordor won’t keep that name for long. It’ll go on the chart as whatever the natives call it… poor bastards.”
Darcy looked around. “…I haven’t heard from Lewis and his team, actually. What are they up to? Something new?”
“Urgent something came in from the brass at AEC. A new application of forcefield tech they’re worried about.”
“The HEAT lost one of their operators to it.”
“Jesus.” That was a bit like hearing Superman was dead, as far as Darcy was concerned. The last time a HEAT operator fell had been the Battle for Gao.
“Yeah. Now if it can do that reliably, and considering how rare and valuable those guys are, and the new POTUS and all the rest of it…”
Darcy accepted her drink off Kirk and took a healthy sip, nodding solemnly. “Yeah. What would we do without the HEAT?”
“Gao would have fallen. There’d be no Great Father without them. A lot of people wouldn’t be alive right now. Like… a lot of people. Billions.”
“And the Hierarchy would still be active on Earth. They made all the difference at Marsa Alam.” Darcy shivered internally at that thought. When Big Hotel’s network had been unravelled, they’d found it had spread all over the Middle East and south-east Asia. Biodrones had turned up as far afield as Indonesia and embedded in a troubling number of governments, some of them nuclear powers. That and the thought of a Hierarchy spaceship free to roam inside the Sol containment field were, as far as she was concerned, more than adequate to justify the HEAT’s existence. Throw in the fact that the Gao as a species only existed thanks to them, and…
Her train of thought was interrupted by her phone chirping at her. Unconsciously, she fished it out of her jacket’s inside pocket, flipped it over, and unlocked it.
The characters on the screen were the most welcome bit of good news she could possibly have asked for:
< :-) o/ >
Date point: 16y11m3w AV
The Clawhold, Liberated world, former Hunter space
Ginn, Foot-soldier first class, Grand Army of the Gao
One could only play so many games of Ta’Shen before they lost their mind.
It wasn’t that Ginn was particularly eager to face down cloaked Hunter death machines or a slavering horde of crazed monsters boiling up from their underground burrow. The Clawhold was actually pretty nice, in an austere and tightly regulated way. At least, it was a place where he didn’t have to wear full body protective equipment all the time which made it several steps up on the field. The lack of bullets, fusion claws and drooling tooth-lined jaws coming his way was a bonus too.
But Keeda’s left nut it was dull. Though his Ta’Shen winnings were steadily growing…
He’d been reassigned. Inevitable, really. One didn’t dime out one’s officers to the Grandfather of Stoneback and General of the Grand Army without a few consequences, and Ginn’s excuse that he hadn’t known he was talking to Grandfather Vark hadn’t been persuasive. He was on administrative duties now.
Which really, was just proving Vark’s point. Ginn was good at what he did, so taking him away from that right as things were at their most intense? The Hunters might not have any hope of victory now, but they were still lashing out fiercely, determined to do as much damage as they could before they were all hunted down and crushed. The war needed every able body, and here Ginn was getting a crash education in paperwork rather than manning his gun like he should have been.
He was young! Fit and strong! Well, strong for a normal male, anyway…but he trained hard! He had a good nose and sharp claws, a sense for how to fight…
“Make sure you sort all the accessions by date, because pretty much every Clanless has the same few names…”
Blah, blah, blah. He couldn’t resent the somewhat older male who was introducing him to the intricacies of the Grand Army’s obscenely impenetrable personnel records system, but he gave off the general air of somebody whose highest aspiration in life was to have all his pencils sharpened to the exact same length.
That was uncharitable, Ginn chastised himself. Teffik probably had a lovely personality.
In a jar somewhere.Stored safely away next to his motivation and fighting spirit, in a box never to be opened.
Fyu. And he was Ginn’s immediate superior now. That was an oppressive thought.
Ginn was about to make his excuses and go get something to eat “to help his concentration” when Teffik’s physical and spiritual opposite prowled into the office unannounced. It was Vark, looking energetic and somewhat pleased with himself. Ginn found himself standing up immediately out of respect, but Teffik’s response was practically groveling.
“Oh, hush up. Relax! Knew I’d find ‘ya here, Ginn! Take it ‘yer leadership’s still bein’ stupid?”
“The last time I intimated as such, I got reassigned.”
“Essactly! An’ ‘yer gettin’ reassigned again! C’mon lil’ guy, ‘yer my assistant now!”
Well, Ginn didn’t need to hear that more than once. Vark turned to head out the door without a second word, and Ginn didn’t even spare Teffik a glance in following him.
“I feel bad just leaving my unit…”
He found himself following behind at a somewhat too-brisk pace while Vark more or less cheerily bulldozed past everyone in the hallways. He didn’t seem to notice.
“Happens allatime. Don’ worry, I’ve made my displeasure clear an’ ‘yer old occifers are gonna get’em some remedial education in how ‘ta lead infantry.” Vark chuffed deep in his broad chest, “I imagine they’ll find it an outstanding opportunity ‘ta learn!”
It didn’t take them long to reach the backdoor, where vehicular traffic was handled. Fortunately Ginn was in pretty good shape these days, so it didn’t take him long to catch his breath. “Not to sound ungrateful sir, but why’s it even worth your attention?”
“Duties of bein’ in charge. A billion things that goes wrong in a big army, yijao? You see somethin’ wrong, if ‘ya have the power ‘ta fix it, or at least get it fixed, you do it.”
Ginn took a moment to consider his new boss. Stonebacks were a little overwhelming even at their most laid-back, and Vark was Grandfather of his Clan, a position only given to an experienced old-timer who embodied his Clan’s ideals. He smelled of plenty of years, wood smoke, gun oil and limestone cement. He looked like he’d been run through a hammermill a few times and had an immense, craggy strength forcibly beaten into him.
And not even a week ago, the Stonebacks hadn’t even had a Grandfather to Ginn’s knowledge.
“Okay…uh, can I ask a question, sir?”
“When did you become Grandfather? And how?”
“How is easy! I survived a duel ‘gainst Fiin! Well,” Vark chittered somewhere in the infrasonic, “there’s a lot more ‘ta it than that, but that’s the most importantest part at the end. Tradition, yijao? An’ also a Champion’s gotta trust his Grandfather’s got his back. As ‘fer when, been about a week now. Ain’t like there’s a ceremony or nothin’. An’ I need staff!”
“I’d like if some o’ my staff–like my personal aide–weren’t unfamiliar with the concept o’ mud an’ blood. Comes with a promotion an’ a big salary increase too. Sound good?”
“No objections here, sir.”
“Excellent. You understand what your duties will be?”
“I’ll be your first point of contact, control access to you, manage your diary, appointments and expenses, make your travel arrangements and liaise with your other staff.”
“More’n that, but yeah. You’ll also be a bit of an errand boy, an’ you’ll need ‘ta deal with Champions, their staff, the Great Father–”
“The Great Father.”
“Yup! That gonna be a problem?”
Vark chittered again. “Don’ worry, he’s actually pretty friendly. Anyway.”
They reached the office that Vark had commandeered, and he gestured inside. “Speakin’ of my diary an’ stuff…”
“Right. I’ll get to studying it.”
“‘Yer not my secretary, but that’d be a good idea, yeah. Mostly I need you as my point man.”
Ginn duck-nodded. The truth was, he didn’t mind. Compared to the mind-numbing torment he’d been facing a few minutes ago, memorizing the important dates in Grandfather Vark’s diary would be trivial, and the rest of the job promised to be much more interesting.
He wasn’t one for overweening gratitude, necessarily, but a small acknowledgement that Vark had just pulled his tail out of a slow and excruciating fire was definitely in order.
“I’ll do my best. And… thank you for the opportunity.”
“‘Yer welcome. Get the homework outta the way, and you’ll start properly in the morning. Bright and early at first bell, yijao?”
And with that, Vark left Ginn to prepare himself. There were three desks crammed into the office: Ginn picked the one that seemed presently unused, called up the Grandfather’s diary and appointments, and got to studying.
He had a feeling his life was about to get far more interesting than he hoped.
Date Point: 17y AV
Mrwrki Station, Erebor System, Uncharted Space
“My dude!” A high five was in order.
It wasn’t that Lewis had been expecting to fail. Scotch Creek generally knew what they were talking about, and if they forwarded the design for a new kind of deep-sky observation satellite tuned to detect the subtle signs of a Hierarchy relay then he fully expected it to work. Hell, they’d even been given a patch of sky to search where a relay was known to be.
But still. When things went right like that, it felt so fuckin’ good. So he traded the promised high-five with Doctor Torayasu and then flung himself into his chair to take a good hard look at it.
Lewis had picked up a mixed bag of all sorts of arcane scientific and technological knowledge over his years on Mrwrki. In some ways he was one of the most highly and eccentrically educated men the human race had ever produced. He held no doctorate or formal qualifications, had conducted no peer-reviewed research, he was firmly Mister Beverote on every official document…
But a lot of those official documents were patents and blueprints. His fingerprints were in the DNA of most space tech invented in the last five years, a mixed metaphor that brought a small smile to his face as he watched the data scrolling up his monitor.
“Trippy.” Relays did fucky things to spacetime. He’d seen the footage from the Irujzen expedition, the way the world got twisted up all wrong above the relay. In the footage, it had just looked like a hair-thin vertical line of bright light. In person, apparently, the eye would just saccade straight over the thing and not look straight at it. As though that particular bit of reality wasn’t there to look at, but the mind could still infer its existence just like the human eye’s blind spot.
“Tell me about it,” Torayasu agreed. “You know, moments like this make me optimistic?”
Lewis nodded. “Yeah, dude.”
“Huh. Usually people ask me why.”
“No, I get it. I mean, look at this shit. Proves we aren’t even close to running out of science.”
“As nice as that is,” Lucy chimed up from her station on the other side of the lab, where she was going over some of the materials trials that were more her field, “Aren’t you two trying to pin down a specific set of coordinates?”
“Right, yeah.” Lewis stopped marvelling at the sheer fascinating weirdness of the signal, and instead turned his attention to the subtle ways it varied across the vast scope of the satellite network they’d launched.
At the speed of light, and considering that the network formed a sensor nearly 20 AUs across, it was going to take a few hours for them to be able to really start getting a decent parallax as they tracked the same events in the flow of data across the whole thing, but that wasn’t a problem with the EM spectrum signals from that cluster. A telescope 20 AU across had no trouble at all in figuring out the precise relative position of all the stars in that distant part of the galaxy.
“My guess? That G-class star right there,” he predicted after a few seconds.
“Temperate planet, you think?”
“Yup. On Irujzen they had a coal mining operation. Big H kinda got set in their ways, too, y’know? Seems like if they do one thing somewhere, they’ll do the same thing somewhere else.”
“That’s kinda sad when you think about it…” Lucy mused. Lewis glanced over at her and perked up. Their marriage had grown comfortable, which wasn’t as horrible a fate as he’d have guessed back when he was single. Okay, so the mere sight of her didn’t raise his pulse any longer, but instead she had the opposite effect and made the world a calmer, safer, better place simply by existing.
And he loved listening to her think aloud. She saw him watching and shrugged. “Well, they’ve been around for millions of years. They’ve outlasted hundreds of other species. They’ve been really successful! But they’re so stuck in their rut that here we are totally destroying them. They should be untouchable, but instead being around for so long has made them… I don’t know. Lazy, I guess.”
“…Yeah,” Lewis agreed.
“I hope that’s not the fate of all species that last for so long. If I imagine a future where we’ve been around for a million years, I like to think we’d keep changing and adapting and we’d barely recognize ourselves… I don’t like the idea that the only options are stagnate or die.”
“I think that’s a problem our friend outside is gonna face, not you or me,” Lewis replied, jerking his head in the vague direction of the outer hull and the sapient Von Neumann swarm outside.
“Oh, yeah, about that giant-ass elephant in the room we’ve been ignoring!” Lucy said, and pushed her chair back from her desk. “How come you’re so chill about it? I thought VN swarms scared you?”
“The Entity’s kind of an old friend at this point, I guess.” Lewis shrugged. “I dunno. It ain’t just a machine. Nobody programmed it. Shit, it started out as a human, and there’s a lotta human left. A lotta good human. You know how much Darcy loves it.”
“Loves it? That seems kinda strong.”
“You saw how much she fretted while it was gone, and how she lit up when it came back. She’s like that thing’s mama.” Lewis shrugged. “Fact is, prob’ly the only reason this galaxy isn’t already crawling with VN machines is ‘cuz of Big H, so they’ve done some good there at least. And I bet you there’s other galaxies out there just full of ‘em, and it might take a long-ass time to travel between galaxies but I bet machines could do it. So maybe VN swarms are kinda inevitable, in which case I’m glad the one we wound up with can remember bein’ organic and actually values life and says hello by smiling at us.”
“And knows that it can stop,” Torayasu added.
“I guess that’s a lot of silver lining…” Lucy agreed.
“Enough for me,” Lewis shrugged. He smiled at her, she smiled back, then tilted her head in a small but subtle way which his well-developed Husband Senses told him meant she wanted to get back to work. So he stood up.
“Love you,” Lucy thanked him, and turned back to her work. Torayasu declined with a shake of his head, and went back to watching spacetime do its wacky shit far away in a distant corner of the galaxy.
There was a lot still to do before they had a strong, confirmed signal they could pass on to AEC and the SOR could use it to do their thing, but Lewis didn’t care. They’d just gathered data that would form the foundation for the next phase of theoretical physics, and tracked down another stronghold of humanity’s oldest and worst enemies.
Not bad for an afternoon’s work.
Date Point: 17y2w AV
High Mountain Fortress, the Northern Plains, Gao
Naydra, Great Mother of the Gao
Grief varied by species and by personality, and Naydra had seen a lot of grief in her life. She’d felt a lot of grief, too.
She and Daar were alike in that they dealt with grief through action. Naydra had spent the last several years grieving for a life that had been, and every day brought a reminder of how simple things once were…
And now, on the day of her coronation, she felt some closure for it all. Hers was a much simpler affair than Daar’s had been; the election results came in, she was announced as Mother-Supreme. The Great Father proclaimed her as his True Mate and Great Mother of the Gao, the Conclave bowed and offered submission…and that was more or less it.
At her request, her ceremony was a smaller affair. Not small, though. There were still the Clans, each bearing a pointed gift to remind her of, and represent, her responsibilities. There was still Gyotin with his flair for ceremony and his intense understanding of just how valuable ceremony really was.
The timing was significant, too. Daar had almost literally come straight off the battlefield to attend the ceremony, having personally crushed the first of the major (and most dangerous) Hunter strongholds on the liberated world. The video footage of him at combat, leading the charge and quite literally breaking the remaining Alphas into pieces with his own two paws…
That footage had hardly begun to circulate when he returned home in quiet triumph, his grief still heavy on him, but at least he had done something with it. He had a victory to take the worst of its thorns and barbs away.
He took a few days “off,” as much as he could. There was a gap in his schedule between the liberation and his favor for Arthur Sartori, and he used it as an opportunity to relax a little: a few visits to the Commune, some time spent on his farm. He even spent one afternoon joining a road repair crew as they gave the northern isthmus highway a much-needed and long overdue resurfacing, because Daar’s idea of relaxing fun was anybody else’s idea of back-breaking labor.
Naydra could see how healing it was for him. By the evening of the fifth day, when it came time to perform that favor for Sartori, he was more or less back to himself.
“From one battlefield to another…” he mused, as he considered his reflection in a tailoring mirror. Naydra had inserted a small joke there by picking out a Human-style tuxedo for one of the suggested outfits. “Why do I gotta wear this? I look better in a Highmountain kilt, y’know…”
Naydra gave him a sly ear-flick. “I think the bow tie suits you.” She wasn’t lying, of course…but her reasoning wasn’t entirely innocent. After all, his neck was so incredibly thick, they’d needed to tailor one just for him…and they still didn’t have a collar to go with it.
Daar was more focused on discomfort. “Izzat what they’re called?” he said as he pulled at it to loosen it a bit, which was just enough to break the bow. “Looks like a depressed butterfly landed on my throat. An’ I still look better in a kilt! Shows off m’legs!”
And in a welcome sign of his improving mood, he showed off the goods for her, as was his eminently predictable way. And she had to admit…he wasn’t wrong at all, oh no…
“Fine, fine. The kilt it is.” Naydra gestured, and the assistants swept away all the rejected outfits and left them alone. “Fortunately, it’s formal wear among Humans too.”
“Yeah! Highland’s people wear ‘em!”
“How is he?”
“Doin’ better. Don’t blame him ‘fer bein’ shook up, though.”
Naydra duck-nodded and considered their outfits. This whole adventure was tickling her sense of mischief, which just made her like Sartori all the more. While Daar dressed, she put the final touches on her own outfit.
“Do you like the hat?” she asked, pinning it to her scalp at a precisely calculated angle.
Daar glanced over and considered it. “…It’s fascinatin’. Where’d you get it?”
“I ordered it from a milliner in London. A custom rush order. I thought it would be appropriate to wear this outdoors, and the tiara afterwards.”
“It looks nice on you. Diff’rent.”
“And you look very handsome yourself,” she said, approvingly. His final look was simple and harked back to Fyu’s era: just a well-fitted, traditional Clan kilt with a plain cut, one which didn’t get in the way and let his magnificent physique and fur do the talking. He looked… warriorly.
“What about you?” she asked, rewinding the conversation a little. “You were quite shook up too.”
Daar paused, then sighed heavily. “…I’m gonna miss the shit outta Blac,” he admitted. “An’ I dunno if I’m ever gonna shake the feelin’ like it was my orders got him killed…”
Naydra rested her paw lightly on his back and stroked it reassuringly, saying nothing.
“…But we go from one battlefield to another,” Daar finished. “The mission don’t end. Just what kinda shit we’re wadin’ into.”
“At least I’m wading into this one with you. And it might even be fun!”
“It will be! Just think, you hardly ever get to be subtle, and I know you like to be sneaky and sly from time to time…”
He chittered, a very welcome sound after the last few weeks of brooding. “‘Yer right. An’ I think we’re ready.”
“Nearly.” She inspected him for a moment, adjusted his kilt so that it was perfectly aligned and straight—males of every species were simply blind to the way their own clothes were supposed to be worn—and decided that she was satisfied. He’d been bathed, combed, cleansed, groomed, and now tailored to the highest standard he could attain. “…You’ll do.”
He chittered again, and took her arm. “‘Kay. Once more unto the breach.”
“That’s the spirit.”
An interesting day awaited them both.
Date Point: 17y2w AV
US Capitol Building, Washington DC, USA, Earth
It was a clear morning on the National Mall, but biting cold, and the weather over the last few days had been heavy snowfall. The crowd was a sea of thick, colorful coats, scarves, warm hats, and gloved hands with flags in them, standing on ground that had been knee-deep in snow when the sun had set last night.
A battalion of unsung heroes had put in an incredible effort to clear it ahead of the Inauguration, and the effort hadn’t gone to waste. The crowd was pretty sizable. Sartori was trying not to be petty by comparing it to the one from his own inauguration, years ago, but in his heart of hearts he hoped it was a little smaller.
At the front of the dais, behind a semicircle of bulletproof glass, one hand was raised, the other placed on a Bible, and less than a minute later the words “so help me God” marked the moment when the incumbency of President Arthur Sartori came to a quiet close, and the incumbency of President Beau Chambliss began.
It wasn’t an easy thing for Arthur to let go of. Not when there were so many things he could congratulate himself on having achieved in office, but so many more that he’d only nearly achieved.
Then again, even with another eight years he’d probably still have been in the same position. That was the nature of the work. There was always something else to do. Always something to let go of that he didn’t want to.
Hopefully the melancholy would fade with time.
Of course, he did have the satisfaction of seeing a certain power move he’d cooked up come to fruition. Nothing too big, just…a gentle reminder of certain realities. From a former President to his successor and—surprisingly—growing friend.
Sartori and Chambliss had quite opposite ideas about certain things, but during the brief time they’d worked with each other to handle the transition, Sartori had found himself growing to like the other man. Chambliss was no idealogue, nor a cowering pacifist. He seemed genuinely interested in improving the lot of America’s disadvantaged, and clearly felt strongly that the money that had been going to the Department of the Air Force, to the AEC, and to programs like the SOR and the line of San Diego class warships, could be better spent elsewhere.
He was dead wrong about that, but honestly wrong. Hence Sartori’s little gentle statement, here at the inauguration.
One of the quirks of Presidential transitions was the inaugural committees involved with planning and executing the many and varied ceremonial theatre surrounding the event. As had been a long and informal tradition, the outgoing President and the President-elect jointly planned many of the details… Including who sat in the background for the centerpiece of the day: the stage upon which the President-elect took the oath of office, and became the new President.
Which was why every shot of Chambliss had him framed and rather heftily out-massed by the hulking furry presence of the Great Father of the Gao.
That would, of course, be generating an absolute flurry of commentary on the surviving news programs, all of which were unquestionably in favor of Chambliss. The time had long passed where television news pretended to any neutrality. But even they wouldn’t be able to ignore the imagery. Normally, a head of state would want to remain perfectly neutral about these things…
And so Daar had been. Much to the shock of the more hostile media, from the moment he and Naydra had arrived on Earth they had been nothing but smooth and statesmanlike. But the image of him looming in the background as Chambliss took the oath of office was going to stick, and Sartori couldn’t really have asked for a more perfect way to leave a pointed message for his successor.
There’s no hiding from the greater galaxy.
The Great Father’s presence was of course softened and tempered by another: Naydra, Great Mother of the Gao. While the message she sent by her presence might be characteristically subtler than Daar’s, it was no less potent. She was the living embodiment of her species’ women and children after all. She represented a future the Gao simply would not have had if not for the efforts and sacrifice of humans from all the Allied militaries.
Then there was what she’d done with her emergency protective pack, a sensible precaution for any Gao visiting Earth, be they mighty or meek. Where Daar was wearing his openly on his hip, Naydra’s had been cunningly turned into a fashion accessory by the simple expedient of incorporating it into her rather fetching hat.
Daar meanwhile was wearing what was apparently a traditional Highmountain kilt. It looked quite dashing on him, actually. No doubt the Internet memes were going to be worth following.
Their time to shine, however, came later, after the applause and the speech and the waving to the crowd and cameras, when the VIPs retired from public view and the genteel, stately celebrations continued in a more select environment.
Modern inaugural balls were a delightful mix of the old and the new. There was dancing, which both Naydra and Daar were surprisingly accomplished at. They taught the guests a few Gaoian dances too, much to the delight of everyone. There were also lots of selfies. Daar waged a remarkably successful charm assault, mugging for the cameras and answering questions, being as approachable as he could be…but even then, he was deferential. The event wasn’t about him after all, and he did his level best not to steal Chambliss’ thunder…
And everyone knew it, too. Sartori had his gentle revenge.
The rest was in Daar and Naydra’s hands…
Date Point: 17y2w AV
Grissom AFB, Franklin, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
Brigadier General Rylee Jackson
Hard to believe she hadn’t actually flown a real operation in more than a year. Not a lot of need or opportunity to, at the Pentagon.
But, now that the election was out of the way and her PR services were no longer so critically necessary, Rylee had finally got her wish: she was back where she belonged, at the 955th. Commanding it, in fact.
Which meant she got to fly again. She’d kept herself qualified as a command pilot, taken all the simulator time she needed. She’d kept her flight hours up, stayed on top of the briefings…
And all that paid off. Here she was, wing commander of the 955th Fighter Wing, recently renamed and re-purposed as a full-scale space combat wing.
And every single pilot under her command had kills to their name. There were no shortage of Hunters in the black. God knew there was no shortage of them just in this system they’d allegedly abandoned.
The world and system once jokingly named “Mordor” was theoretically liberated, but the truth was that the Hunters were going to be a long-term chronic festering wound here. But, the more aggressively they treated that wound now, the less it would fester. Hopefully.
Which was why she was due to command a sweep-and-clear through the system’s second asteroid belt. It would, in fact, be the largest Human action in the system since the invasion had started. A whole asteroid belt needed a lot of ships to properly scour, and there just weren’t enough Gaoian Voidrippers available to do a thorough job. The 955th and USS San Diego would be there to make up the difference.
And, seeing as it was a lot easier and cheaper to take humans offworld than it was to bring aliens to Earth, they were making their final preparations at Grissom Air Force Base, outside the American colony of Franklin on Cimbrean.
Rylee had taken the chance to inspect the place when she’d arrived the day before. Franklin was very different to Folctha: where the British colony was an honest-to-God planned city, and not a small one at that, Franklin was sprawling and chaotic, a focal point for the diffuse stuff happening in the surrounding hundreds of miles. It was a place where unbelievably long and powerful trains offloaded grain, beans, coal, steel, rare earths and uranium, where the pipelines delivered oil and gas… and nearly all of it flowed through the jump complex back to the USA.
It was long and sprawling with no city center in particular, a military base at one end, and a highway running right through it out to the dozen or so satellite towns. Folctha was walkable, with excellent signage. If you lived in or near Franklin…you needed a car.
It was a very American town.
The main reason to hold the briefing there was that it wasn’t Earth. That made it a lot easier to coordinate an inter-species operation: Gao could visit Earth, but it wasn’t without risk. A lot of Gao were deathly allergic to grass pollens and nobody knew why. Even Daar had once had a scare with a fungal infection after he went digging in the dirt. Why worry about all that when they could just jump the humans offworld? Besides, a few of the new lieutenants needed to experience Frontline for the first time, too…
The Gaoians seemed extra motivated today; probably that was because of the footage that had hit the Armed Forces Network recently of the Great Father doing…well, what a titanic murderbear did. The ready room was noisy when Rylee ducked into it as human and Gao alike bragged and bullshitted and generally tried to work out some kind of pecking order of who was more awesome.
They each had their points, after all…too bad she couldn’t play those games anymore.
Somebody was paying attention though. A hefty bellow of “Room, a-ten-shut!” promptly shut them all up and brought them all to their feet as Rylee entered.
“Thank you, please take your seats.”
Chairs scuffed and squealed as they sat down again.
“This is a battle our Gaoian colleagues have already effectively won. My hat’s off to them for a quick and decisive victory. But the battle is not yet over, and the war has only begun,” she started. “There’s a lot of the system that remains unknown territory. We know the Hunters had extensive mining operations in both asteroid belts, and it’s not clear how much they took with them when they retreated, how much is still there, and how much is still occupied by hostiles. Our patrol’s purpose is to answer those questions, in a decisive and final way. We will destroy every artificial structure we find, without exception. Our initial targets have already been identified, as Officer Teyma will now explain.”
Teyma was one of the more interesting Gao that Rylee had ever met. She was, unusually for a female, a member of one of the male Clans—namely Whitecrest. She was a full rank-holding member too, having taken the Clan’s secretive Dark Rites. Her first duty was to the Clan of Females, of course, but she served that duty in military intelligence.
Rylee was no expert on Gaoian attractiveness, but she’d seen the way some of the males looked at Teyma; men were the same everywhere. Apparently the Clan’s iconic fur pattern was very fetching on a female.
Teyma, of course, was all business. “Our current surveillance suggests most of the remaining Hunter presence is sheltering within the asteroid belt,” she explained, smoothly taking over. “Excess heat signatures around these large asteroid clusters—” she gestured at a new slide showing false-color sensor imagery, “—are our best lead for initial targets. We anticipate all the usual Hunter shenanigans: cloaks, hit-and-run tactics, and so forth. We’ve not yet seen any major new developments with weaponized shielding, though the heat blooms I just mentioned suggest heavy industry, which in turn suggests they may be working to change that. Our target prioritization obviously favors recon of these heat blooms and then destroying them, if possible.”
There was more than that, of course. Teyma spent several minutes going through slides, recounting the known classes and varieties of Hunter ships known to be operating in the target system, the kinds of defenses and countermeasures that previous Hunter facilities had exhibited and all the other important details.
All of the male Gaoians paid her rapt attention. It was all Rylee could do not to roll her eyes. Oh well…at least her pilots were paying attention to the intelligence for a change.
As intelligence presentations went, though, Teyma’s was swift and efficient. Rylee thanked her with a nod and resumed her briefing after the final slide.
“One point I want to address specifically is the possibility of structures that our weapons can’t hurt, say because they’re buried inside a big asteroid. Such things will probably require a HEAT response, so if you find such a thing, you establish a perimeter and call it in. Other than that, your specific targets and instructions will be handled in the frag-outs, as per usual. Does anyone have any questions for me?”
Nobody ever had questions for a brigadier general giving a mission brief, of course, but she waited just in case someone was smart (or stupid) enough to ask a relevant question.
“Alright. Flight leads, you know the drill. First wave departs in three hours. Dismissed.”
The next couple of hours were spent with her flight planning, an hour of rest time—hardly restful, though she did her best to sit back with her earphones in and listen to some music and try to just chill and store up energy ahead of the long work to come—and an hour in biomed being suited up and made ready.
After which… her Firebird awaited.
It felt good to run through her pre-flight checks, feel and hear the distinctive way a Firebird woke up around her. She always imagined it stretching and yawning, flexing its talons and yawning before settling down and sitting up attentively, ready and alert. There was a lot of sharp, lethal power stored behind her in the capacitor banks, and all of it was now awake and poised to go to work.
It had been far too long. She grinned behind her breathing mask as everything fell into place, as they were confirmed all ready, as the mission was officially good to go.
She hit the button, and flew again.
Date Point: 17y2w AV
National Building Museum, Washington DC, USA, Earth
President Beau Chambliss
Daar was a monster. A heroic monster, perhaps, who’d done the terrible things he had out of necessity, or so his supporters claimed… but a monster nonetheless. Those supposedly necessary things included nuking several major cities on his homeworld, fighting bloody-pawed at the head of his armies and special forces, and personally intervening in a few high-level capital punishment cases, where he had dispensed extreme justice with his own paws and claws.
All in all, the Great Father was a bloody-handed slaughterer with about the highest personal death count in the galaxy; again, he had personally pressed the button that snuffed out billions of his people. Hopelessly biodroned or not…And it was this man who was present at Beau’s inaugural ball, at Sartori’s invitation and with the approval of several other people whom it would have been impolitic to ignore. It was difficult to fathom how so many important and powerful people could feel so comfortable around him.
Or maybe it wasn’t so difficult to fathom, and spoke dark volumes about their characters.
Then there was Naydra. The newly-coronated Great Mother of the Gao was harder for Beau to figure out: everything he’d seen, read and experienced about her said she was an optimistic, bright soul with a nurturing and comforting nature. She’d certainly been a happy force so far in the evening, with everyone she met walking away smiling for the experience.
Still… She was married, in the Gaoian sense, to a man known for summarily eviscerating his political opposition. Not once, either. Twice. So she couldn’t be all nice.
Nevertheless, It would have been a snub not to dance with her, once the first dance with the new First Lady was done. So, out of diplomatic need, Beau entrusted Catherine to Daar, and took Naydra’s hand as the orchestra struck up the next dance.
She danced differently to a human, thanks to the shorter legs, but not awkwardly so. In fact, she was quite an easy and forgiving dancing partner, which of course made it easy for her to make conversation.
“So! I know Bumpkin and I already congratulated you earlier, but let me say it again,” she began, brightly and honestly. “Congratulations, Mister President.”
“Bumpkin, eh?” That just didn’t fit at all. “How’d you come by that pet name?”
“Given the option, he’d happily have spent his life herding naxas and digging ditches,” she explained. “He’s a country bumpkin at heart.”
“That seems…” Beau paused and considered his words with care. He needed a word that could convey his skepticism without implying she was a liar.
She gave him the perfect one. “Surprising?” If she’d been human, the chittering sound in her chest would have been a merry, tinkling laugh. “Yes, most people think so. I daresay you’re surprised at how civilized he’s being tonight.”
“I might have said, he’s playing against his habitual type.”
“Not so! One of his favorite hobbies is flower arrangement! Besides, he is what he needs to be, when he needs to be, as much as he can be without being inauthentic.”
“For the most part, I’m what he needs me to be, without being inauthentic. Isn’t that what the First Lady is for you?”
Beau glanced over at his wife, who was doing a magnificent job of not appearing overwhelmed by her dance partner…Who in turn was proving to be surprisingly smooth.
“I don’t think of my relationship with Catherine that way.”
“No? Well, I’m quite comfortable with it that way. A relationship like ours can build things together which wouldn’t be possible in isolation.”
So that was the dance she wanted tonight. Well, fair enough. “I think it’s important for both parties in a relationship to be of equal stature. The dynamic where one side dominates and the other supports seems…” again, he found himself searching for the right word to complete his thought without being insulting.
“Exploitative?” she suggested, with a sly shift of her ears that would have caused a less well-designed tiara to fall off.
“Well, I definitely don’t want to exploit my wife,” Beau agreed. “I want to be her partner.”
“And yet, she is not the President. There can only be one President, and if she was the President, then you would be the First Husband. You fill different roles, but you’re still partners, still a team. You don’t have to be equals to be a team.”
“I’d be First Gentleman, in fact.”
“And My Father’s true title in this situation would be inappropriately belligerent, so His Majesty will have to suffice. Niceties can be complex.”
“You call him ‘My Father?’”
“Yes. Some of the nuance gets lost in English. Father and Father have a different glottal stop at the end.” She demonstrated two almost entirely indistinguishable versions of the word. “One denotes a relation, the other an honorific.”
“They both imply paternal authority over you, though.”
“Indeed. And as both our people say, ‘Mother knows best.’” She chittered merrily again, and brought her by now slightly off-balance dance partner back around to the core of their discussion. “But we were discussing exploitation. Is exploitation always the strong exploiting the weak? Or the dominant exploiting the subordinate? Look at our brown-furred breeds! They’re physically much stronger than the silverfurs, to the point where they used to pull our wagons and plows, a role for which Humans used horses or oxen. The same trait that made the Brownies fill the role of a beast of burden also made them militarily dominant. So were they the exploiters, or the exploited?”
“I suppose in your case the relationship between dominance and exploitation is a little more complex…” Beau ventured.
“Oh, I think it’s just as complex for your people too. How many people live under the umbrella of military safety provided by America and her allies? How much have your people been exploited in that regard?”
Naydra glanced over toward Catherine and the Great Father: the two of them were clearly enjoying themselves, despite the vast gulf of difference between them. The way the Great Mother slightly flicked her ear was definitely mischievous. “I think a difference in power can be useful and enjoyable. Or it can, as you rightly fear, lead to oppression and resentment. Which one we get depends very much on how we play the game, don’t you think?”
The dance came to an end in a smattering of applause before Beau could reply. Naydra gave her dance partner a Gaoian approximation of a smile and politely applauded him too. “Thank you for a lovely dance, Mister President.”
“And you,” Chambliss replied. “Until the next one.”
She duck-nodded, then swished away to mingle and Beau finally got a chance to step away from the dance floor and grab a drink. He used a napkin to discreetly mop his face and gathered himself. He was feeling thoroughly out-danced already, and it came with the impression that the Great Mother had actually gone rather easy on him.
When it came time to spar with Daar… He didn’t expect such gentleness.
He’d have to be ready.
Date Point: 17y2w AV
Asteroid belt, liberated system, former Hunter space
Brigadier General Rylee Jackson
When Hunters didn’t want to fight, they were about as slippery as a bar of soap in the bathtub. When they did want to fight, they threw everything they had into it. No middle ground. It was dismayingly sensible of them.
Not that Rylee had expected this to be trivial. Or quick. They were crawling their way around a twenty-five AU circumference, thoroughly checking every asteroid. There were more than two million in this belt that came in at a kilometer or larger. Gaoian drone and sensor tech was making the process doable but that didn’t mean it was fast, or anything but tedious.
Pilot fatigue was a danger. And those always seemed to be the moments when the Hunters would appear. They had an instinct for it, or just had Murphy on their side.
Still. There had never yet been an engagement between deathworlders and Hunters where the humans and Gao hadn’t flown the pants off the Hunters. Their swarmships hadn’t changed much, in that they were still designed primarily to intercept freighters and capital ships, latch on and dig through the hulls. They were incredibly nimble and fast by the standards of transports… but against a dedicated air-and-space superiority fighter, they may as well have been heavily armed U-Haul vans.
It was hard to tell whether the Firebird or the Voidripper was more effective against them. Firebirds could accelerate much harder along their main thrust axis, but Voidrippers were far more nimble in three dimensions, being pretty much equally as good at +X, +Y and +Z acceleration.
The Gaoian ships were perfectly designed for space combat. They were more or less useless in an atmosphere, where acceleration and the “bite” of a flight control surface mattered. The benefits of priorities, and no need for air superiority in their own territory…
Together, the two designs of fighter formed a hammer and anvil. Firebirds could lance straight in and through, leaving shattered scrap metal in their wake and winning every time on sheer kinetic energy. Paired with Voidripper wingmen, they became impossible to catch off-guard.
All of that became a good deal less straightforward whenever an actual broodship or asteroid facility turned up, though. The belt seemed to contain hundreds of them, hidden in low-emissions mode or cloaked.
“This is RACER-FOUR-ONE, contact.”
Rylee kept a sharp eye on her instruments as a new violent clash played out somewhere fifty million kilometers away. If need be, that distance was nothing at all for a Firebird and she could personally lend assistance in fewer than five seconds. If need be.
As she listened to the contact report, the pilot’s cool, unflustered tone belied the severity of what he’d just run into. Three broodships had powered up and were now forming an interlinked shield web around themselves and an asteroid. Racer Four-One had found something important.
USS San Diego’s comms officer had a fittingly deep, resonant voice. “San Diego en route.”
In Rylee’s HUD, the San Diego and the Gene Roddenberry both blinked forward from the back of the formation, flashing across millions of miles of space to arrive within seconds, alongside their CAP.
Rylee let them work. She had a rock to investigate. It turned out to be a boring pock-marked potato, not yet touched by Hunter industry. Her WSO tagged it as clear, and they moved on.
Minutes later, her attention was drawn to that deep resonant voice again. “PHOENIX-SIX-ACTUAL, San Diego. Got a hardened facility here. GRANDFATHER wants your wing to tidy up and return to staging orbit.”
As a reminder that there was still only the one star on her shoulder, Rylee still had people she answered to, and right now, that included Grandfather Vark. She was in charge of the fighters, but that was just one component of this operation and in this case, that meant her fun was done. “Copy that.”
The staging orbit was back inside the safety of the layered shields around the liberated planet, and specifically at the beacon buoy where HMS Caledonia was waiting, with a HEAT team on board in case they were needed. Which, from the sounds of things, they would be. A hardened facility was any that, by definition, couldn’t reliably be destroyed from the outside even if they nuked it.
So, they’d nuke it from the inside instead.
She kept an ear on the flow of information, directed a few details as they came up. Her thoughts were on the job, of course, but a small part of her was wondering who exactly was on that ship, only five short kilometers away…
She’d met all the HEAT operators, through Owen. Part of her satisfaction at being out here doing this was the chance to get some payback for Blaczynski. If the HEAT were about to get to nuke a base, then they’d be having much the same thoughts.
She especially hoped Owen was leading them. He’d taken it hard.
She let the passing thought go and kept her attention where it needed to be. That facility’s presence stalled the whole operation, on the grounds that they couldn’t leave it intact behind them, and therefore couldn’t advance the sweep until it was destroyed. And they of course couldn’t just leave planes hanging out there in hostile territory standing around not doing anything. That was a sure recipe for disaster. So, over the course of several minutes, she recalled the fighters to staging and then…
Space battles were like that. Lots of waiting. The action, when it happened, happened in brief, intense bursts. For the moment, the battle was with shields and titanic forces a person could scarcely comprehend. Eventually, the San Diego and Gene Roddenberry would crack those shields wide open, and when they did…
“Caledonia, San Diego. You’re clear to jump and deliver.”
Caledonia promptly vanished with that characteristically anticlimactic blink of pure black, taking the handful of fighters and drones that made up her escort with her. Rylee checked her mission clock, made a note of the time, and listened intently to the command channel.
Shortly thereafter, she grinned inside her mask as the tactical network kindly informed her of a distant nuclear detonation, twenty light minutes away. A few seconds after that, Owen Powell’s distinctive round Yorkshire accent delivered a terse report that still managed to carry a freight of vindictive satisfaction.
“GRANDFATHER, STAINLESS. Mission successful.”
Rylee didn’t know if it was new tactics, unprepared Hunters, or simply a less dangerous situation, but from the moment Caledonia jumped out to the moment the nuke went off had taken a mere eight minutes and forty-three seconds. She’d have to congratulate Owen, after this was done. The Hunters wouldn’t have even known what hit them.
“Copy that, STAINLESS. PHOENIX-SIX-ACTUAL, GRANDFATHER. That obstacle is removed, please have your pilots resume their sweep.”
“Roger, GRANDFATHER. Resuming sweep.” Rylee was the last to jump back out to the belt, once all her pilots were away and the extermination was back underway. They’d probably just had a taste of how the rest of the day was going to go, but that was no problem at all as far as Rylee was concerned.
Caledonia jumped back to the staging orbit just before she jumped out. She gave them a fly-by out of respect, then returned to her work. There was still a lot of space to scour clean.
It was good to be back.
Date Point: 17y2w2d AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, the Far Reaches
It was Ferd’s fourth day of “leave.” A strange idea, but he wasn’t complaining! Lots of time for exploring, and eating well, and training with War-horse and friends… All the things that were best in life!
Especially when he went back to the ‘club’ from the last time he’d been in Folctha, and met the pretty-hair girl again. She ended up feeling even better than Ferd had imagined! They had been spending many nights together like all young and strong people were moved by the gods to do. Very enjoyable nights! She was stronger than she looked, and could last longer than Ferd would have guessed… And when she did need to rest, Ferd was happy to rest too.
Yes. Leave was good.
When he woke, it was still dark outside and the sky-people village was fast asleep. She was asleep too and curled up against him, all softness and good-tasting affection. The only thing he wanted to do (besides fuck again) was wrap himself around her and hug her so tight…
So he did that, and wrapped his tail around her, too. Human women weren’t like the women of his people. There was strength there, he could feel it…but they were so small, and so soft-feeling. Just the meat of his lower leg was bigger around than her hips and the rest of him was even bigger! But she knew how to play as good as anyone, even if it took a long, careful time for them to fit together comfortably. Strange, different…very, very pretty, though…
She stirred awake, gave him the cutest little sleepy smile and ran her hands along the hard lines of his body, appreciating the strength he had to offer. He did the same, squeezing at her wonderfully soft skin with his hands, and then his feet too, and soon…
Well. They played together all the way through the night, and the sun was up and streaming through the window of his ‘apartment’ long before they were done.
Humans were good about balancing Givings and Takings. Everything Ferd and his men did for them was fairly rewarded, mostly in the form of a steady supply of Mun-ee that, Ferd had discovered, was plenty to live on. So, he and the others lived at the top of a brick building that was like a hand of huts stacked on top of each other, and the ‘land-lord’ who owned it told them it was okay to climb up and down the outside wall if they wanted to.
He was very nice! Part of their Giving for the Taking of the room-hut they lived in was that they helped him do work around the place, which was never hard. They dug out a garden, and helped him build a shed out of bricks using a special mud called ‘mortar’ that dried hard like stone. Neat! Ferd learned how to use a level, how to use a square, how to read a ‘blueprint’ (which wasn’t actually blue) and measure things with a ‘tape measure’ like he’d seen Vemik use sometimes…
And he got to spend a lot of time with the pretty-hair girl!
Her name was a tongue-twister. Amaryllis. Am-are-rill-liss. It didn’t fit Ferd’s mouth at all, and came out more like “Amawiwish,” but she didn’t mind, and had told him to use “Amy” instead. Even so, he always thought about her hair first, so…pretty-hair.
He, Nomuk, Tumik, and Genn were staying in Folctha for now and lived in the ‘apartment’ when they weren’t back on their own world. Their days had fallen into a pleasant routine. Explore, train, learn, and do it all again, every day until their next mission was ready. They didn’t have any strong game to hunt on this other-world, but exploring the trails around the village was still fun, and some of the things were surprisingly tricky to catch. ‘Squirrel’ might have barely been a snack, but they were very tasty, and the bones were crunchy, too!
That exploring was just him and his men, though. His Human friends were back on Earth-world, most likely having young-man fun, and for various reasons that Ferd didn’t quite understand, he couldn’t come explore with them. Aww! Tooko was off too, wooing an apparently very pretty woman of his sky-tribe. Good for him!
That wasn’t to say they were completely alone. Ferd and his men had some success with the women when they went back; his men were big and strong and good-looking after all, and Ferd was all of those things even for a Given-Man. But they didn’t do well enough as far as he was concerned. Until he founded a tribe of his own, he’d have to constantly prove his worth to every pretty girl every time he felt the itch to fuck. Which, being a Given-Man…
He was just a man, after all. And she was just a woman. Who were they to deny the gods? But they couldn’t fuck all day long; she slapped his chest and shook her head.
“Oh, no. No. I’ve had enough. And I have work!”
The light from outside meant it was definitely well into the day…what time was it?
Ferd reluctantly glanced up at the big wall-clock she’d got him. Humans followed the tick of their machines more than the rise and fall of the sun, and Amy worked the “late shift.” She had to get ready. He had to go do some promised chores for the land-lord, and also help a very nice old woman living in the apartment across from his who had an old couch she didn’t want anymore and said he and his men could have it, if they wanted.
And he had to go meet his Human-friends at the terminal a finger before the sun went down, too. So reluctantly, he stood up and busied himself cleaning the apartment while Amy showered; Humans liked their homes uncluttered and clean-tasting, so he pulled the sheet-cloth off his ‘futon’ and piled it up next to the ‘washer’ machine thing, picked up things and put them away, opened the windows and the tall glass slide-door to get some fresh air. It was nice out today!
Then he made food. He was particularly fond of scrambled eggs and Yan had recommended he try putting ‘ham’ and ‘cheese’ in them. Tasty! They ate quickly, he gave her one last quick kiss, and a gentle bite on her neck as a promise of things to come…
Alone, now. His men had gone back to People-world last night to go make merry. He hadn’t followed this time, because someone had to stay behind in case there was a mission that came up, and Daar Stone-Back always said a good man led his men from the front. Strong words, those. Besides, Ferd had Amy, so it wasn’t like he felt too lonely. And sometimes Singer visited too! She loved Vemik very much so Ferd hadn’t chased after her too hard, but she had twitched her tail at him, and Vemik had snarled at him in a friendly challenge, so maybe they could have fun together!
He did chores. The couch didn’t fit through the door except if he turned it a very weird way, but it wasn’t heavy at all so mostly, it was like one of those fun puzzle-toys Professor had given him, where you had to pull the two things apart without breaking them. She gave him a kiss on the cheek as thanks, he went to go give mun-ee for more food, did some other things…
It was nearly sunset when he reported in at the “base,” with its metal fences and serious guards. The base had its own jump array, built underground near the HEAT’s training room and barracks. Wild, Frasier, Rees, Tooko and Coombes were already there, and Coombes’ grim face told Ferd that fun times were over, for now.
“Mission?” Ferd asked him.
“Yup.” Coombes nodded. “Hope you enjoyed leave.”
“Easy to get fat and lazy having so much fun.”
Coombes chuckled. “Y’ain’t wrong. Your guys should be comin’ through any second–”
There was the feeling of a heavy thump through the floor, and Wild laughed. “Good timing.”
Ferd hooted appreciatively, and stepped out of the way for the door to open. The air around Nomuk, Tumik, and Genn tasted of home as they shouldered the doors open and bounced through, slamming straight into Ferd in a coordinated tackle.
Ferd had learned some good tricks from Jooyun and his friends, though. The Given-Man spun on his left foot, turning their tackling motion into a hard bodyslam. Still. There were three of them…
…So it took him a few breaths to win. He pinned them all, using his hands for Nomuk, his tail for Tumik, and his feet for Genn. He’d be fucked if someone else decided to play, but that was okay. The humans were happy to watch and laugh, and Tooko wasn’t big enough to count. In fact, he carefully got out of the way.
Wild let them have their fun just long enough for Ferd to finish pinning his three friends, then delivered a hefty kick to Ferd’s rump. “Oi! Mind on the job, mate.”
The humans liked to tease him for his great big rump, but that was okay. Wild couldn’t really hurt him without a weapon, so Ferd would get his revenge later. When nobody was watching, maybe…
For now he let go, stood up, and helped his men to stand as well.
“Nearly got me that time!”
“Sure,” Wild said. “Come on, we’ve got work.”
They were shown to a gray room with bright lights that hurt Ferd’s eyes a bit, and small tables with sturdy steel chairs. He and his men knew by now to avoid most chairs, but these were the ones the big humans used. Anything that Yan or War-Horse or Daar Stone-Back could sit on was probably safe…
Still… he propped his tail under him just to be sure.
Coombes took a spot at the front of the room and placed the things he was carrying on the table there. “We’ve got coordinates for another Hierarchy relay,” he said. “This one’s a fair bit further from Earth than the first one, but if the nerds at Mrwrki are right then its coverage includes both Gao and Akyawentuo…”
He tapped on his tablet, and an image Ferd had seen before filled the wall behind him. Humans called it the Gal-axee. All the stars in the sky and many, many, many more besides, twisted around like a dust devil, or water swirling down a hole. Four points on it were highlighted: Earth, Cimbrean, Gao and home, scattered across the bottom quarter of the map.
“For the sake of our monkey friends… nobody ever really gets just how big all this is. So when I tell you the target is about here—” he tapped the tablet again and a new marker appeared “I want you to understand, this is a long way from civilization, even thought it might look like it’s somewhere in the middle. For Tooko’s benefit, the nearest spacelane is Green-Oval-twelve-forty-four-twenty-three, here.” a thin green line snaked across the map.
Tooko made a harsh noise in the back of his throat. “That’s a long haul. Where’s the nearest layover station?”
“This degaussing facility, here. ‘Next To The Endless’ From there, your target world is more than a month away at SBD’s cruising speed.”
Despite what Coombes said, the scale of what he was looking at suddenly landed on Ferd’s head. He’d seen how fast the ship was over land, and Tooko told him that in space it was one of the fastest ships anywhere. A whole hand of weeks to travel that short distance on the map?
He shivered a little. That wasn’t going to be fun. They’d probably spend time in stay-sis again. All of them, because the humans ate a lot of food, too.
Coombes gave the team a sympathetic look. “This is why we pay you gents the big bucks,” he said. “You’re gonna be a long way from anywhere. Anyway. Mission is to identify the precise location of the relay on the planet’s surface and engineer its destruction. We expect Big Hotel have tightened security around these things. You’ll be fully loaded-out with full weapons stores and long-term supplies. That means we’ll need to re-fam you with some of the nastier toys, re-test on ship procedures…”
Ferd grunted. “That will take some days, yes?”
Coombes nodded at him. “Yup. During which time you four are getting Warhorse’s personal attention.” Ferd growled happily at that while Coombes considered his notes. “…Obviously, how you go about executing this mission is going to have to be your call when you get there. You’ll be operating far outside of our territory, on an uncharted and unknown planet with no way of predicting exactly what conditions are going to be like on the ground. But shit like that is why JETS exists, and you’ve done it before.”
“Better be fuckin’ Christmas on the supplies, then…” Frasier commented. Ferd wasn’t sure what that meant, but Coombes chuckled and passed around a set of notes.
“Don’t worry. You’re gonna be loaded for bear. We’ll pack you to the gills with everything you need. That there’s your mission schedule. Any other questions?”
Feed reached for his copy of the mission file. He was pretty good at reading now and didn’t see many words he would need to ask about. “Maybe, we read first, think of question then.”
“Fair. I’ma go grab a coffee while you read, we’ll do the Q&A when I’m back.” Coombes left them to read.
Ferd’s thoughts were on one important fact: this thing threatened his home and his people. The sky-magic involved was more than he yet understood, but that part was clear and simple… and he remembered the bad days, of fleeing over the mountains, of all the empty burned villages, and the great flash and thunder of the Hierarchy’s “nook.”
The Big Enemy was hiding, but not gone. And Ferd Given-Man wouldn’t let them live. That was the only way to balance what they had done, and tried to do: Take everything they had until there was nothing left.
Life was good for him now… but it was good only because he was doing good. Putting the world right, one mission at a time. The Hunters, the Big Enemy, and whatever other terrible things might lurk out among the stars were his responsibility now.
And that, he took seriously.
Date Point: 17y2w3d AV
The White House, Washington DC, USA, Earth
President Beau Chambliss
Herculean efforts had gone into completely turning the White House over for Beau’s Presidency. He’d seen Sartori’s Oval Office, with its green curtains and space photos, but had never set foot in it. By the time he first walked through the door, his specifications had been followed, the place had been entirely redecorated and even the stationery was in place.
The Resolute desk had been swapped out for the Theodore Roosevelt, the curtains were a rich blue, the floor was polished wood parquet, the space photos had been replaced with oil paintings of some of America’s iconic city skylines and several family pictures…
A new office for a new president. A fresh start. A reset button, an opportunity to re-assess policies and direction.
It wasn’t without continuity, though. Traditions abounded, law was supreme. The President was not sovereign; American sovereignty flowed from the people through the Constitution.
But one of the first orders of business in the opening weeks of the new year was meeting somebody for whom the opposite was true. A living, walking, breathing sovereign who had to duck and turn sideways to fit through the door, and who seemed to strain the very space he inhabited, both metaphorically and literally; the sturdy floors creaked loudly under his feet.
Supposedly he could smell lies. If so, he’d certainly be able to smell trepidation, which was a hard emotion to quell in light of how serious and important the day’s conversation was going to be.
Daar was all friendliness, though. He spared Beau the infamous crushing bear-hugs, and instead seemed genuinely happy to meet a new face.
And he came bearing gifts.
“Congratulations on ‘yer victory, Mister President! Here’s a small gift ‘fer you from me, an’ a less small gift from the Clans o’ the Gao to the people o’ the United States!”
The small gift was a simple stoneware vase bearing a handsome arrangement of alien flowers. Recalling his conversation with Naydra at the ball, Beau accepted it. “One of your creations? I understand flower arranging is one of your hobbies.”
“Yeah. Kinda against type I guess…” Daar pant-grinned. “But a man’s gotta ‘member what the point o’ all of it is, yijao?”
“Ah! Yi an’ jao are the Gaori words ‘fer yes and no. It means, uh…sorta both ‘y’know’ and ‘do we understand each other’ at the same time.”
“Actually, I think I have heard it before…” Chambliss recalled. “My grandchildren use it, I think.”
“Prob’ly! It’s kinda fascinatin’ how much our cultures’re cross-pollinatin’ these days.” Daar turned and gestured to his personal assistant. “Anyhoo. That less small gift.”
The gift was presented in a wooden and glass display case, about the length of a man’s forearm, with a large and sturdy key. Inside, resting on the polished wood, was a slender spearhead. It wasn’t any kind of a complex ornate shape, but it wasn’t unadorned either: the metal had been engraved with Gaori text.
“That there is from the spear that won Great Father Fyu his final victory at Wi Kao, an’ ended up makin’ him a Great Father in th’ first place. The poem he inscribed on it is a lament ‘fer more peaceful times…it’s a love poem, actually.”
“To Mother Tiritya?”
“Her, yes. An’ the Females. An’ the Gao as a whole, too. Tricky wordplay there, way better’n I’ve ever managed…I’ll leave it ‘fer you ‘ta translate, if ‘ya want.”
Beau regarded the artifact with a combination of awe and trepidation. “This seems like it would be a treasure of your people.”
“It is. I ain’t giftin’ it lightly, Mister President. Consider it a gesture o’ trust an’ esteem. President Sartori’s expressed a sort o’ grudging respect o’ you, y’know.”
Beau smiled and gestured to the couches, wondering whether or not that spearhead had a place in this office, or…
Well. No. It did. He couldn’t avoid that much. Like it or not, the Gao could not and would not be ignored, and Daar’s gift was not the sort of thing to be displayed out in the corridor. Daar knew it, too. There was nothing subtle about a gift of that magnitude.
Well, then. The best approach was to be unsubtle with him, too.
“You’re making a powerful statement here,” Beau told him as they sat. “And a blunt one. Ever since I won the election, I’ve been… pressured, let’s say, with a pretty strong message. You clearly don’t like my campaign promises.”
“That ain’t the concern, Mister President. I ain’t gonna begrudge ‘yer people rebuildin’. Balls, that’s been what consumes almost all my attention, most days. What I can’t permit though, is ‘fer any more Gao t’fill Hunter bellies.”
“You have the resources of a whole planet to achieve that. I have the resources of one nation. A nation with friends and allies, maybe, but most of the Earth—” Chambliss waved a hand toward the window. “Isn’t on board, and probably won’t ever be. Meanwhile we have people out there working longer than full time hours and still not holding it together. We have a large and growing underclass in this country of people who just don’t have the same opportunities as everyone else. My first responsibility is to the people I represent, and the war that Sartori fought alongside you is quite literally taking food out of mouths.”
“There’s a bunch’a people who’d disagree with that assessment, but I ain’t gonna wrap m’self up in ‘yer politics. I don’ think that’d be appropriate.”
“Thank you. But you see my point. Don’t get me wrong: the Hunters are monsters and the Hierarchy are evil. But I made promises I intend to keep.”
“I ain’t askin’ ‘ya ‘ta be a liar, Mister President. I’d never ask that, of anybody. What I am askin’ is that you not forget that some’a the best people I ever knew died fightin’ ‘ta end both those evils, an’ that you think good an’ hard before you do anything that might waste their sacrifice. Because this ain’t won, not by a long shot, an’ the consequences o’ not winnin’ it when we can could be civilization-endangering.”
Beau looked up as his personal assistant brought in some coffee and fruit for them. “Is your concern with the war effort, or is it specifically with the HEAT?”
“Ain’t no difference ‘tween the two. They’re the only folks that can fight this war.”
“And you consider yourself one of them.”
“‘Cuz I hafta be. Ain’t many who can do what we do.”
“You appreciate of course that America has been budgeting that program in its entirety. An oddity, considering that the only two officers in the HEAT are a Brit and a Canadian.”
“Yeah, kinda the consequence o’ ‘yer size an’ power. Most o’ the SOR is American, of course…but if what ‘yer lookin’ for is a better cost-sharin’ I’m sure we can arrange something.”
Well, at least there was no need to delicately work around to that point. And it spoke volumes that Daar had made the offer so readily and casually. “You really care about them, don’t you?”
Daar’s duck-nod was emphatic. “Yeah. Part o’ that is why I fight with ‘em. Shouldn’t ask somebody ‘ta do somethin’ y’ain’t willin’ ‘ta do ‘yerself, if ‘ya can.”
“…I can respect that,” Beau admitted. “And a more… even-handed… distribution of the costs would allow me to keep my campaign promises…”
Daar gave him what could only be as an uncomfortable look. “‘Ya sure ‘bout that? I ain’t a human, an’ I ain’t American, but it seems ‘ta me that ‘cutting military spending’ means a whole lot more’n money-things ‘fer a whole lotta people…”
Chambliss sighed and stood up to take a slow stroll around the room. “I’m not a peace-at-any-price pacifist, no matter what my detractors may say. I’m not naive enough to believe that Earth is safe yet, and I’m not callous enough to abandon a whole galaxy full of sapient beings to being eaten, enslaved and slaughtered, but I do believe we got the balance wrong and committed more than we can afford. I simply cannot justify feeding a handful of supermen when our basic social safety nets are in tatters and the nation’s infrastructure is in dire need of some investment.”
He sighed and rested his hands on the back of the couch to look Daar in the eye. “So when I said I would cut military spending, I meant exactly that and nothing more, and if there are people out there who thought I was using code for something else, that’s their problem and I’ll handle them. Here and now, all I’m concerned about is that I keep the promise I made. I’d prefer to do it with your help.”
Daar made a grumbling noise in his chest, but if Beau remembered his reading on Gaori expressions and body language then the set of his ears and jaw meant grudging respect.
“That puts some’a my fears at ease,” he admitted.
“I’m glad, because I do want to have a good working relationship with you.” Beau said, and sat down. “Though, I’ll be honest. You frighten me. You’ve done terrible things. Not without reason, I’m sure. Had I been in your position… I don’t know what I would have done.”
Daar gave him what could only be interpreted as a sympathetic look. “Mister President…I think ‘yer ‘bout to learn some things ‘bout ‘yerself in this job that you ain’t ever know’d. I know I sure as fuck did. Jus’ promise me ‘ya won’t ferget, yijao?”
“…We understand each other.”
“Good.” Daar stood up from his position on the floor and rose to his full colossal height. “There’s a lotta things I’d be willin’ ‘ta do ‘ta keep SOR runnin’, includin’ joint treaties, alla that. If I gotta pick up the tab, I can prol’ly do that personally. Now I ain’t jus’ offerin’ a free ride here…but I think we unnerstand each other.”
“I’m glad. We’ll leave the negotiations to our experts, shall we?”
“Ha!” The Great Father made a noise that surely must have been a chitter, except it was several octaves too low and would have shaken the windows if they weren’t armored. “Champion Sheeyo’s been lookin’ ‘ta sharpen his claws on someone! Figuratively speakin’ of course.”
“And I know a few people who’ve been looking for a challenge to sink their teeth into. Also figuratively.” Beau offered his hand, and received a firm but restrained paw in return. “Ours will be an… interesting… relationship, I think. My compliments and regards to the Great Mother.”
“An’ mine ‘ta the First Lady. ‘Yer lucky to have her, Mister President.”
Beau chuckled. “Yes, and the same to you. Until next time.”
Daar duck-nodded, and took his leave. Beau had a moment to himself alone in the office, and he spent it celebrating, a good old-fashioned fist pump and private “yesss!!”
Who said a president couldn’t have his cake and eat it?
Date Point: 17y2w3d AV
London, United Kingdom, Earth
Daar, Great Father of the Gao
Who said a Great Father couldn’t have his cake and eat it?
Travel from D.C. to London was, well…a lot less interestin’ than Daar had hoped. He’d really wanted ‘ta take one o’ those nifty C-17 cargo planes—an actual airfoil!—but sadly, that would have been ostentatious in a way he couldn’t bear. Not when there was a perfectly functional jump link. Folks were literally commuting between the two cities on foot, nowadays.
He did get to galumph his way down toward the Jump Array, though! He’d been cooped up being all civilized an’ shit all day, so a chance to really stretch his legs—and maybe put a teensy bit of fear into the chase driver’s heart, when he had to floor it to keep up—was a temptation way too fun to resist.
London was very different to Washington. It was warmer, for a start. Rather than being knee-deep in snow, the British capitol was just slick and silvery under low clouds and a thin, light rain. Anywhere else, it woulda been dreary, but somehow it worked. As Daar’s motorcade slipped through the city, past landmarks that were older than all but a precious few buildings on Gao, he couldn’t help but reflect sadly on all the history he’d personally had to destroy to save the Gao themselves.
Still. That sad thought aside, his day was goin’ damn well. Not many world leaders came trotting up to 10 Downing Street, prol’ly, but Daar did so with his tail high and a renewed spring in his step. After the mission on that array, the most depressin’ thought he’d had to deal with had been what would happen to the HEAT. Now, that problem looked to be fixed and the SOR’s future secure, so long as Chambliss didn’t actively—to use a local phrase—take the piss.
Future Presidents prob’ly wouldn’t like the new arrangements, but that was okay. Daar knew a good firesale when he saw one.
Prime Minister Stephen Davies met him at the famous black front door, where there was a brief bit of stand-and-smile for the cameras while they shook hands–Daar discreetly sat back on his haunches, so as not to totally dwarf the poor man in his own country.
Inside, the conversation was warm.
“So. How did it go?” Davies asked
“Naydi is weapons grade charming,” Daar rumbled fondly. “Poor man din’t stand a chance.”
“Buttered him up nicely, did she?”
“Well, I mean…she convinced me ‘ta buck over a thousand years o’ tradition an’ bond wit’ her, so this ain’t her first rodeo!”
“Thank you for the warning.” Davies chuckled softly. “Tea?”
“…I really should warn ‘ya, I’m one o’ those Gao who’s super sensitive ‘ta caffeine…”
“We should have some decaf around here somewhere…” Davies glanced at one of his assistants, a man in a quiet suit, who nodded.
“Then yes, please.” He wasn’t really a tea drinker, but he did enjoy an occasional cup.
“Well, you’re ahead of the news from Washington,” Davies said as the arrangements were made.
“Marvels o’ the modern world, that. ‘Yer people inventin’ the jump array’s prob’ly the most impactful thing that’ll happen to th’ galaxy in our lifetimes, ‘sides mebbe killin’ the Hierarchy.”
“I doubt we can really claim credit. It was an idea that would have come along long before we did if the Hierarchy hadn’t suppressed it.”
“Balls, sure ‘ya can! You ain’t achievin’ no less just ‘cuz you don’t know who mighta come before.”
“True enough I suppose…” Davies looked up as his assistant returned and tea… happened. The funny thing was, Daar could tell that there was a certain amount of ceremony involved in how it was made here, but unconscious ceremony. The room stopped for it.
Aliens were weird. Humans especially. But the biscuits were crunchy! And frankly, crunchy snacks were one of the easiest ways to Daar’s heart.
“Anyway. News from Washington,” he said, plucking a few more off the plate. The flavor was subtle, but he kinda liked that. So many things on Earth were kinda heavy-handed in their scent and taste. This, though…just butter, flour, and sugar, but not overpowering so. “…Local butter? It….really slightly smells kinda like the general aroma of the isle, I think?”
“I honestly have no idea,” Davies admitted, with just the faintest hint of polite impatience.
“Sarry. Business. News!” Daar regretfully put the biscuit down for the moment. “Chambliss ain’t worried about the SOR still existin’ so long as he can take a smaller military budget ‘ta Congress an’ say ‘Look! I keep my promises!’ He couldn’t care less if the money comes from somewhere else, so…I offered ‘ta foot some o’ the bill.”
“That’s…devious. Are you sure you can afford that? The SOR costs more than most nation’s entire armed forces.”
Daar duck-nodded. “I got the means.” He didn’t feel any need to go into detail.
“So Chambliss just sold you the SOR…” Davies mused.
“Not sold so much as agreed ‘ta let me fund a big part o’ the operations. I’m sure there’ll be treaties an’ all sortsa dung we gotta work through, but…”
Davies sipped his tea. “Still. AEC up until this point has been the America-and-Friends club, because most of the funding was American. Whoever controls the purse strings has power. I’m surprised he’d let go of those strings so readily. Goodness knows, the Royal Navy Space Service only exists thanks to American money. If we funded it all by ourselves, we’d have nothing left over to maintain conventional military or our nuclear deterrent.”
“Ayup. An’ he either don’t realize that, which means he really ain’t ready ‘ta lead at this level, or he does and in that case, he shouldn’t be callin’ th’ shots ‘fer somethin’ like the SOR anyway. Meanwhile, I’m rich as fuck an’ I know what a valuable resource they are, so…”
“You do understand this could put my nation in a complicated position.”
“Yeah. I ain’t lookin’ ‘ta mess up relations wif’ my most closest allies, yijao? Right now, all I care ‘bout is securin’ a fuckin’ irreplaceable asset against uncertainty. I mean, balls! Maybe Chambliss is a stand-up guy under it all! But I don’t know. An’ as far as I can tell, nobody does, ‘cuz he’s a populist that came outta nowhere.”
“Oh, that’s been the story of this century so far.” Davies sat back in his tall-backed leather chair and drummed his fingers thoughtfully on the armrest. “To be frank, the SOR, the Space Service and all the rest of it still have their role to play here on Earth. The HEAT in particular are effectively a nuclear deterrent themselves. When men like them could drop on your roof from orbit, neutralize your nation’s leadership in an instant, and then retreat through an array before any possible retaliation could arrive… Suffice it to say, we—and I mean the Allied nations, not just Britain—cannot afford for them to be unavailable for operations here on Earth. They’ve done a lot of good simply by existing. Those treaties you mentioned would have to reflect that need.”
Daar duck-nodded. It was a moot point that no AEC asset had ever been deployed in any of Earth’s perpetual smouldering regional wars. The whole point of a deterrent was you hoped like hell you never had to actually use it.
“Like I said. I ain’t lookin’ ‘ta hurt our relationship,” he reassured. “This ain’t a free ride, an’ I’m gonna want some assurances ‘fer bankrollin’ them…”
“So the question is, is America gonna keep supportin’ the Space Service, or are you gonna hafta look elsewhere?”
Davies sighed. “Well, either way our ability to maintain it is dependent on the generosity of an allied power,” he said. “But I don’t intend to impose on your generosity, and I don’t know whether it’s entirely wise to let Chambliss duck too far out of his responsibility to this fight. America still needs to contribute, and it needs to contribute more than just talented young personnel.”
“Yeah. But I got a good sniff o’ the new President. I think he’s a good man. He’s just…prob’ly gotta learn some things, s’all. This may jus’ be buyin’ enough time ‘fer him ‘ta learn it.”
“…That, if I may say so, is a remarkable endorsement.”
“Well, this good-lookin’ muzzle o’ mine is ‘fer more’n bein’ pretty, y’know…”
Davies had a sort of one-beat chuckle that temporarily lifted the worry-lines off his face. “Goodness knows, we all learn this job the hard way,” he said. “I imagine you had similar concerns about me, when I first showed up.”
“I was real careful not ‘ta break ‘yer hand…” Daar threw in a friendly lil’ snarl, just to keep Davies on his toes. “‘Course, I was just Champion then. An’ a lowly sergeant unner Powell’s command. So technic’ly unner ‘yers at the time, too!”
Davies chuckled at that. “How times change. Well, I know this was just a flying visit. You’re at Sandringham this evening, I believe.”
“Yup. Goin’ pheasant shootin’ in the morning, too.”
“Then I won’t keep you. But thanks for dropping in. It’s been good to get your opinion on the man across the pond.”
They shook hands again, and within a minute Daar was back in his motorcade and slipping through the twilit streets on his way to the airport and a day or two of being entertained by the King, which was the longest stop on his rapid-fire tour of Earth to meet with the Allied leadership and a few other nations. He was especially lookin’ forward to Thailand.
Naydra met him on the concrete at the airport. She didn’t say anything, just gave him an affectionate nip on the ear before they boarded the private flight up to Scotland.
It wasn’t a vacation. Not really. He was here for work and business. But it felt kinda like one, and he realized just how badly he’d needed it as he settled down on the plane’s cozy floor and prepared to fly in a real aerofoil vehicle for the first time in longer than he could remember.
He suppressed a brief stab of guilt at enjoying himself at all. He’d be useless to everybody if he drove himself into a dark prison of the mind. Taking care of himself was an important part of the job. He was a generally high-spirited and positive kind o’ ‘Back, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t find himself in even darker moods. He didn’t have stone-breaking claws for nothin.’
Just bein’ around his Naydi was enough to make him happy, though. Especially seein’ as it was close quarters on-board. More time for snuggles!
Careful snuggles, though. Daar was always careful with his Naydi.
“You’ve had a good day,” she commented as they settled in and the plane taxied for takeoff.
“Good.” She scritched his ears. “Did you get what you wanted?”
“After a fashion, I guess. Looks like my bank accounts’re gonna be whole bunch lighter!”
“That will please Sheeyo, I imagine.”
“Oh, he’s gonna be delighted.”
“The SOR’s prob’ly gonna be secure. That’s all that matters. No SOR, no winnin’ the war.”
She duck-nodded and kept scritching, which was unfair. She knew it always made him sleepy. But tellin’ her to stop just wasn’t gonna happen…
Weeks of stress fell away, like a heavy load he could finally put down after movin’ it. There’d be more to pick up an’ move later, but right now there was just a chance to relax, and Daar knew how to take those when they came along.
He relaxed into Naydi’s side and dozed off before the wheels even left the runway.
Date Point: Opening days of the first year of Liberation. Library bunker at Old-Bent-Leg, a freeed world
The schism was complete. In fact, Ukusevi’s proposed additions to the Chant had been met with acclaim from one side and outraged violence from the other that only ended when the two factions of Keepers were dragged from each others’ throats by their bodyguards and hauled away back to their libraries. Ukusevi still had Umilivi’s teeth-marks in her ear.
It was still better than she’d feared. She’d envisioned herself surrounded on all sides by anger, universally rejected and exiled to the surface. Maybe she could have sought sanctuary with the Gao, but she would have been alone, never to lay eyes on one of her kind again, so all things considered, a few bite marks and bruises were an entirely acceptable outcome. She had allies, and that was the best realistic outcome she could have hoped for.
For the first time ever, the Old-Bent-Leg archives were noisy. Those who rejected Ukusevi and her interpretation were long gone, others had arrived from other libraries and other warrens who’d heard her version of the Chant and been drawn to it. Overall, their population had actually grown, to the point where their hydroponics farms and mushroom chambers could barely support everyone.
But Ukusevi had a plan. She had no idea if it would work, and whether it did or didn’t the archives needed the aggressive sorting, storing and filing they were undergoing now. She barely had a moment to think as she supervised all the acolytes and faithful in their work. Centuries of books, papers and other material had to be prepared for transport no matter what happened.
But think she did.
She’d heard Gar-avff’s stories of other worlds out there. The old texts had much to say on the general shape of the cosmos, of the way worlds whirled around stars which in turn drifted around the great whorl. All that knowledge came from long ago, when the sky wasn’t perpetually choked with smog and the so-called Wicked People had been able to look up and see the stars at night.
That was what a world could be. What most worlds out there presumably were, given that the Hunters had not conquered them and ruined them.
And if Ukusevi’s people were not in fact Punished, but were… something else… then might it not go some way toward addressing the grave cosmic injustice of four hundred years if she and her kind got to walk under a blue sky and breathe clean air again?
Those who still thought themselves Punished could stay, as far as she was concerned. It wasn’t her place to talk them around, not when she herself had believed that same darkly comforting narrative for her whole life.
All she knew was, if there was any kind of justice in the universe, her people were long overdue to receive it. Maybe the Almighty had sent the Gao and Humans, maybe not. But if nothing else, the two alien races represented a way forward.
Her busy activity was interrupted by a tug on her sleeve: Teeisyo, whose ears perked up hopefully as she looked down at him. “Keeper? The aliens are back. There’s a new one this time!”
“A new kind of alien?” Ukusevi asked.
“No, I think he’s one of those hoomans. But bigger. Really, really big.”
“I should go see them, then. Thank you, Teeisyo.”
He bounced happily at the thanks, and vanished into the stacks to take on some chore or another. Ukusevi left instructions that if anything came up which demanded her attention then it should be left until she returned, then padded up the access tunnel to mee the aliens once again.
The boy hadn’t exaggerated. The Human sat cross-legged on the floor next to the old battered table they’d dragged up for these meetings, and he was an immense study in lean, muscular strength. He looked as if he was built to the same kind of intense craggy standards as Hoeff, and also stood about an arm’s length taller than the short, broad man. Humans were worrying, like that. Even the comparatively slim and small Hurt had felt shockingly strong and muscular when he’d hugged Ukusevi, and this newcomer made him look like a pencil.
She immediately felt more than a little unsettled by him. But it wasn’t just his sheer physicality, there was something else about him that put her off-balance, more than the others.
He was soft-spoken, though. He gave Uku a curious look as she entered, then smoothly rose to his feet and offered a rough, callused hand to shake. His grip hinted at bone-crushing power, and spoke of finely controlled strength.
“Pleased to meet you. My name’s Julian, I work for…well, I work for some important fellas who’re very interested in this case. I’m here to learn about your world and, uh, what’s been done to it. So maybe it’d help if we could talk about what things are like now, and what they were like before the, uh…”
The enormous man looked over at Garr-avf, who prompted him with “They call it the Punishment.”
“On that point,” Ukusevi gently corrected him, “there has been some discussion.”
She sat down at the table, and the aliens sat opposite her after giving each other confused glances.
It was the eyes, she realized. Her own people had wide-set, wide-facing eyes. She could see a lot of the world around her, even slightly behind her. The Gao’s eyes were very forward-facing and focused, but Humans—and this Human in particular—locked both of those alarmingly white eyes on whatever they were looking at. Dead-center, straight forward, no spare attention going anywhere else. When a Human looked at her, she felt watched.
“What kind of discussion?” Julian asked.
“A schism. On the nature of the Punishment, whether it was even a Punishment at all…” she sighed. “Your peoples’ coming forced us to confront difficult questions. Garr-avf in particular–” she acknowledged the scarred, dark-furred Gao with a nod, “–Is likely to be remembered by the other side with, ah, with no real kindness.”
“You mean they think I’m the Great Deceiver, sent to deliver a sweet-sounding lie and drive you all back into wickedness,” the Gao summarized.
“Assuming that title doesn’t fall on me,” Ukusevi meant it as a dark joke, but there was honestly no humor in the situation.
Julian seemed embarrassed by that somehow, and scratched at something on the back of his head. “Oh…geez.”
Garr-avf issued a kind of reverse sniff. “That’s all you have to say?”
“Where I’m from,” Julian folded his tremendous arms in front of his chest and answered with a playfully odd sense of dignity, “That’s saying a lot.”
Ukusevi would need to ask about ‘geez’ at a later time.
“Where you’re from is weird,” Garr-avf muttered, then turned his unsettling gaze back on Ukusevi. “So I take it you’re in the faction looking for an… alternate explanation for everything.”
“I’m in the faction who refuse to deny the evidence,” Ukusevi said firmly. “You are here, the Hunters were never any kind of divine agent… whatever that means for the Almighty and for us, we’ll sort that out.”
“Yeah. That’s…not a great place to be,” the big man commented. “If I had time, I’d maybe share some stories my people have about that sort of thing. But I don’t. I need to learn about your world as it’s supposed to be, so that we have some idea of what kind of help we can offer.”
“We haven’t exactly been in a ‘great place’ for hundreds of years… The archives have a lot to say about our world before they came. There are whole tomes full of illustrations and some even contain pressed and preserved flowers, plants. I can’t tell you much about what life was like back then because it would depend on who you were and where you lived.”
Julian nodded. “We’re like that ourselves. I’m out here on an alien planet talkin’ to you through this–” he picked up the translator and wiggled it in the air. “Meanwhile there’s folks back on my home planet who still live more or less how their ancestors did a thousand years ago.”
“Then you understand how difficult it is for me to say how our world is supposed to be. I can tell you how some of it was, through the eyes of some of the people who lived in those times… but why? All that matters is that the surface is poisoned, nothing grows there, and seeing as the Almighty isn’t going to heal it, I don’t know what more you can take back to the people you work for beyond that this is a dead place.”
The big man seemed to weigh his response. “Well…there are many worlds out there. They’re all very different from each other, but there are some, uh, general themes they follow. If we know what kind of theme your world follows, we can better know how we can help.”
“What exactly do you mean when you offer to help?” Ukusevi challenged him. “Can you fix this?”
“…Not easily. Or quickly. Maybe. But even helping you means we need to know about your world. You are of this place, after all. I am of a different place and that shaped me and my people. Our air is heavier and moister, the gravity is heavier, the food is different…”
“And we are not of this place either,” Ukusevi retorted. “It was once a green, growing place. They sky and waters were clear, the animals roamed freely, the trees grew tall and thick. We evolved in a world that looks nothing like the one outside. The world we evolved for is gone, and all we have left are bare scraps. I can share those scraps with you and maybe you can make some sense out of them, but why? To what end? Will we stay here another four hundred years while you put right what the Hunters destroyed? How? How can you bring back all the things that are gone and forgotten?
“I can’t. Well…the full story is long, but let’s just say I can’t. But you are absolutely of this world, in the deep and inescapable way that everything is a part of where they are and where they came from. You can’t know any living thing unless you know the place that they came to be living in.”
“…And you can’t help us until you know us.” Ukusevi sighed, pushing down the urge to mutter a profanity. Of course things couldn’t be simple. It had been an act of pure optimism in defiance of a lifetime’s experience to hope otherwise. “And it’s possible you may never be able to know us.”
“Oh, no, that we can do. It’s just easier if we have your home to compare you to.” Julian shuffled closer and those disconcertingly focused eyes seemed to lock on to Ukusevi even harder as he angled his head forward. “But the question is… what kind of help are you after? Food? Medicine? Those seem obvious…”
Well. Here was the big moment. Here was the chance to leap forward into the unknown. Ukusevi had done it so much in the last little while that she wondered if she’d start growing used to it eventually. So she mustered up all the will she had and did her best to match the Human’s unsettlingly direct gaze.
“I would like to meet with your leaders,” she said. “I think the time has come for us to leave our world.”
Date Point: 17y3m3w AV
The abyssal ocean, Europa, 6th moon of Jupiter, Sol
The Injunctor attempted to contact the nearest relay again, and failed again.
Its limited intelligence was not capable of frustration, nor boredom. It had attempted to contact the relay 1,048,576 times since it had arrived, and encountered 1,048,576 failures. This strongly implied that the relay was permanently offline, presumably destroyed.
The Sol system would not enter the effective radius of another relay for more than a thousandth of a galactic rotation.
Its contingency in such situations was clear: activate its controlling Agent and receive instruction.
The most recent instructions it had received from its controlling Agent had mandated a period of hibernation. That hibernation period was over. It was to proceed to the third planetary body of the system, activate its location and abduction protocols, and wait for a suitable sophont.
The ice moon it had buried itself in was conveniently warm, thanks to the tidal action of its massive parent. Deep under the ice, an ocean of liquid water fell comfortably inside the temperature range that the Injunctor could endure without needing to expend power on thermal regulation. It was, by its own standards, quite comfortable.
Burrowing upwards to the surface required a lot of energy, focused through the dorsal shielding, to melt upwards through a fault line in the endless ice sheet, but the Injunctor had plenty to spare. It took a moment to recharge on the surface, activated its superluminal drive on the lowest possible energy, and coasted inwards toward the star as quietly as it could manage.
There were several major geopolitical landmasses to consider. Anonymity was important, but in this case the Agent had also made additional stipulations. It considered the mission parameters its Agent had logged, and selected an appropriate region.
Three solar days after it began its location protocol, the Injunctor found a suitable candidate: A human male, in ideal health, and an outlier on several physiological metrics. That would normally contra-indicate an abduction, but the controlling Agent had specified its own requirements for its biodrone host.
The candidate was piloting a vehicle through the middle of a large open expanse of arable soil, dragging some kind of machine through the earth to break it up. The Injunctor shadowed the vehicle for nearly an eighth of the diurnal cycle before the vehicle paused and its pilot alighted to relieve himself of accumulated waste liquid.
Abduction was anomalous in several respects. The candidate host proved capable of great resistance both to forcefield restraint and chemical sedation, which required the Injunctor to maximize both. Normalization would have proven fatal to the candidate, given its deviation, but normalization was not part of the protocol in this case. Instead the candidate’s already formidable biology was enhanced with the full suite of augmentations at the Injunctor’s disposal.
The personality suppression and biodroning process was also anomalous, and required additional implantation. That would also normally be contra-indicated and the candidate host terminated immediately, but the controlling Agent was looking for a specific type of host, and this fit within the parameters.
With the process complete, all that remained was loading the Agent into his new body.
The entity known variously as Six or Cynosure blinked and opened his eyes. He sat up, inspected his new arms and legs, and prodded curiously at the tattoo he found just below the right elbow. Then, with a shrug, he hopped up to his feet and looked around the Injunctor’s interior.
The Injunctor informed him that he was on Earth, and highlighted his precise geographical position.
“…Kansas. Hmm.” He tilted his head and accessed the biodrone’s memories. “…Yes. Global situation update?”
The Injunctor provided that too. It also noted that its Agent’s body was somewhat dehydrated, and delivered an appropriate measure of water, which Cynosure picked up and sipped absently as his new eyes skipped over the information.
The Injunctor was too simple to understand his reaction. It did not know whether it was the totality of what it had presented or some minor detail which prompted the Agent’s response. It simply watched and waited impassively for instructions as Cynosure’s expression darkened, as he set the drink aside, and as he used his new body’s innate stress-expression mechanisms.
++END CHAPTER 64++
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The Deathworlders will continue in chapter 65: “Leaps of Faith”